Gorilla Wild: Face-to-Face in Africa for a New TV Film

Brian Handwerk
for Ultimate Explorer
August 15, 2003

Ultimate Explorer: Gorilla Wild
Sunday, August 17, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC

Humans and gorillas share much of the same genetic makeup—but that doesn't mean they always get along. Researchers in the dense tropical forests of the Central African Republic are working to bring the two species together for ecotourism. Ensuring that the animals are worth more alive than dead may be their only shot at survival.

Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) are a familiar species often exhibited in zoos. Yet because the animals are difficult to approach scientists know little about their lives in the wild. Even for an experienced primatologist, a first face-to-face encounter with a 400-pound (181-kilogram) gorilla can be a bit unnerving.

"I generally work with primates all over the world," said Ultimate Explorer correspondent Mireya Mayor, who recently visited the World Wildlife Fund's Gorilla Habituation Project in the Dzanga-Sangha protected area. "It has never been as painstaking as this habituation process."

"The first time I was charged by one of these gorillas, even though I knew that it was likely a bluff, it was terrifying," she explained. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that. They are letting you know who is the boss. But I already knew who was the boss; it was very clear from their sheer size and power."

Leading the habituation project is Chloe Cipolletta, a 32-year-old Italian conservationist who's a leading expert on western lowland gorillas. Chloe has been in Dzanga-Sangha for five years, studying where gorillas travel, how and when they forage, what they eat, and what factors affect their overall health. In the process, she's getting very close to some powerful animals that are becoming accustomed to her human presence.

Mayor profiled Cipolletta's research for the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer television documentary Gorilla Wild.

The Dzanga-Sangha protected area system features some 1,250 square miles (3,200 square kilometers) of dense tropical forests punctuated with saline clearings called bais, where many animals congregate.

The bais also offer a rare opportunity to get close to gorillas. In Africa's mountainous regions, both mountain gorillas and researchers benefit from topography. They can see one another from a distance, hillside to hillside, and researchers can gradually move closer as gorillas became used to their presence.

Richard Carroll, director of Africa Programs for the World Wildlife Fund, knew that the bais were promising for similar research in the low-lying forests when he first came across the then unprotected Dzanga-Sangha area as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1980.

"In lowland forests, by the time you generally come upon a gorilla it is already in flight-or-fight mode," Carroll said. "And usually it's flight; they take off. Actually you know you're making progress when they charge you, because it means they are getting a bit more used to your being there."

Building Gorilla Trust a Risk Worth Taking

Continued on Next Page >>


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