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Thrills, Perils, And Mandrills

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Dr David Lehmann. (Photo By Ramdas Iyer)

Deep inside Gabon’s forests, under the harsh equatorial sun, the joy of seeing a mandrill in its habitat is a prize that cannot be missed. And one man is helping in the preservation of these vanishing primates.

IN SEARCH OF AFRICA’S LAST EDEN, my recent wildlife expedition to Gabon was organized under the auspices of Antonio Anoro of Gabon Untouched, an NGO dedicated to sustainable development through conservation and community tourism. While planning my foray into several national parks to observe wildlife prevalent in Gabon, the sighting of mandrills (the largest species of monkeys) was indeed a priority. Since the shy and reclusive mandrills are found only in tropical rain forest habitats, thick bush, and secondary forests, it is almost impossible to spot them with an untrained eye.

I therefore got in touch with Dr David Lehmann, a French-born ‘extreme’ field biologist and mandrill expert, who has been working in Gabon for over two years now. An expert in wildlife capture, he is also developing sustainable ecotourism projects, including providing specialized training for international and national trackers, guides, and researchers. He lives in a camp deep inside Lopé National Park, home to the largest ever recorded mandrill horde of over 1,000 in one location at a time.

 When he indicated that he was available, I traveled by boat, road, and rail, in order to reach Lopé National Park from Ivindo National Park, home to the world-famous Langoue Baie, where elephants, gorillas, sitatunga and buffalo gather by the dozens at this salt lick. Since Lehmann had just returned from France after four weeks in Europe, he mentioned that his bearings on the mandrill troupe that he had GPS radio-collared were a bit tricky. In light of my arrival, despite jet lag and hard travel, he set out with his GPS-radio tracking antenna to get their relative position for easy access the following day.

Early the next morning, we drove in his battered Land Cruiser several miles into the park and up a small hillock with his assistant, Gabriel, to assess the location of a radio-collared group. As we were gearing up for the trek, the conversation suddenly turned serious when Lehmann turned to me and said,

“You stay close between Gabe and me at all times. If a male gorilla attacks, look down and stay in a submissive posture close to the ground. If an elephant charges, run in a zigzag pattern and find a large bush or rock to avoid it. It will stop the chase after 30 meters. And lastly, if a buffalo charges, I will let you know what to do at that time.”

I realized that this was not playtime, but a serious foray into Gabon’s largest park at 4,900sqkm in size.

 After a good hour’s walk up and down the undulating savannah, we almost reached the forest edge when we heard horrible, shrill sounds. Lehmann immediately checked the GPS tracker and realized that the mandrills we were following had scattered during a chimpanzee attack, one of their main predators during the day (and it is leopards at night). We walked back for nearly an hour to the vehicle after wasting a good four hours trying to find them.

 The mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) is one of the most colorful animals in the world. This monkey species inhabits a very small portion of central Africa and ranges from south Cameroon to the north of Congo. The country of Gabon, therefore, represents 80% of its distribution range.

Wild mandrill males have a technicolor butt and face that glow in the shadows as if they carry their own light sources, while females are typically colorless. But the variation in color is not the only difference between male and female mandrills. Males are typically three times bigger than females (by around 10 kg).

 While discussing his research, Lehmann added: “If they have such a difference in morphology, we can expect that they have different lifestyles. Indeed, you might need to feed on more nutritive food sources if you are all beefed up and need to constantly fight for females. Females are part of the troupe of more than several hundred monkeys that always move around the forest to find food, while males are more solitary and are only present in the group during the breeding season. Since the equatorial forest of Gabon is influenced by global warming, we are also investigating if the changes in the health of the forest will impact one sex more than another, and thus, the survival of the whole species.”

 After a quick break, we drove through rutted tracks to an area where Lehmann believed these monkeys could have regrouped. Our GPS tracker indicated their presence was reachable by a solid walk through several hillocks and gallery forests about an hour or so away, in the blazing sun. We set about this task, finally reaching an amazing gallery forest with flowing water. Not only were we refreshed by the cool waters, the shade was a good few degrees below the equatorial sun. However, walking along streams in gallery forests can be fairly slow, and keeping up with the ever-moving and feeding mandrills became a foot race. Finally, the joy of seeing an unusual species in their habitat was a prize that could not be missed.

 There has been a drastic decline in the mandrill population outside national parks in recent years due to habitat destruction. They are especially vulnerable to hunters because of their loud calls. Mandrills are hunted as a local food source in several areas. Currently, mandrills occupy forests at a very low density and are poorly protected, if at all. As a result, they may be threatened with complete extinction in the wild.

 This brought me to the subject of Lehmann’s research. 

Photo by Ramdas Iyer

“We catch and release these animals after placing a GPS collar around their necks so that we can track the utilization of their natural habitat. Capturing wild primates is extremely challenging; we have thus pioneered new ways to immobilize them while guaranteeing their safety. We also collect biological samples to analyze their diet, correlate it with their movements and with the temporal changes in forest health,” he explained.

 After nine hours of mandrill tracking, we arrived at the lodge to find a cold beer and talk about his conservation work and the impact it was having. Lehmann mentioned that the publicity arising from the ecotourism project also increases the frequentation of foreigners to Lopé National Park, providing socio-economic benefits to the local community. 

“Our results have shown that our focal group of mandrills spends ninety-five percent of its time roaming within the buffer zone of the park. We provide the Gabonese national parks agency with recommendations in adjusting park boundaries. We will provide habitat management recommendations to the mandrill range state governments for inclusion in their forest national management guidelines. Our detailed analysis of how environmental parameters are influencing mandrill movements will enable us to make first predictions about the vulnerability of the species to oncoming climate-driven environmental change.”

Dr Joseph Okoye, Director of Parcs Gabon (ANPN) whom I met en route from Ivindo where he was on a forest patrol inspection, when asked about mandrill conservation, mentioned: “For a species with such a restricted global distribution, this is of importance for international assessments of the species which is in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List as a conservation priority.”

 In choosing to write this article, I wanted to expose the amount of basic research conducted to protect our biodiversity on earth. Lehmann works in a remote outpost with minimal comforts, constantly searching for funding and often interacting with officials like Okoye who provide Parcs Gabon support for his work. Thanks to European Union funding, he is helping in the preservation of one of the planet’s vanishing species.

Photo by Ramdas Iyer

By Ramdas Iyer

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