Among gorillas—A journey into the lives of the enigmatic lowland gorillas of Dzanga Sangha National Park

Nestled in the northern part of the Congo Basin, Dzanga Sangha National Park in the Central African Republic is a refuge for some of the most iconic species in the much-troubled region, ranging from forest elephants and bongo antelopes to the charismatic stars of an excellent film Primeval Forest Adventure—Among Gorillas.

Lowland gorillas are on the red list of endangered species, but there are an estimated 3000 of them in the World Heritage listed Dzanga Sangha National Park. That doesn’t, however, mean that they are easy to find. Or film.

Compared to the knowledge we have about their mountain-dwelling cousins, little is really known about the day to day lives of lowland gorillas in their natural habitat, not least because they spend all their time hanging out in the midst of extremely thick jungle vegetation. Animal videographer Thomas Behrend discovered this firsthand when he set himself the challenge of making a movie about these personable primates in the beating hot heart of the 4000-sq-kilometre park.

This is no ordinary documentary. Here we’re often placed in the unusual position of looking over the filmmaker’s shoulder, instead of peering passively through his view finder. It’s a much more immersive experience, and you feel as though you’re right there with Behrend, swatting away the infuriating insects and sharing his frustrations, fears and—finally—his triumphs, as he finds and follows a family group for several months, capturing their existence on film.

Big Mak. Star of the show, Makumba, spends a lot of time eating.
Big Mak. Star of the show, Makumba, spends a lot of time eating.

The central hero of the resulting piece is Makumba, a mature silverback who nonchalantly presides over a harem of wives, with whom he has sired several young. As Behrend gets ever closer to the group, we see the cheeky infants at several different stages of their development, from the point where they’re still trying to learn to walk upright, to the stage where one is desperately attempting to master the old man’s technique of extracting tasty termites from a stick.

The gorillas are not the only characters in this multi-act play. The trees that hide the primates from view for so much of the time also conceal other, even bigger animals, such as forest elephants, which can pose a serious threat if you bump into them on the jungle trails. In one exciting scene captured on film, a gang of elephants breaks into the team’s camp in the middle of the night, with chaotic results.

Behrend could never have got so close to his cast without the assistance and knowledge of the local BaAka pygmy tribespeople, who led him through the jungle, tracking the movements of the gorillas with their expert eyes, and delivering him straight to Makumba and his mob (after only an 8-hour hike).

He also couldn’t have made the film without British woman Angelique Todd, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s primate habituation programme in Dzanga Sangha National Park. Known as ‘the Gorilla Whisperer’, Todd has been following Makumba since working as a research assistant for the WWF in 2000.

Angelique Todd and a BaAka tracker lead Thomas to the gorilla family
Angelique Todd and a BaAka tracker lead Thomas to the gorilla family

The habituation programme involves getting the gorillas accustomed to the presence of humans, so they just get on with normal life when people are nearby. If successful, there are great opportunities to develop eco tourism initiatives that will make them sustainable and put money back into project.

For over 13 years, Todd—who once lost a thumb and finger to a chimpanzee bite while working in a UK zoo—endured multiple bouts of malaria, scorpion stings and other discomforts of life in the jungle while keeping track of Makumba’s movements and witnessing his life with four wives and 14 offspring. But in March 2013, the political situation in the Central African Republic turned dangerous in dramatic fashion, and Todd was forced to flee the country with her young daughter.

By May, the violence had spread beyond the capital of Bangui to reach the remote village of Bayanga, and then the park itself was under threat. Amid the chaos, heavily armed poachers entered the park and forced the eco-guards to retreat before spending eight awful hours killing 26 elephants and seizing their tusks.

The area was subsequently declared a militarised zone, but bravely the eco-guards returned to their posts and the WWF spent time negotiating with the various authorities and rebel groups. Eventually, in December 2013, Seleka militia vacated the area, and within six months the park had reopened to tourists.

All they have to do now is to convince people to come and see the wealth of wildlife that lives within the forest, and this film will whet the appetite of anyone with a sense of adventure and wonder to come and do just that.

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