Visit to Odzala National Park – a time for reflection.

by Andrew Parker

As the world grapples with the proverbial chickens of rampant industrialization and consumerism coming home to roost in the form of climate change, places such as Odzala National Park stand out as beacons of all that is left that is worth fighting for.
The rainforests of Africa are of global significance in the fight against climate change, yet even in the face of an immediate threat to our very own existence as a species, we continue to parasitize that which supports our own survival in the quest to own a hardwood coffee table. It is tantamount to cutting out our own lungs to own a pulmonary lampshade. One cannot comprehend such stupidity. The consequences of our actions are, however, seemingly lost amidst the economic and political hum-drum that dominates our day-to-day lives. In a society dominated by the quest for instant gratification, we have lost touch with the natural world and have therefore lost sight of our dependence on it.

We inherited a world of immense beauty, a tapestry of splendour, but only shreds of the original masterpiece remain. One of the most beautiful and substantial of these shreds is Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the DRC). At 1.4 million hectares, it is an immense wilderness of pristine African rainforest and an increasingly rare example of a more or less intact ecosystem. The difficult access to and extremely limited development within and around the Park further amplify its wilderness qualities, offering a rare glimpse into a world last seen hundreds of years ago.

With the support of the Welgevonden Board, I had the privilege of visiting Odzala during July as a member of the Leadership for Conservation in Africa team that was invited by the Congolese Government to explore opportunities for ecotourism development within the country’s protected areas as a mechanism to fund conservation and to create employment for local communities. Effective management of Odzala is currently heavily reliant on funding from the European Union, but this obviously cannot be viewed as a long-term solution. This precarious situation is further exacerbated by Congo’s current reliance on oil for foreign exchange earnings. Once the oil reserves have been depleted, it is reasonable to expect that indigenous timber will once again become the primary export commodity and this will undoubtedly result in increased pressure on protected areas. The time for diversification is now if future dependence on non-renewable natural resources is to be alleviated. However, since there is a need to develop and capacitate the entire tourism supply chain, the challenges associated with developing the Congo as an ecotourism destination are therefore substantial. However, the recent emergence of Costa Rica as an ecotourism destination strongly demonstrates that there is a lot of interest in rainforest tourism, and boy oh boy does Congo have a compelling rainforest product.

The Park Director, Mr Djoni Djimbi, informed us that there are over 60,000 western lowland gorillas in Odzala alone. Unlike the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and their close cousins in Bwindi in neighbouring Uganda, these gorillas do not have to be habituated to be viewed. Very obligingly, the green curtain of the otherwise largely impenetrable rainforest is unveiled in numerous natural clearings scattered throughout the forest. These clearings, or bais in local parlance, vary in size from less than a hectare to several square kilometers in extent and because of the minerals in the soil and the unique and highly palatable vegetation, they act as magnets for all manner of wildlife including gorillas, forest elephant, forest buffalo, sitatunga, red river hog and other evocative species.

Odzala is also home to that extremely rare and elusive forest antelope, the Bongo, as well as chimpanzees and various species of monkeys, all of which are reasonably visible. It is also home to the last remaining population of forest lions which inhabit the extensive patches of remnant savanna concentrated in the southern section of the Park. For birders, it is a veritable smorgasbord with many a lifer clearly on view. We must have seen well over a hundred Palm-nut vultures, an extremely rare sighting in South Africa. Despite the obvious wildlife attractions, it was the sheer vastness of the place and the diversity of habitats that I found to be absolutely enthralling. From the impenetrable Marantacea forest in which we could hear gorillas chest-beating not more than 10 meters from us but could not see them, to the openness of the patches of remnant savanna and the evocative beauty of Le Grand Saline, an extensive natural clearing in the forest, Odzala is unlike any other place I have ever seen. The forest trees are alone worth the trip but they are so numerous and so spectacular that I found it impossible to properly imbibe their individual magnificence. The rivers are a further attraction. Access to the basic but very comfortable tourist camp at Mboko requires a 10-hour trip in a motorized dugout up the Mambili River, a river as unspoilt as you could ever wish to see. The surface of the water was literally bubbling with fish and I found the whole forest-fringed journey up the river into the heart of the Congo Basin to be completely surreal.

Odzala is a place of esoteric wonder that demands protection as a legacy for human kind. Beyond its obvious ecological value, and tsetse flies aside, it represents something of a last-chance opportunity for mankind to rekindle a meaningful relationship with nature.