Running with gorillas

If trends continue the world’s great apes are doomed to extinction. But one unique rehabilitation project in West Africa is challenging this bleak picture. Beatrice Newbery reports

The gorillas of West Africa are on the edge. For them, the E-word looms, from which there is no return: extinction. And the world knows it. Conservationists and scientists are scrabbling to protect whatever they can of their habitats and to put remnant scraps into zoos and gene banks, in preparation for the day when they are finally no more in the wild. All seem to agree that the future looks bleak.

Yet in rural Kent, and in Gabon, can be found some cause for hope. For in these two places, worlds apart in almost every way, a unique conservation project is doing what no other has ever done – breeding gorillas in captivity, and releasing them back into their natural habitat. In the worldwide battle for the great apes, then, there is at least one light shining in the growing darkness.

To Kent

Marco would like to be the leader but when he struts around, looking hopefully behind him, nobody follows. Instead, Choupette is in favour at the moment. She’s the oldest. She even has a minder, Tonga, who keeps an eye out for her. Occasionally Tonga leaves Choupette to hang out with the girls, Sophie and Lekette, leaving Marco to bully the less-confident newcomer, Kwam, left isolated recently after the death of his close friend Kwa Kwa.

Such politics are commonplace whenever individuals find themselves thrown together into new groups. In this case, the individuals in question are gorillas, and their turf is Gabon. Choupette is the oldest, at five, and all of them are new to each other – brought together by a project, which aims to return orphaned gorillas to their native forest.

To Gabon

The ‘new-boy’, Kwam, made history last November by becoming the world’s first gorilla to be transferred from captivity in the West back to his native habitat. Born and brought up at Howletts Zoo in Kent, Kwam was moved at the age of three and a half to join the Gabon Gorilla Orphanage, a jungle reserve on the banks of Gabon’s Mpassa River. His younger half brother, Kwa Kwa, who was also brought from Kent, died of appendicitis last month. 'The group has got over Kwa Kwa’s death pretty fast,' says Colin Angus, from Howletts. 'But it’s difficult for Kwam. Not only was he very close to Kwa Kwa, but he is the oldest male, and by rights the leader.

Apart from Kwam and Kwa Kwa, the rest of the gorillas are Gabonese. Most have been abandoned by hunters who have poached their mothers for the bushmeat which is a popular delicacy in the region. Others have languished in the government’s under-funded gorilla reserves, left by amateur dealers who hoped to sell them but didn’t know how to get around the global ban. Sophie, a hairy primadona who doesn’t enjoy getting her feet wet, was rescued and handed over by the Spanish Ambassador to Gabon. He named her after the Spanish Queen.

The idea is to encourage the gorillas to form a group, and eventually enable them to live on their own in the wild. But it won’t be easy. Like in human groups, different cultures emerge and evolve in gorilla communities. For these orphans, the beginning is a clean slate. 'These gorillas would usually spend up to eight years with their mothers, watching and learning from them, relying on them for care and attention,' explains Angus. 'But there are no mothers, so it is the equivalent of taking a bunch of children and teaching them how to live in the forest. This is their natural habitat, so they are helped by instinct, but some have been traumatised by being orphaned. Others have been malnourished or beaten. They are disturbed. Sometimes we have to step in when fights break out.'

These are western lowland gorillas, and they would naturally inhabit the hills of Uganda, Rwanda and the former Zaire. While there are about 300,000 lowland gorillas in central Africa, considerably more than the 600 remaining mountain gorillas, they are nonetheless a protected species. Thanks to the continuing popularity of bushmeat and the expanding network of roads, which carry hunters and industrial loggers – mostly European logging companies – further and further into the Gabonese jungle, their numbers are dwindling. Gabonese officials face a huge challenge in enforcing these poaching laws, particularly as bush-meat is so lucrative, and Gabon so poor.

The dream

The reserve is the dream of John Aspinall, the well-known British gambling tycoon, zoo owner and Zuluphile, even though it was set up by default. For 12 years, Aspinall has been underwriting a similar gorilla orphanage in the neighbouring Republic of Congo, but when civil war broke out there, he went in search of a back-up reserve to which he could move the gorillas to safety. Gabon was the obvious spot, with a relatively stable, if unrepresentative, government run by President Omar Bongo for more than three decades, and vast swathes of rainforest.

For forty years, Aspinall has been breeding gorillas in his UK zoos, Howlett’s and Porte Lympne. Now he had found the ideal spot to return them to the wild. “I flew over it for an hour and I was beguiled by its beauty, its remoteness,” says Aspinall. “I saw no human habitation for miles and miles, just elephants, crocodiles, red buffalo. I knew it was ideal for a gorilla sanctuary.”

The habitat is indeed perfect. It has no indigenous primates that could be infected by imported diseases, so there is minimal risk of spreading foreign viruses. Meanwhile, the reserve stretches over 17,000 hectares, without going near a road or village. The regional capital, Franceville, is five hours away, and the nearest village is three days walk, across the border in the Republic of Congo. Once the gorillas have been left to fend for themselves, the hope is that there is minimal risk to their safety. As Aspinall explains: 'It would be absurd for me to say that there won’t be a risk when we let them go. Who is safe in Africa today? But luckily there are very few poachers there because the Mpassa River is completely unnavigable until the stretch near the reserve – there are rapids everywhere. They gave up trying to get there long ago.'

For Aspinall, the aim is to release greater and greater numbers of British-born gorillas into the reserve. At 73, fighting cancer of the jaw, this project represents the climax of his long, gorilla-breeding career. 'I have always wanted to release the gorillas back into the wild, for their own sake. That is the country of their birth. It is where they should be, where nature and evolution intended them to be.'

Aspinall has never been short of critics for his hands-on approach to conservation. They say that the money would be better spent protecting the gorillas’ habitat from in-roads, poachers and logging companies, instead of providing expensive and impractical long-term care for the orphans. Just months ago, a keeper at Port Lympne was crushed by an elephant, adding grist to their mill. But Aspinall and his staff stand by their methods. 'I don’t take much notice of criticism, as events have proved that criticism unfounded. We have bred more gorillas than anyone else in the world.'

And he’s right. Howletts alone has bred more than 86 gorillas in its 40-year history, 63 of whom still remain at the zoo. With such a history, Aspinall has every right to be confident of his Gabon and Congo reserves. And, if the gorillas’ progress is anything to go by, it will not be long before they achieve full independence.

Already they are making nests for themselves, and each time they are taken wandering, Kwam, Konda, Marco, Choupette, Sophie and Lekette venture further and further afield. One day soon they may rely on each other for survival, with a clear leader among them, dedicated followers and even children of their own.

That will be the first important step for what could perhaps turn out to be a new hope for the great apes of West Africa.

Beatrice Newbery


Life with the great white ape

John Aspinall has been responsible for some of the most revolutionary and important animal conservation projects in Africa – and throughout the world. He has also been responsible for enlightening, enraging and inspiring thousands of people around the world. Everyone who has ever known him has a tale to tell, and strong opinion on the man. But one thing is certain – the conservation world would be immeasurably poorer without him.

He is capable of being both poetic and devastatingly blunt, almost in the same sentence. He makes no effort to be diplomatic when relating his convictions or life story. As a result, he is disliked by numerous people, who are often bitterly offended by some of his more outrageous reflections on the plight of humanity and the natural world.

Yet it has always been clear to me that beneath his rough exterior, lies a man of immense compassion. And while on many serious issues we differ in opinion, his views on friendship, the natural world and humanity’s destruction of it, I share wholeheartedly.

The first I heard of Aspinall was in the 1960s from Dr Charles Schroeder, the world-famous director of the San Diego Zoological Society. He talked of ‘an eccentric Englishman’ he had met, who ‘meets animals on the same level as himself.’ Later an Englishman, who was visiting me, Fred Jackson, also spoke of a man who had ‘befriended’ gorillas. ‘He can think like a gorilla,’ he enthused to me, ‘and speak their language – and be accepted on equal terms in their groups.’ To Jackson, this man – John Aspinall – was a hero. After such praise, I was determined to meet him, which I finally did, in the late 1980s. It was to be a turning point for me.

In the course of my work, I have visited many zoos around the world. But when I first visited Howletts and Port Lympn, the two wild animal parks for which Aspinall has earned international respect, I was astounded at their quality. Howletts had an atmosphere totally different from any other zoo I had visited. Unheard of elsewhere, here keepers would enter the cages of predators like the tiger – an astonishing spectacle. The sheer diversity and wealth of foods presented to each of the animals would be the envy of any human living today - the gorillas, for instance are fed anything up to three hundred and fifty varieties of fruit, nuts and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, the health of the animals is excellent. And their response to Aspinall when we approached them was deeply moving. 

While respecting the natural barriers that exist between species, Aspinall and his colleagues at Howlett’s place great emphasis on developing a deep relationship with their charges. As Aspinall enters the gorilla enclosures and begins to interact with the animals, the fascinating love of man for animal and vice versa takes on a new meaning. Aspinall has remarked that it is only such moments that enable him to tolerate the misdeeds of human government. Observing his way with the animals left me in no doubt as to why he, more than anyone else, has succeeded in breeding more gorillas than all the zoos of the world combined.

Aspinall’s achievements must be left to history to judge, and I believe that history will judge them well. For this is a man who has fought long and hard to salvage what he can from the wreckage modern humanity has made of much of the world.

I remember one evening, sitting with him around a fire in a camp on the banks of the Black Mfolozi River, as we drank South African red wine and listened to noises of the wild African night. Baboons barked in the sycamore fig trees, a leopard gave its long sawing cough from a nearby cliff and the fiery-necked nightjar sang its sad little song. ‘Once, all of Zululand was like this’ ventured Aspinall, ‘from the rivers of Pondoland to the Shangaan people in Mozambique.  There was a balance between humanity and the natural world. In 120 years it has all been destroyed.’ Maybe some day, at least part of it could be rebuilt, with the help of the work Aspinall has done.

Aspinall with his gorillas

On one occasion, I walked with John Aspinall around Howletts zoo. I began by saying good morning to each visitor we passed. Eventually he turned to me with a slight smile and dryly said, ‘if you carry on like this you’ll be exhausted in ten minutes’.

He entered the gorilla cage and began his games with his friends. Nothing hurried, nothing forced, but an exchange on two levels, physical and telepathic. The love of man for animal and vice versa was a fascinating sight. When John Aspinall emerged after his long communication with the gorilla family he remarked that it was the only time he was able to spend with the gorilla that enabled him to tolerate the mass of humanity and the misdeeds of government. The moments with the gorilla enabled him to be more human.

Renowned conservationist Ian Player's impressions of John Aspinall, the extraordinary and controversial champion of gorilla survival

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000


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