FROM winter snow to the equator heat after 24 hours of travel: I left Canada and arrived in Gabon, a country in central-western Africa. From a small village called Port Gentil, I took a boat to Evengué Island. It is here that I was reunited with my friend and colleague Dr Nicholas Bachand, who is the veterinarian for the Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project (FVGP).
The FVGP is an organisation that cares for gorillas rescued from the illegal bushmeat trade. It was created in 2000 in an attempt to bridge sustainable tourism with gorilla conservation, and subsequently four Western lowland gorillas were transferred to Evengué Island from a local medical research facility.
It was hoped that their quality of life would be improved by allowing them freedom on the island and protection from poachers. In 2006, Dr Bachand became chief veterinarian of the project. Since then, a rehabilitation programme involving the reintroduction of orphaned gorillas back into their natural habitat has been created.
The FVGP promotes responsible tourism through education, which ultimately contributes to the survival of the Western lowland gorilla species.
Meet the gorillas
Evengué Island and its subtropical forests are currently home to nine ground-dwelling herbivores, specifically Western lowland gorillas. These gorillas share similar stories of deceitful lives and violent upbringing. Many have witnessed the murder of their family, while others were subjects of laboratory experiments at the expense of human interest or knowledge. They are all victims of the bushmeat trade.
As a tourist myself, I was first taken to the sanctuary where I was introduced to three special gorillas. Mabeke is the majestic silverback. His face may seem familiar from his appearance on the North American television series Survivor; however, many do not know his true story.
Mabeke was orphaned by the bushmeat crisis in 1980, leaving him vulnerable to illegal live animal trade. He was taken to a laboratory where he lived for 20 years. In 2000, he was transferred to the FVGP to improve his lifestyle. Mabeke now lives in a semi-natural electrified enclosure with two younger gorillas, Owendja and Izowuet.
Owendja was confiscated by environmental authorities in 2003, and Izowuet was captured and given to the project by two young boys from a village called Izowuet at five months of age. Despite their youth, these gorillas will never successfully be reintroduced back into the wild. Their previous life experience has denied them the skills required for survival in the wild, leaving them destined to a life of semi-captivity at this sanctuary.
There are also six gorilla orphans living on Evengué Island, which are part of the rehabilitation project. Gimenu was taken from a local zoo after living three years of solitude behind bars. Sindila was rescued from the hands of poachers along the Mpivié River during a tourist excursion. Ivindo was flown to the project from the Ivindo region of Gabon, and Eliwa and Cessé were sent from a tourist site at young ages.
The youngest of the orphans is Wanga, who was abandoned on the doorsteps of a conservationist’s home. Wanga’s courage is reflected by her desire to survive, despite losing her family and freedom. The rehabilitation centre teaches the orphans survival skills. It is hoped that they will one day be released back into their natural environment, thereby preserving the Western lowland gorilla species.
Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. In 2007 the International Union for Conservation of Nature added them to the “red species list”, implying that 50% of the population could disappear within 10 years if prompt measures were not enforced.
Threats to gorilla survival include habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. Disease is also a threat, and outbreaks of Ebola virus may have contributed to recent gorilla deaths in central Africa.
It is currently estimated that 82,000 to 200,000 Western lowland gorillas exist in wild populations. Unfortunately, until humans become aware of the necessary measures required to stop the illegal bushmeat trade, numbers may continue to decline.
Gorillas and chimpanzees are being hunted to extinction for commercial bushmeat in Africa. Hunters are supported by two sources: the timber industry and local consumers. Recently there has been a rise in commercial logging, where foreign-owned companies clear land and create roads that provide access to previously untouched areas of forest. Hunters are then granted access into these areas by trucks serving the companies.
Meat returns into logging towns on the backs of logging lorries and is redistributed by traders. Bushmeat is purchased by tribal groups and government officials, who pay a premium to eat such exotic meat. If the current rate of slaughter continues, many of Africa’s great apes will disappear, along with the forest and culture of its indigenous people.
Fortunately, many “bushmeat projects” exist, which stop this slaughter by working with people who are involved in the trade. They aim to find alternative ways of satisfying the human needs driving the commercial trade in wildlife bushmeat.
The largest challenge facing conservationists is reducing the demand for bushmeat. One tactic utilised is evoking empathy towards primates to local populations, such that it will prevent people from eating them. Books in teaching curricula and community meetings are utilised to accomplish this. However, the problem extends beyond locals and hunters. Government officials are often responsible for purchasing gorilla meat for meals at official functions. If elite populations continue to pay twice the price for bushmeat than they would for beef or pork, demand and supply will persevere.
Evengué Island offers visitors an opportunity to learn about gorillas, their environment and threats to their survival. I hope that my experience in Gabon as a visiting veterinarian and tourist will further global awareness toward this issue and ultimately help end the illegal bushmeat crisis.
The gorillas at the FVGP serve as an important reminder of the causes for the disappearance of Africa’s wild gorillas, while living their foreverchanged lives here on “Gorilla” Island.