The Garden Of Eden

<B>Christiane Amanpour</B> Visits Wild Gorillas In Gabon

In a world with fewer and fewer truly wild places, the country of Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, has a section that is about as close as you can get to the Garden of Eden.

It's called Langoue Bai, which is the pygmy word for clearing – and it's an untouched zone where, until recently, humans had not been.

The gorillas that live there are called naïve gorillas -- naïve because they have never seen people and therefore are not afraid when they do.

What is it like to come upon a gorilla that has never seen a human before? Correspondent Christiane Amanpour traveled to Gabon last winter to find out.
There aren't be many places in the world that are harder to reach than Gabon's Langoue Bai, where 60 Minutes set off on an odyssey with biologist Mike Fay of New York's Wildlife Conservation Society.

They flew for hours, just above the treetops, across an endless expanse of virgin tropical rainforest. "(They're) called the Minguli shoots. It drains all of northeastern Gabon," says Fay. "They're gorgeous."

Landing on a dirt strip in the jungle, which is vertical and slippery, was just the beginning of the adventure. Ahead lay a punishing trek through miles of virtually impenetrable jungle teeming with wildlife.

Fay believes he was the first person to ever explore this jungle, in an epic expedition walking 2,000 miles -- from the Congo all the way to the coast of Gabon.

Now, we are retracing a small part of that journey. "This is the only the second time anybody has been here," says Fay.

Pushing on to the untouched zone, looking for gorillas and elephants, they found that the obstacles came in all sizes, including the sight of big ants on the path.

"What you have is all these guardians, which are the soldiers, and they kind of guard this highway," says Fay about the ants. "If they come into your camp at night with those big chompers, they get into your hair, into your tent, into everything."

Hours later, giant elephant footsteps signal that they are getting closer to Langoue Bai, the untouched clearing they are looking for. From now on, they have to whisper.

"This is the elephant highway, we're only about 500 meters from the Bai," says Fay.

And what are they going to do if they come across an elephant? "We're gonna engage the elephant," says Fay.
They climb up to Fay's improvised viewing platform, and get a glimpse of what the planet must have looked like eons ago. Langoue Bai is a rare clearing in the heavy jungle canopy -- 50 acres of grassland and swamp, where animals congregate to drink and socialize.

"The amazing thing about this clearing is that there are more big-tusked elephants here than any place else," says Fay. "We've discovered animals with 40-50 kilos tusks. ...Most of the big tusks have been killed off already, even in relatively deep forest."

It's one thing to see these massive creatures from a perch in the trees, but what about coming face-to-face with them on the ground?

"Usually, they bluff charge, and they try to scare you, and they flare their ears out and 'Rrrroooar.' But they can stop. Many, many times I've had an elephant trunk no more than six inches from my nose and nothing happens," says Fay.

But one particular elephant decided to go all the way. "I turned around and ran and fell after about two steps, and I just had time to turn around and she was already airborne. She was already on the way to stabbing me in the back. And so I caught the tusks on the way down and just went, 'Whooof,'" adds Fay.

"Her eyeball was four inches from my eyeball and we were kind of looking at one another. But then she immediately started trying to stab me with her tusks. I actually got hit 13 times. She was trying to kill me."

Fay says elephants range so far that they fear humans because they know what they can do to them: "I don't think there is a single elephant on the planet any more that doesn't know what a human is because they travel long distances. But gorillas only go 5 or 10 kilometers in a radius. They have never seen human beings."
They're the so-called naïve gorillas, and the two had come a long way to see them. After six days, they had their first sighting, and it was a big one, in which a dominant male known as the Silverback lumbered into the clearing.

"What we've discovered is that the gorillas are not those ferocious beasts that we see in the movies. They're very gentle, very reserved, very thoughtful animals," says Fay, who adds that the only exception is if they are competing for a female's attention.

"The males don't take females. They have to attract them. So what these guys do is they just tear around these clearings back and forth, splashing the water and making a big show. They strut and they look like 'Who's looking at me?' And they can see those girls over there looking at them."

Is there such a thing as a handsome gorilla?

"Absolutely," says Fay. "There are ugly ones, too. A lot of them have scars. Some of them have bright red caps, and some are real buff, real strong and able. It's just like humans, basically."

That night, they camped out in the jungle, near a watering hole. And the next morning, they headed deeper into the jungle – to the densest underbrush. "This is where the gorillas like to be," says Fay. "This is where it's the buggiest and nastiest, but that's where the gorillas love it."

The forest was full of exotic monkeys. Fay says dominant males come in to protect the group. But when Fay crossed these forests for the first time three years ago, what he found truly amazing was the reaction of these gorillas who had never seen people before.

"Gorillas and chimpanzees, when they're completely naïve, they recognize you as a fellow primate. They see your head, they see your arms, they see your fingers, and they think they're just like us, but they're not. There's something different," says Fay.

"They'll actually go get their buddies and say, 'Look at this, man, this is really amazing.' Their great-great-grandparents haven't seen humans, so they can't kind of pass down that fear, that instinct, to say humans are predators and they're bad."

Fay's mission is to protect these animals and to tell the world this forest is threatened. One of his partners took pictures of loggers, cutting down Gabon's valuable trees – 80 miles from where they were. Fay is worried that the same thing could happen there.

Also, poachers have been able to come in because loggers have made it easy for them to penetrate the jungle on the roads that they have carved out. Illegal hunting is now big business.

"Gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, antelope -- they've always been on the menu, but they've never had the ability to kill 100 percent of the animals in the forest before," says Fay. "That's what's changed. They have guns, they have roads, they have transportation, and they have enormous markets that they can go to."
Fay took Amanpour to one of the markets, hundreds of miles away in the capital, Libreville. Here, they found animals just like the ones they had just seen in the wild, sold as bush meat.

Cameras are not welcome there so 60 Minutes had to film some scenes secretly.

"We've got pigs, porcupines, mustache monkey, puddy-nose monkeys, dwarf crocodile. ...That's a chimpanzee, these are piles of chimp meat," says Fay. "Absolutely 100 percent a no-no."

That's because chimpanzees and gorillas are protected species, and it's illegal to hunt them. But they saw their remains in stalls that specialize in traditional medicine and witchcraft.

Fay spotted a gorilla's hand, which is used for power. "These fingers are incredibly strong, so that's where this belief comes from -- because this is probably the strongest hand on earth," says Fay.

"Gorillas are killed for the meat; they are not killed just for the hands. Another problem has been then they sell the orphan babies as well on the open markets."

Fay and his fellow conservationists have rescued many orphan gorillas that have survived hunters and human encroachment all over Gabon. But they've had to find a place to raise them. So they took a boat up-river to their new home - an isolated forest that's been declared a national park.

When Fay started his expedition, Gabon had no national parks, so none of the land was protected. In fact, almost all the forests had already been sold off to the loggers. But Fay stopped all that by personally persuading the president of Gabon to set aside 11 percent of this country as national park land.
Liz Pearson from the John Aspinall Foundation is a surrogate mother to the orphan gorillas – like "Chimbele," the only survivor of a family of 22 naïve gorillas who were slaughtered by poachers.

Pearson is trying to do something no one has ever managed to do before -- return them to the wild. But that's difficult because many of the gorillas that Pearson nursed back to health act just like children.

They don't want to break the bond they've formed, like 5-year-old Ivindo.

"He had a really tough time of it. It took months before we were sure he was gonna stay alive. He was dehydrated, and he had been attached at the waist, so he had deep cuts. It was round-the-clock care," says Pearson.

"Emotionally, gorillas seem to be, they're just very sensitive. And if we don't develop a bond, they won't eat. We say that the lights will go out in their eyes and they die."

Pearson and Fay showed Amanpour another group of gorillas in a nearby clearing that have already been released back into the wild.

Marco is the head of this gorilla clan, and he won't let anyone near the others until he carefully checks them out. In a few years, this gorilla will be a giant Silverback, the dominant male who will sire the next generation.

"Fifty years from now, and most gorillas are gone, experiments like this are gonna be very important," says Fay.

  • Rebecca Leung

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