Mbeli bai is a large (12.8 ha) natural forest clearing located in the south-west of the Nouabalé-Ndoki national park, Northern Congo. Due to the mineral rich soils and aquatic vegetation, Mbeli Bai is an attractive resource for numerous elusive mammal species including the western lowland gorilla and the African forest elephant. The Mbeli Bai Study (MBS) was established in 1995 with the aim of enhancing our knowledge of western lowland gorillas and improving their conservation status through applied research, habitat protection, capacity building, and awareness raising.
Bais provide a unique opportunity for the unobscured observation of animals that are otherwise hard to study in their dense forest habitat. In Mbeli bai we can individually recognize and monitor a large number of animals and therefore gain useful information on key life history traits and population dynamics to help inform conservation strategies. The MBS also provides protection as researcher presence serves as an active poaching deterrent, and an early warning system for the Park’s law enforcement and wildlife health monitoring programme. Through the training of national research staff, students, and conservation educators the MBS supports the capacity building of the next generation of wildlife conservationists. Awareness is raised through Mbeli’s educational ecotourism program and the dissemination of our findings to a national and international audience.
Since 1995, the MBS has identified over 460 gorilla individuals. At current, the MBS is following 25 groups of gorillas and 13 solitary silverback males, totalling a little over 200 individuals. So far in 2017, 125 gorilla individuals visited the bai, 2 new gorilla babies were born and one new female immigrated in to the population. Aside from gorillas, approximately 536 elephants have been identified at Mbeli, since January ’17, 3 new infants were added to the population as well as 3 young adult males. Also very exciting was the second-only observation of an elephant copulation in the bai. One sitatunga (a type of swamp antelope) was born; the 13th recorded offspring of a resident female. We also currently have the largest forest buffalo group residing in Mbeli since the onset of the study; a total of 12 individuals including 3 young calves.
The Mbeli Bai Study is currently switching completely from manual data collection methods to advanced electronic data collection methods. For example, gorilla behaviour, proximity, social interactions and health indicators will be recorded through the Animal Observer app (Dian Fossey Fund International). The study has also entered a partnership with Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to develop an automated individual gorilla recognition software which will potentially have many applications in camera trap studies, for example to assess abundance and density of gorillas in the wild. An exciting new camera trapping project was also initiated in 2017; to gain an understanding of visitation patterns of different species to the bai at night, camera traps were placed at high-use elephant zones on the periphery of the bai.