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Africa's New Parks
By David Quammen
On the morning of August 1, 2002, in Libreville, Gabon, President El Hadj Omar Bongo summoned his ministers to an urgent meeting. Almost no one except Mr. Bongo knew what was up. Did the government face some sudden financial crunch—related, maybe, to falling petroleum revenues and rising deficits? Was there an international crisis, putting all Africa and the rest of the world on nervous alert? Had civil war broken out again somewhere in the region, central Africa, within which Omar Bongo in the course of his 35-year incumbency had earned a certain reputation as a peacemaker? Would the president undertake a mission of mediation? Even as his ministers gathered in the cabinet room of the presidential palace, they had no idea what the day's business would be.
Adding to their puzzlement was the fact that three outsiders had also turned up for the meeting—a British biologist named Lee White, employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of New York as head of its Gabon program; a Cameroonian biologist named Andre Kamdem Toham, based in Libreville for the World Wildlife Fund; and an American ecologist and explorer, J. Michael Fay, a WCS employee more familiar to some of those present as the "man who walked across Gabon."* The minister of tourism turned to White, an acquaintance, and asked: "What are you doing here?"
The cabinet room is an impressive chamber, big as a tennis court, stately as a church, with two great mahogany tables running up the center. At the front is a raised presidential podium, like a postmodern, minimalist throne. Each of the tables is partitioned into ministerial cubicles equipped with telephones and other electronic communications gear. Large plasma video screens face the tables for audiovisual briefings, with a separate screen positioned to serve the podium. The ministers took their assigned places. After a slight delay, while White and Fay struggled hastily to patch a laptop computer into the room's system, the president entered, a self-possessed man with a wide mustache and a warm smile, looking dapper in a bright yellow business suit. He said nothing. He sat down and, with a nod, signaled his minister of forest economy, Émile Doumba, to start the proceedings. Doumba announced simply that Dr. Fay and Dr. White would address the group on a matter of high interest to the president.
"And so I just launch into my dog and pony show," Mike Fay said, recounting the scene during one of our quiet talks in Libreville months later, his wounds from a recent elephant goring now nearly healed, his zeal undampened by that near-death experience. "The president had a little TV screen in front of his face, and he's staring into it, you know, intently." The ministers soon were engrossed too. Fay, better adapted to bushwhacking through swamps than to cabinet-level politicking, was wearing a jacket and tie borrowed that morning from Lee White's closet. He'd brought his laptop, as he carries it everywhere, stuffed into a day pack. The summons to him and White had come on short notice, and the rushed distraction of solving the computer-compatibility problem had left him little time to gather his thoughts about what he would say. But, having delivered variants of the same spiel already to so many and such various audiences, he wasn't shy about winging it before a council of ministers.
Clicking through a series of striking photos (many of them shot by Michael "Nick" Nichols for the "Megatransect" series) in a PowerPoint presentation, Fay described the extraordinary biological riches residing in the trackless forests, the remote mountains, the inland and coastal waters of Gabon, and the extraordinary opportunity—an economic opportunity as well as a conservation opportunity, considering the potential earnings from ecotourism—that might be seized by protecting those riches within a network of national parks. Click: forest elephant, stern and alert. Click: humpback whale, breaching skyward like a frisky trout. Click: Gaboon viper, its big coppery head so close to the lens you could almost feel the flick of its tongue. Click: granite inselberg, like a great igneous gumdrop, protruding above forest canopy. Click: bulge-eyed hippopotamus, almost unrecognizably strange and serene, riding a wave along the Atlantic coast. "Of course, everyone is blown away by the surfing hippo," Fay told me. This is Gabon, he reminded the ministers. This is your country, like none other on Earth.
"And then Lee gets up," Fay recounted. "He's like the icing on the cake, because he's got video." White's video collage depicted many of the same creatures and places, except that this time the elephants, the hippos, and the whales were in motion, flickering across the plasma screens that served as windows to Gabonese wonders lying not far beyond the walls of that room. From a clearing amid the vast east-central forest, a place known as Langoué Bai, undiscovered until Fay walked through it, there was a startlingly intimate sequence of a female gorilla as she suckled, kissed, and dandled her infant. From a faunal reserve called Lopé, just beyond the Chaillu Massif, came the sight of hundreds of mandrills (monkeys of the species Mandrillus sphinx) in full sprint across a savanna.
Some of his footage (notably the maternal gorilla scene, shot by a visiting activist named Sam LaBudde) was so affecting that White let it roll silently, without commentary. By the time he finished, his presentation plus Fay's had taken more than an hour, and the captive-audience ministers, according to Fay, must have been wondering, Aren't these guys ever going to shut up?
Not quite yet. With the president's permission White launched into a coda, extolling the same grand idea mentioned by Fay: a network of national parks.
One by one he described them—13 magnificently wild areas, 13 prospective parks. They ranged from the seacoast at Gabon's southwestern extremity (Mayumba, a potential marine park) to the inselbergs of Minkébé in the country's northeastern corner. They included the fog-topped mountains northeast of Libreville (Monts de Cristal, with their inordinate botanical diversity) and the pristine forest surrounding Langoué Bai in the upper Ivindo River drainage, harboring big-tusked elephants and unwary gorillas, and gated by tall waterfalls on the Ivindo and several tributaries. It was a menu of options representing a wide variety of species-rich ecosystems, each area meriting consideration for national park status—someday, perhaps. White could speak expertly about these areas, having directed a comprehensive evaluation of them (in collaboration with Andre Kamdem Toham and aided by various Gabonese partners) during the preceding two years, with the encouragement of Richard Onouviet, formerly the forestry minister, who now held another portfolio in the cabinet.
Concluding, White showed a map of Gabon. Outlined on it like giant amoebas were the 13 candidate areas. This is what we think you should do, he told the president and all the president's men. We respectfully recommend that, to conserve biological diversity and promote ecotourism in Gabon, you create such a network of national parks.
Truth be known, White and his colleagues were reaching for pie in the sky. A multiple-parks network was the long-term goal, and 13 components seemed the best-case result for the future. A more immediate objective, far less ambitious but still difficult enough, was to get park status for just the Lopé Reserve. Lopé was one of several Gabonese areas that, as réserves de faune, already enjoyed some protection; but as a national park supported by full management and enforcement mechanisms, with no hunting allowed and no timber extraction, it would be something quite different. Lopé was especially close to White's heart because of his dozen years as a researcher there. With its mandrills, its elephants, its two decades of gorilla and chimpanzee studies, its mysterious archaeological sites suggesting a sizable human population that vanished some centuries ago, and its first-class hotel, it contained a wealth of attractions for Gabonese vacationers, international tourists, and scientists. If any of the 13 areas stood to become Gabon's first modern, genuinely protected national park, it was Lopé. In fact, White and his two colleagues in the cabinet room hoped that President Bongo might be ready—maybe that very day—to sign a decree establishing Lopé National Park.
No one had interrupted their pitch with so much as a question. Afterward, no one spoke. White, Fay, and Toham sat politely. "It was over," Fay recalled, "and the president was beckoning for something." Minister Doumba went to the podium with an elegant folder. Opening it, he showed the president a document—the Lopé decree. The president browsed it, then shook his head. No, he murmured to Doumba. No, that's not what I want. He didn't address the full group, but obviously something wasn't right.
Confusion, consternation, embarrassment. Going to the aid of Doumba, Fay invited himself onto the presidential podium and glanced over the presidential shoulder. Yes sir, that's it, that's the Lopé decree, he affirmed. Fay could intervene so presumptuously because, based on a single previous meeting and on the media coverage of his Megatransect, President Bongo had taken a shine to him—the crazed American, the wild child who footed his way across all those nearly impassable forests and swamps, who sat half naked atop the inselbergs, who brought back photos and tales of a Gabon that Omar Bongo himself hadn't known existed. But even Fay couldn't appease Mr. Bongo at this moment.
Frustrated, the president spoke. I want the whole thing, he said. Not just Lopé. I want the network. Minister Doumba, poor man, was unprepared for this leap. What network? I want the network they just described, said the president. There is no verbatim transcript, but by all accounts he made himself clear. I want 13 decrees establishing 13 new national parks. I meant to sign them today. Get on it. And then, with a faint wave to Fay and White, barely a word to anyone else, President Bongo strolled out of the room.
The others remained, looking stunned and vaguely bewildered. "It was kind of an anticlimax," Fay told me later. "We thought, My God, what happened there?"
Elvis had left the building. The music had been transcendent, but there were no autographs.
On an afternoon in January of this year, near the start of the long rainy season, Lee White and I took off in a small plane from a grass airstrip in central Gabon and headed eastward, 600 feet (183 meters) above the treetops. Beneath us, in a paisley pattern of savanna clearings, strips of gallery forest along streams, and bosquets (patches of isolated forest), lay the area formerly known as Réserve de Okanda-Lopé. The verdant forest patches and strips were spackled with bright globes of sumac red, auburn, and bloodshot orange, indicating the scattered individuals of a single tree species, Lophira alata, collectively marking the seasonal change with their rubicund new vegetation. It was a delicate spectacle, like the Smoky Mountains in early October when the maples have gone crimson but the buckeyes and oaks are still green. Yes, the Lophira, remarked White, they do seem uncommonly well synchronized this year. An intense man with an unassuming manner, laconic but not blasé, he sat at an open baggage hatch in the back of the plane, without a seat belt or harness, shooting video of the pretty trees.
We passed above the Offoué River, a modest squiggle of brown, near its confluence with the much larger Ogooué. The Ogooué, one of central Africa's great waterways, sharing a divide with the Congo River, oozed seaward from the Gabonese interior like an enormous runnel of gravy. The little Offoué serves as the east boundary, and the mighty Ogooué the north, of what is now Lopé National Park. The decree of establishment for Lopé, along with 12 other such decrees, was signed by President Bongo on August 30, 2002, less than a month after the cabinet-room meeting.
The ink is dry and the parks network is reality—at least on paper, as a matter of law. This 13-park initiative, which Mr. Bongo himself announced last September at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, potentially (mark that word) constitutes one of the most significant conservation actions since March 1872, when another president, Ulysses S. Grant, signed a bill from the American Congress establishing Yellowstone National Park, the world's first. The Gabonese parks reflect a visionary decision grounded in economic pragmatism. After decades of heavy reliance on petroleum and timber industries, Mr. Bongo said, "we are left with little oil in the ground, a fragmented forest, dwindling income, and a burden of debt." The next growth sector of his nation's economy, he vowed, would be "one based on enjoying, not extracting, natural resources."
Whether or not the Gabonese enterprise achieves that potential will depend on the rigor and sagacity of the follow-through. And the follow-through will depend partly on the strength of international assistance. In that arena, early signs are hopeful. During the same week as Mr. Bongo's announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also visited the Johannesburg summit and made a complementary declaration: The United States intends to contribute 53 million dollars within a four-year period to a collaborative effort called the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, in support of natural resource management in six countries of the central African region. A healthy share of the American money will likely go to Gabon. With additional help from other developed nations (including France, Germany, and Japan), and from some nongovernmental organizations (notably the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund), Gabon should be able to create the training programs, the infrastructure developments, the management and enforcement regimes necessary to make the parks gambit a tangible success, both in economic terms (through ecotourism) and for conservation. If that success does come, it will be huge.
Lopé National Park alone comprises 1,919 square miles (4,970 square kilometers) of savanna and forest landscape, and the entire network totals 11,294 square miles (29,251 square kilometers), or 11 percent of the land surface of the country. Percentagewise this puts Gabon neck and neck with Costa Rica, whose national parks support a thriving ecotourism industry. But Gabon is five times as large as Costa Rica, and its equatorial forests and wetlands are known to be teeming with life. The sheer sum of natural assets within its 13 new parks, including known species of high concern (such as the forest elephant, the western lowland gorilla, the dwarf crocodile, the chimpanzee) as well as animal and plant forms yet undiscovered, is incalculably large. With the president's decision last year, Gabon has pledged to become one of the world's leading stewards of biological diversity.
Lopé is a central piece of the parks network, not just geographically but also because of its well-established research station and its classy hotel. But our January reconnaissance flight took White and me eastward to another new park, Ivindo, one of the least known and most intriguing of the 13. Still at low elevation, we followed the Ogooué upstream into Gabon's deep interior, the river's riffles and small islands slipping behind us, its banks heavily forested except for the occasional glimpse of a railroad line or a tawny clay road.
Once we'd passed over the town of Booué, with its airstrip and logging yard, we saw almost no signs of human presence. The Ivindo River, a major Ogooué tributary, was easy to recognize—a big blackwater channel pouring in from the north, dark with tannins leached from detrital mulch in the swamps and seasonally flooded forests that it drains. From overhead, as we crossed the mix zone of the waters, I noticed that the black disappears quickly into the brown, like some precious decoction of wildness diluted into a world of muddled striving and erosion. You can't bottle that stuff—another reason the world needs national parks. Blackwater without the natural sumps that generate it, the creatures that lurk in it, the time and repose necessary to distill it, is just cold tea.
Stay with the Ogooué, I told our pilot through the headphone radio. Twenty miles on we spotted what we were looking for: another blackwater river, smaller, this one known as the Djidji. We followed it upstream, the plane carving to and fro along a gently undulant approximation of the river's serpentine course. We gazed down at one set of minor chutes—a rocky cascade totaling 40 feet (12 meters) of vertical drop—and soon afterward passed the invisible boundary into Ivindo National Park.
The next set of chutes appeared major even from our vantage circling above it. Abruptly, from a lip of quiet water screened by trees, the Djidji River drops nearly 200 feet (60 meters), its volume split into five fingers that clench down over the rocky face like a grasping hand, each finger a frothy channel punctuated by ledge holes and rooster tails, plummeting to an explosion of foam at the bottom. After three circuits we continued upstream, where the river's surface again was as sleek as an ebony table. The chutes seem to mark an escarpment of some sort, above which the Djidji winds sedately across a flat, thickly forested plateau. All we could see beneath us, around us, to the horizon in every direction, was unbroken canopy in its thousand shades of green and, through it, a thin slash of black.
Langoué Bai, the hidden clearing discovered by Fay, with its concentrations of elephants and gorillas, lay dozens of miles to the south. Lee White himself had led the field team that hiked to that bai, after Fay had put it on the map, and established a continuous monitoring effort. But the approach to Langoué, via an old road and then three days of hard bushwhacking, is from another direction. White hadn't visited these mysterious precincts of the upper Djidji—flown over them, yes, but never gotten on the ground —and he shared my curiosity about what's down there. Early observations at Langoué, he told me, suggest that the elephants drawn to the bai (for succulent vegetation, water, salt, or whatever) make some sort of seasonal migration away. They disappear when the rains end. Where have they gone? Our guess, he said, is that they come here during dry season to the marshy, provident flatlands of the upper Djidji. It might be the last unprobed hideout of Gabon's biggest tuskers.
But no one knows that for fact. The work of data gathering at Langoué Bai has barely begun, and the exploration of the surrounding watersheds, including the Djidji River above the chutes, is another urgently tantalizing task on a list of many. Ivindo National Park, like some of the others, is still a black box of uninventoried treasures.
The Gabon parks story, like the chutes of the Djidji, entails a number of split but converging branches. Some of them have meandered through channels far from Libreville. Months before Omar Bongo's surprise announcement, a diverse cast of players was performing its varied roles in a complicated narrative, with scenes and subplots set in Washington, Paris, and elsewhere, all leading toward a two-tiered result: Gabon's bold initiative and, as its wider context, the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.
The Washington subplot included a significant moment in the early days of George W. Bush's presidency when, on June 4, 2001, Walter H. Kansteiner III was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Kansteiner had been a commodity trader with a long-standing professional interest in African products (cocoa, coffee, sugar) and a personal interest in African landscapes and issues before taking an earlier post, with the first Bush Administration, on the staff of the National Security Council. At his swearing-in ceremony for the assistant secretaryship, he spoke of five priorities that he felt should guide American policy toward Africa: improved standards of living, democratic institutions, support for the fight against AIDS, conflict resolution, and "the environment," by which vague term he meant not just breathable air and drinkable water but also the conservation of species and ecosystems. How to deal with such vast concerns? Kansteiner was open to good ideas where he might find them.
Another crucial player was Dave Barron, a richly experienced behind-the-scenes networker who serves as a government-affairs adviser to several African leaders, including President Bongo. Through Barron, the assistant secretary met Mike Fay and heard about the urgent possibilities that existed in Gabon. Grasping that those possibilities were both real and large, Kansteiner provided support—first in the form of seed money, later by bringing Gabon's initiative to the attention of his boss, Colin Powell. Also through Dave Barron, Fay got the attention of another key State Department honcho, John Turner, the assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Kansteiner, Turner, their deputies and staffs, and the newly appointed American ambassador to Gabon, Ken Moorefield, all became energized toward involving the Bush Administration somehow in support of conservation in the central African region.
Barron worked meanwhile to bring some allies from Congress into the mix. On short notice he organized a private dinner at the Capitol Hill Club for about 60 people, at which the wine was good, the food was decent, and the marquee performers were Mike Fay and Nick Nichols, who together did what Barron recalls as "a brilliant dog and pony show." Like the later one for President Bongo's cabinet, this show featured soulful gorillas in place of dogs, body-surfing hippos instead of ponies. Although it was a business-suit sort of event in a tony Washington club, Fay went tieless and jacketless in a wrinkled plaid shirt. The evening reached an inspirational climax when, after Fay had spoken again about ecotourism economics, Representative Clay Shaw of Florida stood up and gave impassioned testimony to the conviction that, pragmatics aside, America should nurture conservation efforts in Africa because it's flat-out the right thing to do. When the dinner ended, there was a consensus of certitude that something should, could, and would be done.
American commitment to the Congo Basin Forest Partnership took form quietly during the summer of 2002. Mike Fay stayed closely involved, drafting memos on his laptop even during a week spent chimpanzee-watching with Jane Goodall at a remote forest camp in the Republic of the Congo and e-mailing them off to Washington by satellite phone through a gap in the forest canopy. It all came to culmination when Omar Bongo and Colin Powell made their consecutive announcements in early September in Johannesburg. For the Bush Administration, pledging 53 million dollars for Congo Basin forest protection may have seemed both an honest, generous act of principle and a relatively cheap way of blunting criticisms—from among the assembled delegates at Johannesburg, and around the world—that its postures on environmental agreements and its performance on conservation issues had been almost uniformly truculent and bad. To reaffirm his own earnestness, Secretary Powell stopped in Gabon before flying home, for a cordial meeting in Libreville to congratulate President Bongo and then a brief walk through the woods with Mike Fay.
The coastal forest where Powell and Fay took their stroll lies within another of the new national parks, Pongara. Whatever convergence of politics and principles brought these two unusual men together, in that wild place, on that day, doesn't matter so much as the question of what tangible results the Congo Basin Forest Partnership will yield, not just in Gabon but among the neighboring countries—Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa). Colin Powell's outing with Mike Fay was less than a transect (let alone a megatransect) and more than a photo op. It was a signal moment in conservation history, and this time even the secretary of state wasn't wearing a jacket.
During my visit in January, President Bongo was occupied with regional diplomacy, helping mediate a fierce civil conflict in Ivory Coast. The newspapers were full of it. The presidential jet zoomed in and out of Libreville. Unable to reach the busy president, I spoke instead with some of his ministers and other high advisers, among whom the most engagingly candid was the minister of defense, Ali Ben Bongo, who happens also to be one of the president's sons. Educated in Paris, Ali Ben is a heavyset man in his middle 40s who wears his family status and professional role lightly. I tagged along in his Super Puma helicopter during a daylong inspection visit to another of the new parks—Loango, along the southwestern coast—and shared a casual lunch overlooking the water with him, his wife, Mike Fay, and a small entourage.
Then the Super Puma carried us off again, farther down the coast, with Fay at the minister's elbow pointing out elephants and buffalo amid the forest clearings. In the back of the chopper, the minister's chief of staff tapped me excitedly on the shoulder and pointed to movement in a small clump of trees: Look, Monsieur David, chimpanzees. Appreciating nature has become a national priority.
At the end of the day, Ali Ben Bongo and I sat aside for a few minutes of private talk. Not long before the cabinet-room meeting back in August, Ali Ben told me, his father gave him an inkling of what to expect. The president had seen all those new photos of Gabonese wildlife, he had met Fay, he had watched the National Geographic Television film Africa Extreme about the Megatransect. The images came as revelations. Because Gabon is still 75 percent jungle and has a small population and few roads, the president's family, like most of the affluent class, had done their traveling across it mainly by airplane. They seldom drove, Ali Ben said, and they certainly didn't walk through the forests and swamps. But then his father saw what Fay had seen—and he decided to do something.
The next crucial steps will be to organize effective management structures, train people for those management roles, establish real protection for the areas, and help Gabon's populace understand the importance of this initiative.Financial support, coming from the U.S. and other friends through the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, will be crucial. But the partners must realize, Ali Ben said, that Gabon itself—no one else—will define the goals and the methods of this parks initiative.
The defense minister added a personal note. When he was a teenager, raised in the palace and privileged to travel, he once visited the San Diego Zoo. There, for the first time in his life, he saw a Gaboon viper. It fascinated him and piqued his pride, but it also triggered an unease about the disconnection between creature and place. To see this formidable Gabonese snake, he'd had to go to California? "We don't want to get to a situation," he said now, "where we'd have to go to Europe, or the U.S., to see in zoos some of our own wildlife that have become extinct here." Better to preserve what Gabon has been given, in a superb network of parks such as his father has decreed, and let the world come to visit the snake.
"Imagine," said Ali Ben Bongo, "the third millennium. And we Gabonese still have a country to discover."