What happened to Gorilla Gorilla Uellensis?
a chapter in: All Apes Great and Small
I first got interested in the mystery surrounding Gorilla Gorilla Uellensis while researching a book title, covering photographically, the various subspecies of gorillas.
The different distribution maps I found showed the accepted gorilla distribution ranges for the western and eastern species. However there were also some question marks in some of the literature which, predictably, were located in some of the remoter parts of Zaire, now Congo. I was fascinated by the fact that, at the end of the last millennium, there were still question marks surrounding the existence of possible gorilla populations. As a regular visitor to the Congo I had little doubt that several parts of this, the second largest of the African Nations, still had unexplored corners. The book (Gorillas, published as an APA Topic Series book in 1997) however did not include any of these question marks in the distribution range map. The publishers/editors felt it was a question of playing it safe.
At the end of 1996 I happened to be in the central part of the Congo, doing some advance logistics for a proposed documentary film shoot. Having some time at my hands I decided, together with some friends I was traveling with, to charter a light aircraft to take us from Kisangani to the northern Congo town of Bondo.
Having looked into the background data associated with the question marks I established that the most reliable data associated with the existence of supposedly still undiscovered gorilla populations came from the Bondo region.
A Belgian Army officer by the name of Le Marinel, in 1898 had brought back four gorilla skulls from the area. These skulls were in the Tervuren Museum in Bruxelles. In 1927 the curator at the museum, Henri Schoutenden, based on the anatomical differences and the unique origin, some 400 miles from the edge of the nearest western or eastern gorilla range, classified them as a new subspecies: gorilla gorilla uellensis. Two years later this was rejected by the American primatologist Harold J. Cooling who decided that these skulls could not have possibly come from the Bondo part of Northern Congo since it was known that there were no gorillas there and as such he concluded that the skulls had most likely been brought in from somewhere else.
The plane which flew us into Bondo was to pick us up a week later and I was confident that a week would be more then enough to look for more skulls and question the local hunters about the presence of any strange apes. We had brought along books illustrating all the great apes and their habitats. We soon found that even some of the locally famous hunters had serious problems with differentiating pictures of gorillas, chimps and bonobos. The Azande language has four different words for chimpanzee, which translated include, the ape which beats the tree and the ape which kills the lion, plus they differentiated between big and small chimps, but there were no tales of gorillas. I expected stories of aggressive apes. I have not met a hunter yet who can not recount in detail a charge by an irate silver back. However in the Bondo area there were no stories of charging and screaming apes. The consensus of opinion was that we should look further east, near Bili where the forest opened up in savannah and where there were many more species of wildlife. We found a serviceable car and some fuel and headed for Bili. While showing hunters our ape books we also looked for old skulls like Le Marinel had found - in his case in an abandoned hut. On the way back a hunter at Bambillo had several specimens, some clearly having been collected in the village garbage heap. One of these skulls had a pronounced sagittal and even occipital crest, but it was clearly too small for a male gorilla skull. However we got quite excited and took the skull back with us. In Kinshasa we got government authorization to take it to Kenya to have some casts made, before returning it to the Congo. This we did. However once the taxonomists looked at these casts the verdict was clear cut. This was a chimp skull, albeit quite a strange one.
While at Bondo I made some contact with mission employees who had agreed to continue the search. I communicated the result via fax messages sent to the Central African Republic, asking them to let me know of any new developments. I did get some letters from time to time with tantalizing tales but also requests for more funds to continue the 'research'. I did send a few checks to an mission account in France but soon decided that I was probably being strung along. Visiting that part of Congo was no longer an option due to the overthrow of president Mobutu and various army fractions roving the country, looting and harassing the people. In mid 1998 I decided to try a new approach. I retained a Cameroonian hunter I had befriended during various bush meat trips and who was an expert gorilla tracker. I asked him to travel east through the CAR and catch up with my mission friends and possibly do some research in the forests around Bili.
He never got beyond a village called Badai, some 30 kms from Bili at the edge of the savannah. The local villagers warned him from proceeding due to the security situations prevailing in most urban centers. He stayed in Badai for a week and accompanied local hunters on their outings. He came across an old ground nest which he classified as that of a gorilla and sent me a picture of it. I was not too impressed by what I saw by it did give the approach of questioning local hunters a new direction. Looking for ground nests rather than large, charging apes.
1999 saw the take over of most of northern Congo by a Ugandan backed rebel force, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, headed by Jean Pierre Bemba and ex business man from Kinshasa. I had some friends who knew Bemba well and they helped me get in touch with him. I asked him about the possibility of spending some time on the ground in and around Bili. No problem; was his response.
In October 1998, I headed out with a Congolese friend, Louis Genezele who had been a coffee buyer and sport hunter, borne in the region and having lived there most of his life. We flew into Zemio into the CAR and then made our way overland to Bili. Checking in with an Uganda army contingent at Ango and presenting our credentials. The objective of this trip was to check out the logistics for a documentary film shoot covering the search for this lost gorilla population.
The broken down log bridges and lack of operational car ferries on the bigger rivers soon led us to the conclusion that the only way to be productive would be by flying in. So when we got to Bili we started work on an airstrip. We had some time for side trips but the results were not very different from the 96 trip, except we kept hearing about areas where hunters regularly found ground nests.
Once we had cleared some 300 m of strip my time was up and I called in an aircraft to come and pick me up. It was touch and go but we made it.
I left Louis behind to set up camp sites and sort out logistics for two camps in areas where the hunters were reporting these ground nests. One was some 20 kms from Badai in a very remote forest island which also necessitated cutting about 15 kms of road which allowed us to at least get in and out by motorbike (one of which we brought from Kenya on the original charter flight).
In early December 1999 I went back to pick up Louis and inspect the camp sites. I had five days at ZEE camp, which is what he called the site near Badai. Taking long walks through the now burned out savannah and forests I was shown some old ground nests and we did come across two rather fresh looking nests. I thought the trackers how to collect some hair samples with rubber gloves. Only at the end of the stay did we meet up with some old and very knowledgeable hunters/trackers who had been out elephant hunting which it turned out was the major economic activity in the region. (All the meat was being transported by bicycles into the Central African Republic where it was sold for hard currency: the CFA.) Not being able to keep the aircraft and the pilot any longer on the ground we agreed to retain them during future search missions.
Back in Kenya I decided to ship the hair to NIH, under their CITES import permit, to see if any DNA could be extracted. I was aware that for hair a CITES export permit would be needed, but I was also aware that I would never get one in Kinshasa if I informed them that the hair had come from a rebel held area. I did get an export permit from the local MLC authorities. When the shipment reached JFK it was confiscated by US Fish and Wildlife Services on the grounds that there was no acceptable export permit in place. None of the pleading helped and the hair was supposedly destroyed.
By now the documentary film shoot was hinging on the potential of us actually finding gorillas in this area and DNA results, in this context, would be the most acceptable. My financial exposure at this stage was becoming considerable and I was reluctant to plan another trip, when the trackers, in mid January, sent me a radio message saying that they had found two groupings of nests from which they collected seven different hair samples, one of them consisting of long white and silver hair.
There was no option, I had to go back and inspect the nests myself and pick up the hair samples. In working out flight plans I contacted Jean Pierre Bemba the rebel chief to arrange flight clearance via the Ugandan military for a routing from Entebbe straight to Bili. This time I did not get the : no problem response. There was now a serious problem. He had intelligence reports indicating that the Kabila army might try an invasion from the north using small CAR airstrips along the border. He asked me to come to his headquarters at Gbadolite to discuss things. I flew via Douala to Bangui and then chartered a flight to Mobay across the border in the CAR to then cross into Congo by pirogue over the Ubangi River. Meeting with the rebel chief it became clear that he had some real doubts in his mind as to the gorillas I was looking for. Gold and diamonds are generally the reason why a foreigner would want to trudge through uncharted forests. Fortunately I had brought along on of my gorilla and great ape titles and they seemed to make the difference. In the end he had no problem with me trying to proceed to Bili. Trying being the operative word. Air charters were prohibitive in financial terms, especially since CAR based aircrafts did not have the insurance coverage to stay overnight in the DRC. In the end I made it to Bangassou on the CAR side where one of my trackers had come to meet me using my motorbike and burning up some of the last aviation fuel we had stored at Bili. However he brought the seven samples which was what it was all about.
Traveling back with them meant layovers in two more Central African countries besides the DRC from where I now had an export permit from Mr. Bemba himself but still none from his adversaries in Kinshasa.
In Kenya I got the local CITES management authorities to look into accepting the Bemba permit. When they checked with the secretariat in Geneva the advise back was to classify it as hair to be identified and not being necessarily from a CITES listed mammal or alternatively classify it as seized and then send it under the Kenyan management authority export permit requesting analysis. The second was the route we decided to go. Several labs in Europe and the US received some of these hair samples. A gorilla taxonomy expert also analyzed it morphologically coming to the conclusion that at least the grey silver hair sample was that of a gorilla or a gorilla like creature. However when the DNA results came in they did not confirm the above findings, while two labs could not amplify DNA (which is normally considered very easy when it comes to chimp hair but difficult with gorilla samples). The results I did get were - chimp!
Somebody had to be wrong and while DNA analysis is supposedly an exact science, I was worried about contamination and hairs having been mixed up. There was no choice but to go back again and this time the objective had to be fecal samples. Fecal samples did not come under CITES and generally also yielded better DNA to work with.
As luck would have it, a missionary pilot and friend wanted to take his family for Easter to his old mission posting in Zemio in the CAR. A Norwegian mission agreed to help finance the cost of a Caravan flight if we could bring medical supplies for some of the missions in the region. This time Jean Pierre Bemba approved our flight plans into and out of Bili.
After fueling stops at Entebbe and Arua in Uganda and Zemio in the CAR we had a harrowing dusk landing at Bili. The next day we reached camp and on good Friday we found the first fresh nest sites in the very center of the .... stream bed some 6 kms from camp. And luck was with us, we also found a very fresh and promisingly sized fecal sample on the rim of the nest and various foot and knuckle prints nearby.
We were now accompanied by another old time hunter who in his life time had lived in various other parts including Adama and Bondo. He confirmed that nowhere else, except for some of the river beds in the forest island we were in, had he encountered these large ground nests. He added that nowhere else had he noticed the feeding of fresh Rafia Palm shoots by chimps, although it was clear that they knew chimp signs and behavior well. They showed us a chimp stick fishing site of red ants in an nearby river bed.
The shape of the feces, which showed ring like compartments which normally characterizes gorilla excrements and the size and shape of the feet and knuckle prints, which we cast in plaster, seemed to add to the evidence of the existence of a gorilla or gorilla like creature existing in the area.
We carefully photographed and filmed this evidence, took the casts back and got the fecal sample by motorbike to Bili where a 'coolish' Kerosene refrigerator exists.
The coming days were less productive, although we did find some old nests and I asked the hunters to show me the old nesting site where in mid January they had found the hair. They did so and the nests, which were still visible, where made of the same type of wild ginger plant and located at the bottom of a similar stream bed.
I had hoped that this would not be the case and that they had encountered different types of nests, now being pretty certain that the some chimps in the area also fabricated ground nests. (we did find some isolated ones at higher and drier elevations but also found correspondingly aged tree nests with them which was not the case with the ones in the stream beds.)
When Louis came back from Bili having deposited the fecal samples he had some more conflicting news. Another lab had identified some of the black hair found in January by the trackers as that of chimpanzee. The message had come in form of a radio signal from Kenya.
Louis had urged me in Entebbe to buy a bottle of Champagne to open when we finally found conclusive evidence. I told him that I would crack it over his head if we found nothing. He laughed and now we decided that in the light of the foot print casts in our hand we were going to celebrate the existence of gorilla gorilla uellensis or if the DNA guys could not confirm our assessment and believes then that of a very strange chimpanzee.
For good measure I left on Track master remote triggered infrared camera in the area where we had found the foot prints. Whatever the DNA experts might conclude I would not give up until such time as having seen an image of the creature in question. I also left another still and video camera with the trackers to see if, with a smaller party and less noise they might get a chance to photograph or film the ape in question As for the weather time was running out, the rains had started in earnest and soon the savannah patches would again consist of 3 meter high elephant grass and the stream beds would become deep muddy valleys in which it would be hard to get around.
Back in Kenya I spent a week obtaining the permit to ship HAZARDOUS fecal material to the US packaged in HAZARDOUS dry ice. Two of the samples went to German labs with much less red tape.
So. with four labs looking at the samples and a camera on the ground the answers should be around the corner as "What happened to gorilla gorilla uellensis".
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