“Time is the longest distance between two places,” Tennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie. Though the play is set in the Deep South, Williams’ statement perfectly summed up my thoughts on Gabon.
The distance between what the West African nation is today – a country made rich by timber, manganese and oil (it has the third highest GDP per capita in Africa) – and what it hopes to be – a wildlife paradise that delivers new ecotourism wealth – seemed vast when I visited.
Though decades have passed since aspirations were voiced to move from extractive industries to conservation that would entice visitors to Gabon’s sublime beaches, rainforests, savannahs and Unesco-listed mangrove ecosystems, progress has been slow.
Animals are a long way from getting the respect they deserve. At a launch event for the nascent ecotourism industry, a tourism minister described the wildlife as the “animal product” when outlining the goal of becoming the next Rwanda. None of the mainstream safari operators has yet to commit to Gabon, meaning that, for now, tours are expensive.
I recently returned from a trip that had aimed to showcase Gabon as the “Last Eden” with the impression that this incredibly beautiful country remains so close to the starting line that its chances of becoming the major destination tourism minister, John Norbert Diramba, wants it to be by 2030 seem remote.
Diramba hopes 500,000 visitors per year will visit the country’s natural wonders. How many come now, I asked. “About the same number as are sitting around this table,” he replied, looking at the six of us.
At face value, Gabon is an easy sell. I had been tantalised with images of surfing hippos, forests of elephants, gorillas, mandrills and chimpanzees; an ocean full of whales, and beaches that provide the highest nesting density for leather-back turtles in Africa.
All this is true: Gabon has about a quarter of the global population of western lowland gorillas; the world’s largest number of leather-backs (30 per cent of the total, according to WWF) and more forest elephants than any other country – thought to be in the region of 95,000, which is between 60 and 70 per cent of the entire population on earth.
Rainforests cover 88 per cent of the land-mass – a vital player in our attempts to control climate change. As Lorris Bithougat, who works for Gabon’s communications agency, said: “We can’t allow Gabon to follow in the deforested footsteps of the Amazon. It would be catastrophic for the planet.”
This wilderness is a lush habitat not only for gorillas and elephants, but also for tufty-eared red river hogs, buffalo, many different antelope, including sitatunga and duikers, and more than 600 bird species.
But Gabon’s wildlife is just that – wild. It’s not used to humans, and so is elusive to the point of invisible. And it’s also seasonal: the best time to see migrating whales and dolphins is between June and August, for turtles it’s between November and March, and for primates and large mammals, between February and May. I went in January.
Even if your timing is excellent, there is a good chance you might only see elephants from a distance (as I did) and an even better chance that you’ll see no primates at all (I didn’t). Hippos were also similarly absent, but we did see herds of forest buffalo, their burnished-copper coats making them impossible to miss against the emerald background.
The guide who took us kayaking through the water channels of Pongara National Park – one of 13 created by President Ali Bongo Ondimba in 2002 to safeguard about 11 per cent of the country’s forests – assured us there were hippos in a waterhole deep in the forest. We scrambled, slipped and sweated our way to it, our noise sending orange-headed agama lizards scuttling. When we reached the waterhole, the residents were not home.
But not seeing animals proved less upsetting than seeing them. A lack of knowledge, funds, concern and awareness that animals are sentient beings whose purpose is not to serve our needs meant my wildlife encounters were profoundly depressing. On a moonlit walk to see leather-back turtles hatch on Pointe Denis (near Pongara, and just 15 minutes by boat from the capital, Libreville), the only advice we were given was to avoid treading on them.
Our second introduction to this endangered species was no less chaotic: hatchlings had been collected from one bay, put in a plastic bucket and brought to show diners at River Lodge Resort’s brightly lit restaurant. They were then tipped back out into a different bay, where the waves brought them back to shore. Disorientated by the lights, the babies headed inland; we raced after them, trying to put them into the sea.
Then there was the dwarf crocodile who was taken from the wild while still in its egg, and kept in a miserable pound with not even a water bath, at Nyonié Safari Lodge, near the Wonga Wongue Reserve. And finally, there was our experience at Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz, a sanctuary based on the Fernan-Vaz lagoon (230km from Libreville).
Certainly, the project is trying to do good work under difficult financial restraints. It has taken in a few gorillas which were laboratory animals and hopes to reintroduce some of them to the wild. But the sanctuary’s most recent rescues – two female gorillas – had been kept in an abysmally small, low enclosure for three years because the project lacked the funds to build anything larger.
Dr Martin Kabuyaya, project co-ordinator, admitted this was driving them mad, but said work was finally progressing on a new pen. I saw no other gorillas. Loango National Park has the country’s only habituated troop (trekking permits cost about $900 or £710).
When I found the right guide, that brought its own rewards. Ghislain Bouassa has an intuitive appreciation of nature. I followed him deep into a forest. His storytelling mixed fact and fiction, poetry and practicality, hope and hindrance. Yes, he said, Gabon has a long way to go. Poachers are being trained to become protectors, plans are in place to resolve the elephant-human conflict and communities are being shown the benefits of tourism.
“It will come soon, I hope. We need visitors to come to Gabon not to see animals, but to save them.” Without visitors, Gabon’s Last Eden strategy could prove prophetic. It might well end up as the last Eden. And the lost one.
How to get there
The writer flew to Libreville with Air France via Paris.
Native Eye Travel offers 10-day tours of Gabon from £3,749pp excluding flights.