After getting to know the Lango Camp area I spent this past week at Ngaga Camp in search of western lowland gorillas.
The drive between the two camps is approximately 45km and is highly scenic, passing through forest and savannah mosaics and also through the forest village of Mbomo on the edge of the national park. One particular patch of forest (Nzohi) was an excellent stop for birding and we also found very fresh lowland gorilla tracks here. According to the guys on the ground here chimpanzees are often sighted in Nzohi as well as several monkey species. One just never knows what could be encountered when driving through these beautiful forest tracts. I blocked my ears when the tales of leopard and golden cat on late night drives started…
I was delighted to reach Ngaga Camp. Surrounding the camp is an 11 000ha (114km²) concession of incredible Congo Basin rainforest at its best. This primary forest is perfect habitat for western lowland gorilla owing to a rather dense marantaceae understory. The habitat is so perfect that the area hosts an estimated four gorillas per km² – the highest density in Congo and second only to Gabon. Don’t be deceived by the density though … viewing them in dense, dark forest can be a challenge.
To maximise our chances of gorilla viewing we went out tracking the Jupiter Group (26 individuals) on two respective mornings. The Jupiter Group is currently to the north of Ngaga Camp due to fruiting trees such as Gambeya lacourtiana, with tasty mango-like fruits, which the gorillas are very fond of. The terrain around Ngaga is quite undulating so walking can be fairly strenuous, often slashing one’s way through dense marantaceae. That said, the core Ngaga research area comprising 40km², has a grid of paths that makes tracking the gorillas much easier. A degree of fitness is certainly needed and on our second morning we walked 9.5km in total. To me this was all part of the experience as it felt to me we were tracking a group of gorillas that are ‘human tolerant’ rather than being totally habituated like with mountain gorillas in Rwanda for instance. Expert trackers lead the way, often looking for the slightest field sign to betray the general direction of the group.
As we got closer, the gorillas were heard feeding on foliage and fruit, moving quite noisily amongst the towering marantaceae. Suddenly the air was permeated with a very distinctive smell – that of gorilla. They were very close. Lowland gorillas communicate by chest-beating, and we could hear several individuals doing this. At this stage one has to don face masks, as per accepted gorilla-viewing protocol, and it was very hard for me to contain my excitement at my imminent first-ever gorilla sighting, frantically ensuring that my camera was on the correct settings. As they moved through the understory I got a glimpse of a face with penetrating eyes here, a dark shape of a muscular torso or simply a hand there. The dominant silverback, Jupiter, gave more urgent chest beats and barked at us, even giving us a brief view of him in an opening on one occasion. Since western lowland gorillas favour dense, dark forests, the striking saddle of silver-grey hair accentuates the presence of the silverback in his territory and makes him more visible to the rest of the group.
We kept a respectful distance from the group and when they got relaxed with our presence, some of the females and youngsters climbed into the trees around us. Lowland gorillas climb trees more frequently than mountain gorillas and their arboreal antics were a real privilege to observe. On both occasions our allotted hour with the group passed in a flash leaving us yearning for more, but understanding the delicate balance between ecotourism and conservation. This balance in fact is what makes the Ngaga gorilla experience unique. We were only able to view Jupiter and his family as a result of focussed western lowland gorilla research lead by leading primatologist, Dr Magdalena Bermejo, and being able to interact with Magda and her trackers was an equally rewarding part of the experience, as was knowing we were helping contribute to gorilla conservation.
Aside from gorillas, the Ngaga area also offers first-class closed-canopy rain forest birding. During my stay here I had a flurry of new additions to the trip list such as grey-headed nigrita, Cassin’s malimbe, buff-throated apalis, Bates’s paradise-flycatcher, shining and velvet-mantled drongos, Cassin’s hawk-eagle, Sabine’s and Cassin’s spinetails, black bee-eater, African pied hornbill, nesting black-and-white flycatcher around Ngaga Camp, the stunning rufous-bellied helmet-shrike, banded prinia and little green sunbird coming to mind as memorable sightings. Most of our best birding was done right from camp or on easy walks in the close vicinity of Ngaga Camp.