Visiting Africa’s Eden

 The moment I fell in love with Gabon was when my companions and I walked along the beach at sunset: an endless strip of white sand with no one in sight as far as the eye could see in any direction. Then we spotted movement, and we realized we were sharing the beach after all.

With three elephants.

The elephants had an animated conversation among themselves, presumably about the rare sighting of human beings, then ambled off into the rain forest to tell their friends.

Gabon has plenty of problems, including corruption and misspent oil revenues, but it is also covered by dense, uninhabited forest teeming with wildlife. In 2002, the government set aside more than one-tenth of the country for national parks – in one step, making Gabon a leader in wildlife conservation.

“Gabon is definitely a special place,” said Sebastiaan Verhage, an official here with the World Wildlife Fund, which is helping Gabon preserve its parks. “Where else do you see elephants roaming on the beach, buffalo on the beach, hippos in the surf, humpback whales mating just off the coast, the most important leatherback turtle nesting site in the world, one of the few last refuges for lowland gorillas? Its name of ‘the last Eden,’ ‘the last paradise on earth’ – that’s not too far-fetched.”

President Ali Ben Bongo, who took over last year from his late father, seems enthusiastic about developing a “Green Gabon.” He told me he would like to deepen the environmental protections and build up infrastructure so that Gabon can become an eco-tourism destination.

For now, that’s a problem. Gabon set aside the parks partly in hopes of diversifying its economy (it is dependent on oil, which is slowly running out) and becoming an African version of Costa Rica, bringing in revenue from tourism. But so far the economic bet isn’t paying off.

Very few foreign tourists are coming, because of the distance and the lack of modern hotels. I ate lunch at one of the restaurants aiming for tourists, and afterward saw the staff cleaning our plates in the lagoon.

What’s more, thick forest isn’t great terrain to spot wildlife. On one walk along an elephant trail, I smelled elephants all around us but never actually spotted them. But here in the rain forest, humans seem less the masters of the ecosystem than components of it, along with others. Like gorillas.

I ran into Chloe Cipolletta, a gorilla expert I had met in the Central African Republic in 2006 .Cipolletta was advising on a plan to bring tourists to visit gorillas in Gabon, and she mentioned offhand that some primates self-medicate herbally.

Development experts have been raving in recent years about the health benefits of deworming people in poor countries – but gorillas are way ahead of us. There is a furry forest plant that gorillas occasionally eat, despite evident distaste, making faces and spitting bits of it out. So why do they eat it? Cipolletta said the plant turns out to be a natural medication that kills intestinal parasites, and the gorillas are deworming themselves.

One sobering truth is that the people who gush about gorillas or elephants usually are Americans and Europeans. For local people, many of them very poor despite the country’s oil wealth, conservation can be an inconvenience. While visiting Loango, we encountered an outspoken young village chief, Evelyne Kinga, who protested that she’d rather elephants were dead than eating her cassava plants.

That’s a real tension, and I don’t know whether Gabon can pull this off and monetize its spectacular forest the way it could monetize timber. But for the world’s sake, I’m hoping that it will.

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