The Aspinall Foundation's Project in Gabon

Categories: Journal no. 42, Bushmeat, People & Gorillas, Other countries, Western Lowland Gorilla

Sophie with Antsia, Mbundu and Tonga (© PPG Gabon)

Sophie with Antsia, Mbundu and Tonga (© PPG Gabon)

Over the last 12 years, UK-charity The Aspinall Foundation has been running a unique western lowland gorilla rehabilitation and reintroduction project in the forests of South-east Gabon. PPG-Gabon (Projet Protection des Gorilles) has been directly involved with habitat conservation initiatives in and around the Bateke Plateau National Park (PNPB) as well as providing sanctuary, rehabilitation and a protected wild space for reintroducing rehabilitated orphaned gorillas that have been rescued from Central Africa's wildlife trafficking and bushmeat trade. In addition, the project also includes a total of 7 hand-reared gorillas fromThe Aspinall Foundation's Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, UK. These young gorillas had been rejected by their mothers and so were considered ideal candidates to join the project, in keeping with The Aspinall Foundation's philosophy of returning animals to wild protected areas where possible.

Today, there are two groups living completely independently within the PNPB, and they are regularly monitored by PPG staff (currently numbering 24 people). The silverback male of the first group of 20 individuals is 14-year-old Tonga, while the second group of 3 is led by 13-year-old Djalta - one of the select number of gorillas to have come from Howletts Wild Animal Park. Souba, a 10-year-old female from Djalta's group, joined Tonga's group at the end of April 2011.
Tonga is an orphan gorilla who, like most orphans who end up at the PPG site, has had a traumatic start in life. Rescued from hunters, and thus from a certain death, at Port-Gentil, Tonga came to PPG in 1999 when he was 2.5 years old. He gradually overcame his trauma and injuries and went on to rebuild a new life in the forests of the PNPB, under the daily supervision of PPG staff. 
Amongst his group of 20, there are 15 adults (10 females and 5 males, aged between 11 and 14 years) and 5 infants who were wild-born in the PNPB. Lékédi (14 years old) gave birth to the male Okeli in 2007, Moanda (13 years old) gave birth to female Ntsege in 2008, Sophie (14 years old) gave birth to Antsia in 2009, Zora (11 years old) to Antseleme in 2010 and finally Otala (12 years old) gave birth to Mbié in early 2011. All of the group's offspring are healthy and thriving well under Tonga's care as well as all of the other males who often band together to protect Otala from any staff member who approaches her to take pictures!
Breeding has been observed frequently between Tonga and the adult females, but several other males within this group have now reached reproductive maturity, including 13-year-old Kongo, and 12-year-olds Ngoma, Ivindo and Boumango. Therefore, due to this element of doubt as to who is the actual sire of each infant, we are planning to run genetic testing on each infant to positively identify their lineage. 
Both groups are doing well and spend long periods feeding in swamp regions. Their home ranges have considerably expanded to the North and South, which exposes them to an increased risk of poaching. While poaching has been very intense in the PNPB, it has now started to decline again. PPG guards recently stepped up their efforts and have captured around 15 poachers in the last 6 months. The poachers were handed over to the Conservator of the PNPB (from the National Parks Agency - ANPN) and the Gendarmerie Nationale, and were served a sentence of 6 months in prison. PPG has also recently signed an agreement to improve Aspinall Foundation support to the ANPN. This additional support, not only financial but also focusing on logistics and human resources, will provide the means to put a dozen additional ANPN guards in the field, who will work to increase the breadth and scope of wildlife protection in the forests and savannas of the PNPB. 
Finally, PPG is working on the rehabilitation of a small group of 4 orphans (3 females and 1 male, aged 3 to 5 years) at the project's nursery in the forests of western PNPB. This small group is still very dependent on humans for emotional support and protection but they are gradually learning to become more confident and independent. PPG is currently in discussions with the Aspinall Foundation and the ANPN about the possibility of carrying out additional confiscations in the near future. These confiscations would, as per standard procedure, be a joint effort between the PPG and the Ministry of Water and Forests, whose agents carry out the official confiscations.
PPG's presence in the region is a vital step in facilitating wildlife law enforcement activities, as the relevant authorities have often been hindered in their actions by the absence of a solution about where to place confiscated orphans. PPG aims to strengthen its support to the Gabonese authorities responsible for combating this difficult problem, and provide a second chance for these orphans to live in the wild again. PPG's ultimate aim is to reconstruct a viable population of western lowland gorillas in the PNPB over the long term, following their extirpation from the region several decades ago.
The births we have celebrated to date, as well as these future orphans, are symbols of hope that we will one day see the forests and savannas of the Batéké Plateau repopulated by wildlife.

Nicolas Bout and Amos Courage