Years ago, I had heard the stories of a luminous green West African country with more wildlife than people. The legendary images by Nick Nichols in an early 2000's issue of NatGeo gave rise to an awe for the vast-land forests of Gabon. 20 years later, those timeless images taken at the end of the Mega-transect remain the benchmark from which Gabon's wild wilderness is perceived, so little known to the outside world.
In a country with 80% of its surface covered in forest and with a human population hovering somewhere around 2 million, it is unsurprising that a 3 hour helicopter flight east-west across Gabon reveals little more than deep tracts of wilderness dotted with everything but that of man.
After a 4 year wait I was recently able to lay eyes on a country I had high expectations - it did not disappoint.
A Gabon Collage
IVINDO NATIONAL PARK - WILDEST GABON
The beginning of our 3 week journey started in Ivindo National Park, a deeply remote region in eastern Gabon's Congo-Guinean forests. Here, Mike Fay ‘re-discovered’ a forest clearing known as Langoue Bai, calling it the "most important discovery" of the 2000 mile long Mega-Transect walk across Congo and Gabon in the early 2000's. Langoue Bai is one of the few known clearings of rainforest where both Lowland Gorilla and Forest Elephant frequent simultaneously. This exceptional clearing is a window into an African forest little disturbed by man where deep within, wildlife densities are maximum and behavior leans towards naïve. Unlike a few of the other parks in Gabon, Ivindo falls on the edge of the great lowland forests that stretch across the Congo basin. With little Atlantic influence, typical forest species dominate the region typifying the ecology that stretches from Ivindo eastwards to the foothills of the Albertine Rift. Impressive in every way, Ivindo and the famous Langoue Bai where a highlight of the 3 week transect across several of Gabon’s protected areas.
The wild landscapes of the Ivindo River basin
MANDRILLS OF LOPÉ - THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY MAMMAL ON EARTH
Situated along an ancient trade route, the anthropogenic landscapes of Lope are dominated by gallery forest networks marginalized to the snaking valleys surrounded by grassland savanna. The mosaic of forests and savanna create a hugely diverse portfolio of species, few of which endemic and only easily seen within this hotspot region. "Wildlife on the beach" tends to control the headlines of Gabon's wildlife tourism, and although true, Gabon is the ONLY place on the continent to have guaranteed (although challenging) viewings of wild Mandrills during the breeding season from June-August. During this phenomenon, up to 1000 individuals pool together in massive troops that frantically scour the dry forest floor in search of food. High ranking females and males under go a seasonal transformation akin to that of many species of colorful plumaged birds. In particular, male Mandrills push their bodies towards and oftentimes beyond the limits of physical stability for the sole purpose of rank in order to secure rights to mate. The colors of male Mandrills during this seasonal trance-like state go well beyond the spectrum of any other mammal on Earth. Males rarely eat during the 'season' and opt to spend their waking hours trawling other males in a sort of 'procession rotation ritual', figuring out who has the brightest and most colorful rear end. These rituals are accompanied by synchronized grunts who pool all energy into hierarchy at the expense of physical state. Males only live for around 13 years and during this time, they may only have 2-3 seasons before they wither and succumb to the forest.
Without doubt, the Mandrills of Lope provide one of the most stimulating and sensory wildlife experiences on Earth.
Exceptional biodiversity along the central Ogouee River basin
MANGROVES AND SWAMPS OF LOANGO
Gabon's most well known eco region lies on the forest-savanna mosaic shores of the Atlantic. A wild combination of species merge here - Forest Elephant, Red River Hog, River Martin, Slender Snouted Crocodile, Papyrus, Mangroves, Sawfish, Humpback Whales, Lowland Gorillas etc... Famous for wildlife on the beach, the Loango region has 2 distinct seasons offering 2 vastly different experiences. During the drier months from June - August, the Rembo N'Gove River on the eastern boundary of the reserve becomes a magnet for wildlife along the shores of this diverse river. Forest Elephants are represented well with an exceptional bias towards large bulls. Gorilla trekking during the drier season can be challenging, but at no other Lowland Gorilla tourism site in Africa would a trek require a 2 hour boat ride through some of the most scenic lower Guinean Forests in Africa. What stands out as a feature of more significance than 'wildlife on the beach' is the diversity of Loango and the ease at which many usually shy rainforest species can be seen. Loango with its comfortable eco-lodges and abundance of wildlife in the dry season provides a perfect way to end any itinerary in Gabon.
Biomass and biodiversity of Loango
In June last year, Gabon became the first African country to receive international funding to continue its efforts against deforestation in its territory and although their main industry is logging, the effects of selective offtake are nowhere near as catastrophic as alternative consumptive offtake industries. Gabon is in a unique position to protect its wilderness whilst it still has plenty, one of very few African countries that fall into this unique category.
A friend once told me "Gabon has so much potential, it always will". To me it seems that this notion is changing and that a future for conservation-centric tourism is now within reach. As a guide in the industry, and along with those who choose to visit these remarkable frontiers, it is our combined responsibility to campaign for change and support this kind of travel.
I look forward to sharing this extraordinary country with fellow travelers in the future.