Odzala National Park
Part Two

by Gaël R. Vande weghe

September 2015

After two weeks spent exploring the mosaic of forests, savannas, and swamps in the Mboko and Lango area of Odzala National Park, I had to move to the last destination of the trip: Ngaga, located about one hour from Mbomo, the entrance of the park. We were now leaving behind the last savannas and the northernmost tip of the Kalahari fossil sands, and entering true forests to the west. Although it is all part of the same ecosystem, the forest visibly changes as the landscape becomes slightly less flat. We found ourselves in a mosaic of impenetrable Maranthaceae forest with sparse large trees, often very old Dacryodes with their rough trunks and coppery-green crowns. Young but tall forest surrounded by ancient clearings and older forests in valleys. These forests had a significant presence of white-barked ebonies, which was quite special.

Spending a few days around Ngaga was particularly rewarding. An impressive network of wide trails allowed for a decent amount of walking in what would otherwise be very difficult dense vegetation. Moreover, there was good visibility of large trees, and we could see things that we would otherwise only hear. Ngaga was home to plenty of monkeys, hornbills, and lovebirds, and I was sure that there were plenty of antelopes around. However, the main reason for our presence was the lowland gorillas. Three groups had been habituated for tourism purposes, and we were going to track them in the upcoming days. I had encountered several of these large apes in Gabon before, but they were never habituated. It was often a male crossing a road in a flash, or just a charging noise in the understory without ever seeing the animal. Once, I observed a few females from a great distance, but sightings were never easy or prolonged. To be fair, I had never actively searched for them either.


The road to Gabon, before entering Ngaga.

One of the multiple small rivers around Ngaga camp.

Various trunks (Zanthoxylum on the left) and lianas in the Ngaga understory.

Veiled-lady mushroom on the forest floor. Aptly named: Phallus sp.

This time was going to be different, and I was very curious to compare the experience with our mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which I had tracked several times. In Rwanda, the gorillas had been habituated for over three generations at least, so their behavior in the presence of humans rarely surprised us. They were calm, very tolerant, and mostly enjoyed their naps. These lowland gorillas were the first generation to be habituated, and their habitat was different, as was their landscape and their history of interactions with humans, often limited to poaching.

On the fourth morning, we were all set for tracking, and the departure was very early, much earlier than the comfortable 8 a.m. start in Rwanda. Here, we began at 6:00 a.m., and the tracker was walking fast, very fast, with a sustained pace. I could feel my heart not being used to these military walks this early. Fortunately for me, the terrain was mostly flat-ish. We covered 2 kilometers very quickly as the tracker hoped to catch the Jupiter group before he decided to take his family a few kilometers away for a change of diet. This would turn a 1-hour walk into 4 hours of painful searching.

Female Cymothoe capella on the forest floor.

Nepheronia thalassina, captured on Cogniauxia flowers.

A group of Mylothris sp. with a few Appias sabina, down on the Ngaga river.

The slow approach close to the Gorilla group, with a few sweat bees.

Abruptly, he stopped and looked ahead. About 50 meters in front of us, on the corner of the wide path, the first little ball of black fluff was looking at us. It was a young gorilla, appearing curious but calm. We advanced slowly and located a few more. There were young ones and females, all scattered within an area of roughly 50 by 50 meters. You could never really see more than two at the same time; mostly, we could hear them eating.

Suddenly, three or four of them started to climb, and that struck me immediately as one huge difference from their cousins. All gorillas can climb, but as these gorillas got up, I noticed that there were already more up there, moving through various types of entangled canopy vegetation. Basically, there was a group of maybe 10 to 15 gorillas in the canopy, which ranged from 20 to 35 meters above the ground. It looked quite weird, considering I was used to being in the same volcanic salad bowl in the Volcanoes. These were arboreal gorillas.

A loud and very brief scream interrupted my contemplation of the canopy. Jupiter was there, at the end of the trail, looking at us. He announced his presence and acknowledged our presence with a scream that spiked my blood pressure. How playful of him. I pointed my camera at the silverback, and in less time than it took for me to realize, he proceeded to do a little intimidation charge and scream. I will never get used to how fast these “gentle” giants can be. After that, he entered the Maranthaceae forest, and we didn’t see him again that day.

An hour passed by quickly.

The first curious.

A female appearing on a side trail.

Visibility is sometimes a bit tricky in the understory.

Jupiter giving me a quick side look.

Inspecting for termites.

Jupiter, making sure we know who is the boss.

Elegant Galago (Euoticus elegantulus) during a night drive around Ngaga.

Central African Potto (Perodicticus edwardsi) during the same night drive.

A Great Blue Turaco (Corythaeola cristata) high in the trees at the end of the day.