A visit to the equatorial African wildlife reserve of la Lopé, Gabon

In the heart of Gabon is a fascinating wildlife reserve known as the Réserve de la Lopé. This is one of the few places in Africa where a visitor has the chance of encountering a western lowland gorilla, a family of chimpanzees or a band of the colourful forest baboons called Mandrills. A variety of other animals, such as the small forest race of African elephants, dwarf forest buffalo, several types of antelope and many monkeys are more easily seen.

The reserve can be reached by bush taxi or train from Libreville, or by chartering a small plane. Our group of 15 set off in a chartered Twin Otter (this was February 1995) from the town of Gamba in south Gabon. Ahead of us was a one-hour flight towards the centre of the country. The flight traversed a vast extent of the forest, which covers most (about three quarters) of the country, the ground becoming hillier towards the northeast. On the way we saw beneath us the orange-red laterite road to Lambaréné, famous for Albert Schweitzer’s hospital, and meandering streams snaking through the forest. Approaching the Ogooué River the first small grassland clearings since Gamba made their appearance. Then, as the river and the Libreville-Franceville railway came into view, we saw the Lodge de la Lopé, a neat collection of bungalows with green roofs. The plane came in to land, passing a hill known as Mount Brazza (after the 19th Century explorer of this area, Savorgnan de Brazza) and  crossing the Ogooué, here studded with outcrops of ancient basement gneisses, part of the Congo Craton.



Accommodation is comfortable and air conditioned with a fine view of the river and surrounding hills. Four excursions were organized. Two of these were on foot through the forest, one by Landrover and one by boat to an archaeological site on the banks of the Ogooué River. The excursions are guided by very knowledgeable local Gabonese staff of ECOFAC (ECOlogie Forestière d’Afrique Centrale).

Wildlife in the reserve is certainly harder to find than in the reserves of South or East Africa, but between us we saw a good selection. In the forest we encountered four species of monkeys. These were: large families of Black Colobus (Colobus satanas); Greater Spot-nosed Monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans nictitans); the smaller Moustached Monkey (Cercopithecus  cephus); and the Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Cercocebus albigena). The dominant male of the mangabey group made a spectacular display by rushing to the top of a tree, shaking branches on the way. He then struck a noble pose in profile, right at the very apex, with his tail curved over his head. Apart from the monkeys we also caught glimpses of antelopes (duikers and bushbuck) and a single gorilla disappearing into the bush. We heard how progress in accustoming these lowland gorillas to human observers had recently come to a halt when “Porthos” the silverback of the principal study group died in 1993 after an attack by another male and his family then dispersed. Amongst the forest birds to be seen were the colourful Great Blue Touraco (shimmering metallic green-blue with brilliant yellow beaks), glossy black Drongos and the Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill.

A further attraction of the forest walks was the impressive knowledge of the guides (although you need to speak French). As well as being founts of information on the animals and trees, they took us on a kind of gourmand’s tour, showing us the favourite fruits of gorillas, chimps, mandrills, monkeys and elephants. We tasted many of these and some were delicious.

On the rolling savannas we saw dwarf forest buffalo, forest elephant, bushbuck and sitatunga in addition to a great variety of birds, including many parrots, bee-eaters, hornbills, whydahs and raptors. Walking closer to a group of buffalo wallowing in a mud pool we found fresh gorilla prints, but the makers of these tracks were nowhere to be seen.

The elephants make striking compositions in a background of green vegetation. These are not the Savanna elephants so easily seen by tourists in east and southern Africa, but the smaller forest subspecies (Loxodonta africana cyclotis). Watching one group of elephants a backdrop of sound was provided by a fantastically loud pant hoot argument amongst a group of chimpanzees in the adjacent forest. A bat hawk hovered overhead.

A highlight of one savannah trip was an encounter with a group of chimpanzees crossing a gap between two blocks of forest. At first we thought they were gorillas since their style of knuckle walking is very similar. As we came closer one old grey-backed chimpanzee remained in a frozen crouching position watching us with as much curiosity as we were watching him. Suddenly he broke his pose, placed a hand on his head and sat down, looking away from us. Standing up, he calmly walked off into the forest. Magical!




The boat trip was an exciting ride along the rocky Ogooué to see recently discovered prehistoric rock engravings. The art consists of engravings on rounded gneissic boulders and is thought to be about two thousand or more years old. We saw engravings of shields, weapons, civet cat skins and lizards. We were fortunate to have Richard Oslisly, the archaeologist who has been studying the site, staying at the lodge. He accompanied one of the trips and was an enthusiastic guide. He described evidence for an early iron-smelting culture, which replaced the previous stone-working culture with no intermediate development of copper and bronze working technologies.

Early on the Monday morning half of our group climbed Mount Brazza, past a small forest where gorillas have been seen. Instead of gorillas, we saw a squirrel, a monkey, a pair of green parrots, and then, walking up the ridge to the top, we were treated to the rare sight of a Yellow-backed Duiker (Cephalophus silvicultor), largest of the duiker group of antelopes, at a distance of only a few metres. As we watched, it shot off down the hill and eventually reached the safety of the forest.  The views from the top were spectacular. To the south we could look out across the Reserve de la Lopé with its patchwork of savannas and low, forested hills. To the north was a view of the tortuous route of the Ogooué River, a layer of white clouds and, above their tops, the apparently floating peaks of a range of mountains.

The place is scenically beautiful and varied, the accommodation and food excellent, and the excursions fascinating. The animals are not always as abundantly visible as in the game parks of eastern and southern Africa, but this is a place for those who appreciate the rarer experience and the subtle richness of this mosaic of rainforest and savanna ecosystems.


When to go: In the dry season (May to July), there are generally fewer animals about, but there is always the chance of seeing a large horde of mandrills. September to November are often good months, coinciding with the fruiting of the Ozouga tree (Sacoglottis gabonensis), favourite food of the elephants, in the western part of the reserve.

How to get there? Take the train from Libreville to La Lopé, hire a four-wheel drive, take a bush taxi or charter a small plane.

General Safety and health advice: Mosquito repellant and antimalarials!

Reading:

Christy, P. & Clarke, W. 1994. Guide des Oiseaux de la Réserve de la Lopé. ECOFAC Gabon.

White, L. & Abernathy, K. 1996. Guide de la végétation de la Réserve de la Lopé, Gabon. ECOFAC.



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