Gabon: 'Gorillas roam the forests, hippos surf the waves'

Gabon's economy relies on oil and timber but its wildlife could also be a big earner. BBC presenter Kate Humble reports

Hippos don't surf! Yet here in front of me was a photograph of hippos doing exactly that; tumbling about in the waves like characters in a Beryl Cook painting. It was taken in the west African country of Gabon; at that moment I knew I had to go there.

Gabon is blanketed by thick, impenetrable forest, with few roads. Its population of barely a million people live mainly on the coast. As well as surfing hippos, it has mandrills, chimpanzees and the largest number of western lowland gorillas anywhere in the world. Its forests are home to small, feisty forest elephant, neat, compact buffalo and hundreds of species of bird.

For several years the World Conservation Society (WCS) has been working to uncover this country's extraordinary natural treasures. But Gabon is also rich both in oil and timber, the life blood of the country's economy and making good use of these valuable resources puts enormous pressure on the environment and its wildlife. Yet if its wildlife could generate revenue, there would be more reason to protect it. In 2002, Gabon's President Omar Bongo announced that 13 areas, about 10,000 square miles, would be designated as national parks and Gabon was able to take its first tentative steps towards becoming a destination for wildlife tourism.

I stayed in Loango National Park, which has the most developed set-up for tourists. It has a main lodge with pretty cabins on the banks of a lagoon and various more basic camps. The park encompasses forest, open grassland, lagoons, miles of river and untouched beaches, where the footsteps in the sand are more likely to be those of a hippo than a human.

My first game drive took me out into the savannah. I perched on the edge of my seat, clutching my binoculars, waiting for my first glimpse of Gabonese wildlife. Anyone who has been on safari to southern or eastern Africa will be used to great grassy expanses full of four-legged beasts. Yet, the savannah of Gabon appeared, at first, to be completely empty. For half an hour we saw nothing.

Then I spotted shapes against the tree line. Buffalo, but very different from any I'd seen before. These were small and deep auburn in colour, with sharp backward-pointing horns. Some distance on we spotted another group of animals with that startling auburn colour. Known as red river hog, they are bigger and more pig-like than warthog and have startling white markings on their faces and tassels at the end of their droopy ears, making them look like court jesters.

We started to spot more animals: a pair of sitatunga – shy spotted antelope that rarely venture out in the open – drinking at a waterhole, and an elephant, smaller than his southern African counterparts, feeding at the edge of the forest. This is not easy, crowd-pleasing game-viewing. The animals, being less used to the sound of vehicles, are more skittish. But the challenge gives the feeling of being somewhere properly wild.

The following morning I left the main lodge for Akaka, a bush camp 37 miles away down river. The camp consists of a few tents pitched on platforms on the wooded bank above the river; there are plans to upgrade it, but for the moment both the camp and the service from the friendly but inexperienced staff are basic. The setting, however, is wonderful. Sitting outside my tent in the evening, I would catch occasional glimpses of mangabeys feeding in the trees, and at night elephant would often pass right through the camp. Out on the river our eagle-eyed guides would spot small, long-snouted crocodiles and monitor lizards basking in the sun and once, a magnificent python, curled up on a tree stump.

But it is the birdlife that really sets this area apart. Gabon is justifiably famous as a birding destination and one group we met had spotted more than 350 species in just a week. Britain has one species of kingfisher; in Gabon I saw eight. Then there were the storks, ibis, jacanas and pelicans, herons of every size and colour, African grey parrots and hornbills. Palm-nut vultures soared above us, and the haunting, descending notes of the Senegal coucal rang out from the forest.

Exploring Gabon by truck or by boat is one thing, but going into the forest on foot is a quite different experience. The sheer scale of the trees gives the forest the atmosphere of a great, ancient cathedral. It is surprisingly and unnervingly quiet, with only the occasional wing beat of an unseen bird or the soft thud of falling fruit breaking the silence.

My foray on foot was suddenly interrupted by furious trumpeting and the crash of vegetation. An elephant, a lone male, had spotted my group. He smashed through the undergrowth, ears spread, threatening to charge. We stopped, unsure of what to do, until the elephant, trunk up, did charge. "Run!" shouted our guide, and with that we fled blindly through the trees. But as the initial fear subsided we realised that the elephant wasn't chasing us; it was just a warning that we had strayed into a territory where man, as yet, doesn't control everything.

Sadly, though, this can't be said for the whole country. The oil and timber industries result in loss of habitat and make hunting easier and more destructive. There is no agriculture in Gabon; food comes from the rivers and the forest. Where hunters would go into the forest on foot to catch something for the pot, new roads means they can go further and take more.

The bush-meat trade is flourishing, and one of the most highly prized species is gorilla. The sanctuary on Evengue island is where some of the luckier orphans of the victims are rehabilitated. It is impossible not to be enchanted by a young gorilla. They're playful, cheeky, intelligent and highly physical, and I was captivated by the interaction between the young gorillas and their keeper.

Gabon has a long way to go to compete with its African counterparts, but it is an undeniably special place. The development of tourism could benefit both the people and the wildlife, so that gorillas can roam the forests and hippos can surf the waves for generations to come.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Audley (01993 838500; audleytravel.com) offers a nine-day itinerary in Gabon, similar to Kate Humble's, from £3,175 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with Royal Air Maroc via Casablanca, overnight stays in Casablanca and Libreville and six nights at the Loango National Park, transfers, all meals and safari activities.

Further viewing 'Autumnwatch' starts tomorrow at 8pm on BBC2. Visit Kate's website stuffyourrucksack.com and help communities met on your travels

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