Neptuno is one magnificent silverback. The 34-year-old western lowland gorilla’s frosted coat extends all the way down his hind legs. His shoulders are hulked up like a football player’s, his forearms gigantic. He sits in a tree almost cross-legged, keeping half an eye on us––the five hairless primates crouching silently among the nearby Marantaceae plants. His family browses around him, their munching, rustling, and occasional grunts adding to the forest’s unbroken buzz. Nearby, one youngster dangles from a swaying vine with one hand, shoveling leaves into his mouth with the other.
In the Republic of Congo’s remote northwest, Odzala-Kokoua National Park is one of Africa’s oldest protected areas, having been established in 1935. Its 5,200 square miles of thick primary forest and jungle-fringed rivers are not only home to the critically endangered western lowland gorilla but also to high densities of chimpanzees and other primates, forest elephants and buffalo, hippos, the lowland bongo antelope, giant forest hogs, leopards, hyenas––including the only population known to thrive in forests––and nearly 450 recorded bird species.
Since 2010, Odzala has been managed by African Parks (AP), a Johannesburg-based nonprofit that has set a new paradigm in public-private partnerships. Founded in 2000, the organization currently manages a larger area of Africa than any other NGO, with 15 parks across nine countries—a total of 40,540 square miles. Through long-term agreements with governments, usually of around 20 years, AP takes on every aspect of park management, from anti-poaching measures and infrastructure development to healthcare and education for nearby communities. It’s known for using donor funds to tackle the continent’s “basket cases”—obscure, challenging ecosystems other NGOs won’t touch.
Total control of a reserve—and total accountability—is crucial to African Parks’ success, said CEO Peter Fearnhead. “We like to have an overall arrangement with the government that makes things very clear,” he explained. “Government is 100 percent responsible as owner, legislator, and policymaker— and we are 100 percent responsible for the management and execution.” It’s a radical departure from the traditional conservation model, in which governments continue to manage parks while NGOs are confined to specific projects within their boundaries.
The formula has seen major successes. In 2018 alone, AP employed 1,000 rangers, constructed and funded 278 schools, and reintroduced lions to Malawi’s Liwonde National Park—the first breeding population to live in the park in two decades. Wilderness Safaris just opened its newest camp, Magashi, in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where AP also recently translocated black rhinos, restoring the park to Big Five status. Another publicity boost was the 2017 appointment of Prince Harry as president (he had previously worked on wildlife relocation schemes in Malawi).
But of all AP’s projects, Odzala is perhaps the most crucial. The reserve is thought to be the largest protected piece of the Congo Basin rainforest— itself the globe’s second-largest forested area. “It’s the single biggest lung of the world—that on its own is worth protecting,” said Fearnhead. Working to combat poaching around Odzala has been a focal point: In 2016, a high-profile elephant poacher was arrested, and in 2018, rangers confiscated more than 48 tons of bushmeat, the trade of which is a major threat to gorillas.
Back in the park, tracker Gabin Okele managed to steal us a few more minutes with the great apes in a clearing where Neptuno’s group cohabits with that of another silverback, Jupiter—rare behavior to witness. We watched them “mining” for the edible roots of the Maranthes glabra tree. Over coffee at Ngaga Camp––six romantic, treehouse-style suites enveloped in dense jungle run by Congo Conservation Company (CCC)––Spanish primatologist Magdalena Bermejo explained that Ngaga is the only place such activity has been recorded. Remarkably, she thinks the silverbacks have been teaching one another how to dig out the roots.
Bermejo, who has been habituating and researching more than 35 gorilla groups around Ngaga for over a decade, is considered the leading expert on western lowland gorillas. Her presence is a major asset to the camp, allowing guests to experience grassroots conservation firsthand. Working alongside local trackers who have a profound understanding of the forest, she has formed a uniquely skilled research team.
These kinds of close-up wildlife experiences give AP a unique edge when it comes to the visitor experience. In Odzala, CCC is African Parks’ tourism partner, running three high-end eco-lodges that provide jobs and a sustainable financial incentive for the park’s long-term protection. “Every tourist who comes to Odzala becomes a conservation actor,” said Paul Telfer, primatologist and managing director of CCC. “Just by their presence.”
For more information, see odzala.com and africanparks.org. Natural World Safaris can arrange trips to Odzala-Kokoua National Park, starting from $9,720 per person for eight nights; naturalworldsafaris.com.