A passion for wildlife
Talk to Gaston Abea about wildlife and you will see his face light up. He exudes enthusiasm in every task he tackles and it is quickly clear that he is extremely passionate about his conservation work in the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. Abea is one of several people from the park periphery playing a critical role in protecting the area’s wildlife. None of WCS’s work in Congo would be possible without the Congolese women and men working in many different roles to protect Congo’s wildlife and wild places. Mindful of the fact that the future of the country’s natural heritage lies in the hands of the Congolese people, WCS Congo has long been a front-runner in building capacity in Congolese nationals and successfully uplifting Congolese citizens into conservation leadership positions.
Abea has been part of several projects working to protect northern Congo’s wildlife over the past 17 years. Born in the village of Bomassa, located less than a kilometre from the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park headquarters, Abea is of the semi-nomadic Bangombe people. After finishing school in Bomassa, he started his tenure with WCS helping out at the Mbeli camp. His hard working spirit and eagerness to learn was quickly identified and Abea soon started training on elephant identification at the Mbeli Bai Study, a long term research project studying the forest elephants and western lowland gorillas that visit the bai. Abea thrived in this role and was thus moved to Mombongo to assist in setting up a similar study there. Abea moved on to work for the Buffer Zone Project, from 2002 to 2014, a project which works to enforce wildlife laws in the logging concessions on the periphery of the Park.
The parents of my grandparents were not afraid of gorillas and would hunt them for their meat. My generation prefers to protect gorillas.
After completing his second Ndoki-Likouala Landscape large mammal survey this year, an 18-month long survey collecting data on wildlife numbers in an area of about 36 000 square kilometres of rainforest in northern Congo, Abea started working at the Mondika Gorilla Project. Mondika, located two hours walk into the pristine forest of the Djeke Triangle, a forestry concession allocated to conservation on the periphery of the Park, was started over 20 years ago. Two groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) have been habituated at the site, and a third group is currently being identified for habituation. The Mondika Gorilla project, through funding from CARPE, USFWS and other donors, currently employs four Congolese research assistants, including Abea, who, through their work with the gorillas in the forest, are learning about scientific method, collecting high quality data, developing their own research questions.
Data collected at all WCS research sites is now captured electronically using hand-held tablet computers and apps that have been specially designed for the purpose. At the Mondika Gorilla Project, trackers who have worked with the gorillas for over twenty years and have developed invaluable knowledge of gorilla behaviour, are now being trained to collect data using the hand-held data units. This new data collection approach, as well as the arrival of Abea in the camp, has inspired one Ba’Aka tracker, Donatien Mengonga, to go back to school to try to finish his education with WCS support.
As we watch the juveniles in the Buka group of habituated gorillas at Mondika, Abea is completely absorbed by the gorillas and their behaviour, constantly taking notes and scanning the group. He recounts how his ancestors used to be unafraid of gorillas and would hunt them as food, but that today, his generation prefers to protect gorillas.