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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 12:44 GMT
Saving Gabon's orphan gorillas
By Sarah Monaghan
BBC News, Gabon

At the moment Gabon, in West Africa, is reliant on oil for its income. But with supplies due to run out by 2020, President Omar Bongo is keen to turn some of the virgin equatorial forest - full of elephants, chimps, gorillas, mandrills, hippos and leopards - into national parks for tourists.

President Omar Bongo of Gabon
President Omar Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1967
It is a bit disconcerting to travel as far as Gabon to do an interview, only to find that your subject does not much like talking.

Liz Pearson is director of a pioneering gorilla reintroduction project on the Congo border.

When she meets me at Franceville Airport, she is monosyllabic, albeit with a shy smile. I notice bites and scratches on her bare arms. Later she will say that after eight years living cloistered with gorillas in the forest, she has "lost the habit of small talk". When I get there the next day, I understand why.

That evening, in town over a beer, she becomes more talkative. The air smells of roasting meat. "It is hard to find a restaurant here that does not serve bushmeat," she says.

Next-door is offering crocodile, monkey and antelope; it is a clear sign that despite the fact that hunting is seriously endangering Gabon's wildlife, bushmeat remains the meal of choice.

Gorilla reserve

John Aspinall Foundation
Primatologists hope the gorillas will mate and form new family units
It was the late John Aspinall, the eccentric British millionaire who founded two private zoos in Kent, who had the vision for the gorilla reserve. "I flew over the site for an hour and was beguiled by its beauty," he said. "I saw no human habitation. I knew it was ideal for a sanctuary."

Getting to camp involves a bone-shaking five-hour journey in a four-wheel-drive vehicle across savannah to the River Mpassa, where we unload supplies into a motorised canoe to chug upstream for three hours.

Thick vines line the banks; under the water, snout-nosed crocodiles lurk; this is a journey reminiscent of The African Queen. An hour in, just as it did for Bogart and Hepburn, lightning cracks, thunder rumbles and we sit hunched in oilskins as a tropical storm beats down.

For rehabilitation to work, establishing an attachment is crucial. Gorillas are very sensitive. If you do not develop a bond, they do not eat
Liz Pearson, director of the gorilla reintroduction project

"We are home," says Liz as we trudge up a muddy track. "Home" is a hut with a gas-powered freezer, a satellite phone and laptops on which data from her and a team of trackers is logged.

As dusk falls, the tropical night strikes up its orchestrated concert: the piped squeaks of bats, the maracas buzz of cicadas, the soprano whoops of bushbabies. It is an astonishingly soothing blanket of primeval sound.

Establishing an attachment

Somewhere, sleeping in the trees, are 23 gentle gorillas.

Map of Gabon
Many started life as bushmeat orphans. One was just a month old and weighed as little as a bag of sugar. Another's mother was caught in a snare, her foot left behind. "She had chewed it off," Liz says. "The baby was clinging to the dead body."

Kongo was rescued from a cage and had machete scars. She will never forget his cry when he arrived. "It was a heart-rendingly hollow call, like he was glad to see the forest again," she says.

For rehabilitation to work, establishing an attachment is crucial. "Gorillas are very sensitive," Liz tells me. "If you do not develop a bond, they do not eat. The lights go out in their eyes."

A second group of gorillas arrived here in 2002 from Aspinall's Howletts Zoo. It is the first time reintroduction has been attempted with captivity-born young and although not psychologically harmed like the others, these zoo babies presented a different challenge.

Reared in cages, they were scared when they saw the forest. They did not like its sounds; they panicked at the sight of a beetle. And there was worse to come.

It is a bit of a Lord of the Flies experiment. There is the possibility that the gorillas will see each other as just brothers and sisters and not as mating partners
Liz Pearson

Snakes, leopards and on one occasion, Liz and her youngsters stumbled on an elephant which trumpeted and charged. The gorillas leapt onto her, clinging out of fear, so she could not move. Slowly Liz backed away. Afterwards, she examined the tracks and realised there had been an elephant calf too. That is why the mother was so aggressive. She was being protective, just as Liz was.

'Speaking' their language

These young gorillas are self-sufficient now but while they may have flown the nest they cannot contain their joy when they see Liz in the forest. The older ones want her to play and show it by biting and scratching. She is less thick-skinned so play hurts. The youngest climb on her lap.

John Aspinall Foundation
Liz Pearson is this pioneering gorilla reintroduction project's director
Gorillas thump their chests and cough to show they are unhappy. Liz uses imitative sounds to communicate with them. She knows all the noises, she says. But she never wants to "say" too much in case she is speaking the wrong words.

She uses body language instead. "If I sit hunched up," she says, "they will not approach me but if I am open, they do."

What does the future hold for these gorillas? The international primatologists following the project are hoping they will mate and form new family units.

"It is a bit of a Lord of the Flies experiment," Liz admits. "These gorillas have grown up without adult gorilla parenting. There is the possibility they will see each other as just brothers and sisters and not as mating partners."

But at least now the gorillas are living independently in their new habitat. "They are going through the adolescent phase," Liz says. "They have sugar rushes from overdosing on fruit - they are a real handful."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 1 March, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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