Habituating western lowland gorillas for tourists in Loango

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Gabon is scheduled to become a gorilla trekking hotspot. After the success of the first group of habituated western lowland gorillas in Loango National Park, the Loango Gorilla Project began habituating a second group in August 2018.

Habituation is the process of repeated neutral interactions with humans and a gorilla group from
a distance. The gorillas are tracked daily and approached peacefully on a regular basis, and eventually, they regard humans as natural entities in their environment.

Western lowland gorillas live in the depths of the Central African jungle. As a result, relatively little is known about their ecology, behaviour, and demography. To address this, the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology started the Loango Gorilla Project in collaboration with The National Agency for National Parks (ANPN). The project began its work in Loango National Park in 2005.

western lowland gorilla silverback

Photo: Dr Martha Robbins

Western lowland gorillas have an estimated population of about 360 000 individuals compared to 1 004 mountain gorillas. “The habitats of mountain gorillas and western gorillas are quite different, making tracking and habituation of mountain gorillas much easier,” says Dr Martha Robbins, senior research scientist at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Gorillas are naturally afraid of humans and will typically flee or charge when approached. They are deemed habituated when “the level of aggressive charges and vocalisations towards humans decreases to near zero”, says Robbins. When a gorilla charges it is recommended to stand your ground and act unassuming and neutral.

The Loango Gorilla Project started actively habituating the Atananga Group for tourism and research in 2011. “Unless the group is habituated it is unlikely that you will see wild gorillas,” says Robbins. “Having close contact with unhabituated gorillas is stressful for the gorillas and dangerous for humans.” The project opened for tourism in June 2016.

western lowland gorilla and baby

Photo: Dr Martha Robbins

Loango is ecologically distinct from other western lowland gorilla locations. “As a result, we are seeing the extent of variability that can occur in their diet,” explains Robbins. The Loango gorillas have learned to crack and eat nuts, a behaviour documented in one other gorilla population. Variations in behaviour between different groups and populations indicate each group has a specific culture, learned from social interactions.

Tourists can expect a more adventurous, authentic, ‘tropical jungle’ experience in Loanga, compared to Uganda or Rwanda’s gorilla trekking, and are more likely to see Loanga’s gorillas in trees.

Western lowland gorilla facts

  • 1 500: The number of western lowland gorillas in Loango National Park.
  •  60%: The percentage of their diet that consists of fruit and leaves.
  • Distribution: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola.
  •  The shy Cross River gorilla and the western lowland gorilla form part of the western species (one of two gorilla species).
  • Habituated western gorilla groups: Bai Hokou (Central African Republic), Mondika (Republic of Congo), Odzala-Kokoua National Park (Republic of Congo), and more recently, Moukalaba-Doudou (Gabon).

Gorilla trekking in Gabon

Photo: Dr Martha Robbins

Good to know: The best time to see gorillas in Gabon is from March to May as they are less mobile during the rainy season and easier to find due to abundant food supplies. Gorilla trekking in Loango National Park is limited to four days a week to minimise disturbance. For more information visit  Loango Tourism.

Loango gorilla in tree

Photo: Dr Martha Robbins

Written by Georgina Lockwood 

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