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Mike Arkus

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Going Ape In Central Africa: Meeting Our Closest Cousins In The Near-Wild Within Easy Reach Of Major Cities

Posted: 10/12/10 01:30 PM ET

* See photos below*

If you should happen upon two of the less visited African capitals - Brazzaville and Kinshasa - and you don't have the time for days of travel to see them in their primordial natural habitat, a side trip to great apes who have been rescued from poachers, markets and the prospective dinner table and are being reintroduced into the wild, is a relatively easy trip, its cost depending on which budget you are on - time or money. If money is more of a concern and you have the time, getting there can be very cheap, taking public buses, bush taxis or pay-hitching for a seat on a truck. If time is an issue, then you can do each visit as a day trip, paying $100 or so for a taxi.

Western Lowland Gorilla - Less than 100 miles north of Brazzaville, capital of the former French Republic of Congo, lies the Lefini Forest Reserve and the Iboubikro nursery, a sort of kindergarten for infant gorillas who have been rescued after their parents were killed by poachers to sell as bush meat for food or to kidnap the babies for sale. The protection site was set up through the benevolence of British casino mogul John Aspinall to try to save this critically endangered species.

At Iboubikro, the babies are cared for in a forest across a river where two attendants act as foster mothers in what, to all intents and purposes, is a pure natural habitat. Visitors are allowed 30 minutes from a viewing site across a narrow river at two feeding times, in the morning and afternoon. There are four little ones aged between 2 and 3 ½, grabbing the bottles of milk to drink, thumping their pectorals like miniature King Kongs, doing various victory dances and generally having a grand old time rolling around.

When they reach full gorilla adolescence at about eight, they are then reintroduced into the wild miles away in the forest. In a sort of half-way forested island a couple of dozen miles to the north of Iboubikro, you can meet Sid, the only gorilla in the program who was not evacuated to the coast during the civil war about 10 years ago. A massive 27-year-old 440-pound silver-back, first rescued as a tiny baby by a French woman, Sid is a truly magnificent creature with a ginger fringe on his high ridged head; he has survived the civil war and polio (they get the same diseases as us), which slightly affected his jaw.

He was put on the island with four other males because there are too few females among those rescued, and the project did not want to sexually overload the groups that have been reintroduced to the even remoter forest. This is not as cruel as it might sound, because it is natural for male gorillas in the wild to be alone until they establish their own group. Two of the four were killed early on, apparently by poachers to sell the meat. That left Rupert, Titi and Sid. Rupert, sensing that Sid was weaker because of the polio, protected him and for a while all three lived in peace. Then one day both Rupert and Titi were found dead. There were no bite marks, so they didn't kill each other, and it's assumed they were poisoned, but the details remain unknown.

Every morning and afternoon Sid comes to a little wooden jetty on the river bank, sitting quietly and waiting for the attendants to approach in a motor boat with extra food - this time bringing yours truly in tow. He sits there, massive, pretending to look away nonchalantly, but eying us out of the corner of his eye. He recognises the voices of the others as friends. But mine is new to him. He immediately jumps down from the jetty, rushes furiously back and forth along the shore (fortunately, they don't go into water), yanks violently at a rope tied to a pole near the boat, and with an all embracing sweep of his massive arm hurls reeds, mud and water in our direction. I seem to have that effect on most living things. Naturally my camera and I get ourselves tied up in Gordian knots during Sid's royal command performance and I don't manage to take even one blurred shot of these antics. I shut up, and he eventually resumes his pose on the jetty to munch on some more roots, hauling up a crate fruit brought by the attendants, and nonchalantly catching other delicacies thrown his way; no miniature King Kong, this one, in all his massive girth.

War-Shunning Love-Making Bobobos - Just a 20-minute boat trip across the Congo from Brazzaville lies Kinshasa, capital of the former Belgian Democratic Republic of Congo and the chance to visit the ape cousin who is reputed to be man's closest relative, even closer than the regular chimpanzee. When under stress and tension the bonobos are famed for making love instead of war, regardless of sex or age, a rampant example of modern-day equal opportunity. Standing more upright than a chimpanzee but less so than a human, they are only found in the deep equatorial forests on the left bank of the Congo River and are, of course, an endangered species thanks to poachers and deforestation. Smaller than a chimpanzee - the male reaches 1.2 meters and 50 kilograms, the female about 1 meter and 35 kilograms - they live to about 50 or 60 and are estimated to number only some 10,000 as opposed to 100,000 in 1980.

About two hours outside Kinshasa at the Lola Ya Bonobo Orphanage, infants and youngsters rescued from poachers are rehabilitated and eventually released into their natural habitat, a 1,000 miles or so to the north. In a huge forest enclosure protected by an electric-topped fence, several dozen bonobos roam and play about in family groups, grooming each other, making faces, and otherwise having a great time.

Of course each time one of them produces an extremely elongated grimace with lips protruding forward like a long tube when asked if he/she can talk, yours truly is too slow in getting his camera ready. Nor am I apparently producing enough tension or pressure, because they're not doing any of 'that.' But in my enthusiasm to snap every gesture, I advance hands and camera too far in, brush against - yes, you've guessed it - the electric wires, and am propelled backwards with a very nasty jolt amid flashes and an electricity-charged camera (fortunately photos unharmed).

Order restored, one of the older bonobos decides to put on a spontaneous show. He balances a long stick on his back and runs proudly on all fours without it ever coming close to falling off. Now he walks, carrying it wedged between his shoulder and the side of his jaw. Meanwhile a family of seven with a baby groom each other in different positions, presenting their backs once front and arms have been cleared of ticks. At a nursery for infants a tiny baby in diapers grabs on to its foster mother while others swing from bars.

There are 58 bonobos in the reserve including babies in the nursery; another nine have already been released into the wild. To visit them in their natural habitat is difficult to say the least - a week or more travel up river, a long trek into the jungle, and even then there's no assured sighting because the forest is so dense.

A film at the reserve's headquarters shows how Bonobos have been taught to recognise 1,000 words - both nouns like house or orange, and also adjectives - either presenting pictured cards or pressing the correct computer keys when asked. They break wood by holding it in both hands and using their foot, take a lighter out of someone's pocket, flick it to make a fire and then throw a pail of water to put it out.

Photo
Next to normal.
So cute!

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For additional information on the Congos and other African travel experiences see www.looneyfront.blogspot.com

Also by the same author, Shakespearean spoofs on current day politics at www.shakespeareredux.blogspot.com