Some Gorilla Highlights While I’m Stuck in DC

On the 10th of December, rebels took over three towns in the north of the country. At the time, no one really knew whether this was cause for serious concern. In what turned out to be quite fortunate timing, I was already planning on going home for the winter holidays. On the 11th, I caught a ride from Bayanga (the village near camp) to Bangui (the capital) on a plane hired by journalists who had just left a town that rebels had entered, but not yet taken over (they eventually did). I flew home the following day. Since then, the rebels have taken over a dozen towns and are only about 45 miles from the capital. The rebels consist of a coalition (the Séléka alliance) of four existing Central African rebel groups and according to some reports, foreign mercenaries and child soldiers. The Séléka rebels claim that they are taking up their arms again because the government has not held up their end of the 2007 peace agreements. 

Several countries have sent in troops to support the government and peace talks have just started in nearby Gabon. I don’t have the slightest clue how this will play out. The most significant obstacle to peace that I see is the fact that President Bozizé refuses to step down until he finishes his current term, while the rebels are demanding that he relinquish power as a precondition for peace talks. 

News was sparse until late December and there is still disappointingly little information coming out of the country about what the situation is like on the ground. This article is the only one I’ve read that offers an actual analysis of what’s going on. I found this interesting fictional essay written by an African writer that perhaps reflects the general fed-up attitude of Africans towards delusional despots. The quote below from President Bozizé today on why he won’t step down highlights his questionable grasp on reality. Keep in mind that he seized power through a coup, that the 2011 elections were prooobably fraudulent, and that the CAR ranked 144th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

“That would be a betrayal of my country. That would betray the people who elected me. This is the defence of democracy, the defence of the constitution. To do nothing says we’re turning to the law of the jungle.”

Until it’s safe for me to return, I am stuck in DC. So… here are some pictures! 


Sopo horsing around. 


Some elephants whose path we crossed. 


Kunga chewing on some kiyeye (all plant names that I know are in Ba’aka, so don’t ask me for the scientific or even English name). 


Sopo sits in the lap of Mosoko, his half-sister, while they curiously observe the newborn. Baby Ngombo, full-brother of Mosoko, is on mother’s Malui’s stomach.


Malui, still pregnant here, crossing a stream. This was taken immediately after this video


Makumba hanging out near Malui and the newborn. 


A colorful group of dung-ingesting butterflies.


Bokata, a few feet away from me. 


Mobangui (left) and Sopo at play.


A bai before the morning mist cleared. 

As much as I am enjoying being back in civilization, I do miss it. Let’s hope things go back to “normal” soon! 


Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo went through a phase where he would just follow Makumba around, performing silly acrobatics which in my eyes appear to be an attempt to get Makumba’s attention.  Here’s a sweet moment in which Sopo swings from a branch, earning a mere glance over the shoulder from his apathetic father.

Makumba in Action

Makumba in Action

This is probably the best footage I got in the past few months, featuring Makumba walking on two feet across a stream with a branch in his mouth—complete with a piercing look right into the camera as he passes by about 8 feet away.

Best seen in HD on the Vimeo site itself (click on “Vimeo”). This is raw, unedited footage so if anyone has any tips or suggestions it would be much appreciated!

Baby Ngombe’s Internet Debut!

On November 19th, Malui gave birth to a much anticipated baby. The trackers, who get the honors of naming all the individuals, decided to name it “Ngombe” after the type of tree in which they believe the baby was born (how they know, we have no idea—the baby was born during the night).

The first time I went to see the family after the baby’s birth, the baby proved to be very tricky to see. Malui, understandably, is very protective of her new child. The last time she was pregnant, she gave birth to a stillborn child that she stubbornly carried around for a couple of days. Gorillas are known to sometimes “mourn” their dead for days after.


First, we got a glimpse of an ear…


Then, his face!


With a little patience, we finally got a good look at him. He has a furry tuft of hair on his head, but his body is otherwise naked just like a human baby!


According to the textbooks, newborn babies are carried on their mothers’ stomach. But Malui has always preferred carrying hers on her back. That’s a smear of baby poop on the left of Ngombe.


Ngombe, like his siblings, seems to have inherited his mother’s nose. Nevertheless, he’s an adorable little thing. Can you believe people used to eat gorillas? And they still do, though thankfully much less often. More pictures coming soon!

Meet the Makumbas

I’ve been slowly learning to distinguish each of the nine individuals in Makumba’s family. Here’s an introduction to each of them, so you can get to know the nine souls with which I spend all my time!

Makumba, the silverback, has two females: Malui, who is heavily pregnant, and Mopambi. Malui has two children: Mosoko, a juvenile female, and Tembo, a four-year-old male. Mopambi also has two offspring, Bokata (also a juvenile female) and Sopo, a two-year-old infant whose sex is yet to be determined. There are two males whose mothers left the group, Mobangui and Kunga.

I tried to find the most clear photos I have of each individual’s faces. There have been some individuals who have been more elusive than others and thus despite the fact that I spend hours with them every day, I have yet to get a good shot of some gorillas.


This is Makumba, the mighty silverback—patriarch and protector—of the group. Although he doesn’t show much affection to his children, he will sprint to them without skipping a beat if he hears one of them scream.


Malui is HUGE at the moment. Her side of the family is slightly grumpier and well, uglier than Mopambi’s lineage. She is easily distinguishable by her massive belly and her extremely pronounced facial ridge, a feature she passed onto Mosoko and Tembo.


Here, you can catch a rare glimpse of Mosoko’s eyes, which are usually obscured by the shadow cast by her facial ridge.


Tembo, Mosoko’s younger brother and Malui’s youngest son, is slightly smaller than everyone else (though larger than Sopo, the infant). He is growing very quickly, and is catching up in size with the other juveniles!

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This is Mopambi, looking eerily human with Sopo on her back. She’s one of the more shy individuals, and I don’t get to see her that often.

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This is actually the only photo I have of Bokata, Mopambi’s daughter. She’s been less visible in recent times, which may be a sign that she will be leaving the group soon.  She’s the prettiest of a lot, with a slim gentle face with none of the harsh features of Malui’s kids.

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This is precious little Sopo. It is too early to be sure of his or her sex, but Tianna and I are rooting for it to be a girl though most think that it is a boy. He used to avoid humans completely until around August, when he suddenly became an attention-seeking superstar. He now follows Makumba around everywhere, desperately trying to impress him with his clown antics while the silverback continues chewing his food. You can expect many more photos of Sopo…


This is Mobangui, a fuzzy little quirkball who comes closer to us than anyone else. He likes to walk towards us to grab food only feet away from us, and I am convinced that this is a pretense he performs just to freak us out a little.

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Kunga is a brownback, a soon-to-be silverback. He will be dispersing soon, his impending departure hinted by his tendency to hang around the periphery of the group far way from everyone else, and he has recently even disappeared for a couple of days at a time. Despite his imminent silverbackdom (and the muscles to prove it), he is very playful around the younger ones and shows a lot of affection towards them. He will make a fantastic father himself.

Soon Kunga will be gone and there will be another baby in the family. It’s fascinating to see witness the trials and tribulations of the Makumba dynasty… I urge you to come meet them yourself!

[UPDATE: This post was written on 11/20, right before I left for camp. Malui gave birth on 11/19. Photos coming soon!]

Sensual Images of Nonhuman Primates

Let’s face it, gorillas are sexy. Some say they are “more brawn than brain”, but hey, brawn is nice.


Mobangui, resting in the shade.


Makumba, casually grabbing some leaves to munch on.


Mobangui: “Say, is the gun show that way?”


Makumba’s bringing sexy back.


Mosoko looking deep into my soul.


Mobangui, looking a little sheepish.


It is not often that Makumba looks vulnerable.


Tembo, winding down after a long day.


Makumba in the soft light of sunset.

Gorillas! in the Central African Republic

As some of you know, I’m spending the next year in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area as a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund. I will be working with Angelique Todd, who is nicknamed “The Gorilla Whisperer”. My main job will be to help habituate the gorillas, but I will also be helping to run a lab that will examine whether humans are transmitting diseases to the gorillas. If you are reading this, you are (probably) invited to come. Seriously though, I am a little (see: very) nervous and I would love to have some friendly faces break up the year!

T-minus 60 days: Finding the Visa Application

There is no website for the Central African Republic’s embassy. I did find a number and an address on the State Department’s website. I call, and a lady picks up. I tell her I want to apply for a visa,  she tells me to hold on and I hear the phone get passed around for a while. Another lady picks up, and I repeat my request and she slowly, a little incredulously, asks me in broken English: “You… want… a visa… for Centrafrica?”. I confirm this. She gives me her personal cell phone number and instructs me to text her my email, so that she can send me the application. After a few days and a few reminders, I finally get it in my inbox. As my friend said, the application looks like someone wrote it in Word and opened it in older version, messing up the formatting. Hopefully now that I put it online it will be easier for others to find.

T-minus 28 days – Applying for the Visa

I find the embassy and give them my application. They tell me to sit down, and so I wait. I strike up a conversation with the other person in the room, and we have the obligatory “So why are you going?” discussion. Thirty minutes later, my visa is ready! Yay! It consists of a form stamped into my passport, with the lines hand-filled. She messed up a line and had to scribble over what she wrote, rendering it illegible.


Flying into Addis Ababa, where I have a 3-hour layover, provides beautiful views. The sun has yet to breach the horizon and it bathes the flat landscape in its soft warm glow. Thin wisps of mist hug the curves of the small hills. All I could see are endless crops, creating a pattern that had no discernible order—a quilt of various shades of green in irregular shapes. It’s gorgeous.

A few hours later we are descending into Bangui. I realize that I’ve never seen so much… undevelopedness. When I first look out, there are veins of dark green forest crisscrossing a lighter green plain. I alternate between emotions of “wow, this is so cool” and “what the hell am I doing what the hell am I doing”. This continues for a long while, until we come across a brown river. Along its bank are the first signs of human settlement. A few minutes later, Bangui comes into view: tin roofs separated by red dirt roads and lush palm trees. The first paved road I see is the runway. I later realize all the roads are (mostly) paved, but are covered in a thin layer of red dust.

Some of the passengers, including myself, disembark the plane (it was continuing to Douala, Cameroon). We wait while the bus fills up… so that it can take us to the airport 150 feet away. After going through immigration and baggage claim, I proceed to wait for 45 minutes in the beating sun, insisting to all the locals loitering around that no I do not need a taxi, and yes I am sure they are coming soon, and no I do not have their telephone number. I finally give in and pay a ludicrous amount (10 dollars!!) to be taken to the WWF HQ. I keep expecting the staff to show some recognition as to who I was, to no avail, until a lady typing at her desk finally says… “Vous êtes Madame… [looks at her computer screen] Laurel?”. I squeal out an excited and relieved “Oui!”. She was just about to tell the driver to go pick me up!, she says. Oh well.


In the morning I take off for the 10-15 hour, 500 km trip to the reserve. Wish me luck. There’s something awesome yet terrifying of following your dreams.