Sunday, September 5, 2010

31 - Gorilla Sunday

Baby gorillas with 'foster parents' at Iboubikro
Wow. They are just like us even if they do have furrier bums. The little ones are grabbing at their milk bottles, thumping their chests with both hands, running around in circles, jumping up trees and swinging from branches. And further up-stream I manage to provoke a full grown silver-back male into throwing a tantrum - and mud and water at us.

This lowland gorilla protection site on the Bateke plateau some 100 miles north of Brazzaville was set up through the benevolence of British casino mogul John Aspinall to look after baby gorillas whose mothers have been killed by poachers seeking to sell the young in the cities. When they reach full gorilla adolescence at about eight, they are then reintroduced into the wild miles away in the forest. During the civil war about 10 years ago they were evacuated to the coast but then brought back.

Time for play

 It means an early departure from Brazzaville to get to the youngsters in time for their feeding. At Iboubikro, the babies are cared for in a forest across a river where two attendants act as foster mothers. There are four little ones aged between 2 and 3 1/2; they’re the ones grabbing the bottles of milk to drink, thumping their pectorals like miniature King Kongs, and doing their victory dances.

A few dozen miles away on a forested, river-surrounded peninsula lives Sid, a massive 27-year-old 440-pound silver-back who was first rescued as a tiny baby by a French woman. A truly magnificent creature with a ginger fringe on his high ridged head, he has survived war (he was never sent to the coast) and polio (they get the same diseases as us, and it slightly affected his jaw). It is Sid who takes an instant dislike to my voice.

Bateke plateau and the blue lake
Every morning and afternoon he 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 muggins 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.

Attendants approach Sid with goodies
I shut up, and he eventually resumes his pose on the jetty to munch on some more roots, hauling up a crate of roots and fruit brought by the attendants, and nonchalantly catching other delicacies thrown his way; no miniature King Kong, this one, in all his massive girth.

Sid 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. So 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.

Sid ponders
A French attendant on the reserve has a few insights into gorilla mores and behaviour compared with that of their close relatives, the chimpanzees. He spent 10 years tending the latter and says poachers are much more devastating for gorillas. The chimpanzees flee at the poachers’ approach, leaving perhaps only a mother to be killed and her baby stolen. But with gorillas the silver-back turns to face the attacker and protect his troop; thus he gets shot, as do other younger males who also do not flee, in addition to the mother of the to-be-poached baby. As to the silver-back's strength, a mere slap from his arm can break a human's arm or leg.

Anthropomorphically, the Frenchman says, the chimpanzees represent the black side of man - they attack, fight and fight to kill; the smaller bonobos, on the other side, represent man's rosier side - they make continual love, not war.

Some more pondering
As for gorillas and men, the former would seem to have the advantage in intelligence, if you listen to the only other visitor in the reserve today, a Belgian helping to set up the European Union (EU) embassy in Brazzaville. According to him this is a bureaucratic exercise in futility since there’s no real common foreign policy, each EU state has its own interests, and no EU country is going to withdraw its own embassy and leave it all to the new EU creation.

Becalmed after tantrum
Moreover, according to aforesaid Belgian, Congo’s president and government don't come off too well either in the gorilla-man comparison. Let them be corrupt, steal and build their castles on the French riviera, but then at least bring water and electricity to vast quarters of Brazzaville that now lack it, quoths he of the politicians. There's enough money to go round for both public services and private greed, but they have no sense of actually doing anything for others. At least the silver-back protects his troop.
Oh, you lot bore me, anyway
And as for the Chinese, they're here in spades, and if their road construction here is anything like their road construction in Angola, then perhaps the gorillas would perform better, too. Meanwhile, the termites are also doing a great public works project, building their own well-constructed castles on the savanna.

The view from Sid's living room

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