All around us a heady cathedral of humid jungle hummed with the vibrations of thousands of membranous wings and scaly limbs. The forests of Gabon were alive, breathing; the earth crawling below us, the canopy exhaling above us. We were strange new beings here. The forest would hush into sudden silence upon our arrival, even the insects unsure of what to make of us. We found ourselves in an unpeopled world, a land without time, a land before time.

Officially I was in Gabon to develop the skills of local guides, and to explore regions for ecotourism potential through local conservation organisations set up by the WWF. Unofficially I was living off river water and porridge, walking for days on end, through places without name, between unmapped mountain ranges, my heart somersaulting with joy that such wild places existed, and that I was one of the fortunate few to see them.

Image by Amy Attenborough

I did not think it possible that such a place still existed. In parts, the journey did not belong in the 21st century, nor in the 20th, but in the sweat-stiffened khakis of Livingston and Stanley. Nearly 80% of Gabon’s surface area remains raw, heaving, sweating nature, largely untouched by man ancient or modern. At times fraught with beasts, often eerily quiet, always alive, Gabon may be the last true African wilderness.

Loango National Park, Gabon

Loango National Park is the region’s best-known attraction. It found international acclaim through the lens of photographer Mike Nichols, whose iconic images of ‘surfing’ hippos captivated the imagination of would-be naturalists around the world. Loango was also the finishing point for naturalist Michael Faye’s epic megatransect walk, a 15 month journey that catalyzed the creation of 13 new national parks in Gabon.

Despite this relative fame, Loango receives only a handful of visitors annually. Most of the 140km of Loango’s coastline may go years without human footprints. The visitor’s book, used since the 1990s, has but a few pages of entries.

For days we traced elephant paths overlaid with the footprints of sitatunga, forest buffalo, a host of smaller mammals, and occasionally leopard or gorilla. At times we would be so close to gorillas that our noses were filled with the rank scent of a silverback. It would be many days before our first sighting, an encounter raw and primal that would leave us both emotionally stirred, and showered in gorilla shit.

Western Lowland Gorilla. Loango National Park, Gabon.

To discover a family of Western Lowland gorillas awed at our presence, our very existence, is surely to have traveled through time. To see wild animals approach humans on foot, to look again and again at these strange bipedal creatures, is to know wildness. Of course not all animals shared this naive curiosity, some were fearful, others indifferent, but almost all showed a response to human presence so removed from those of the animals I had spent years tracking and viewing in South Africa’s private game reserves.

“There will not be a day for the rest of my life that I do not think of this place. I finally found here what I have been looking for all my life.”

Mike Fay

Mike Fay is a world-renowned conservation biologist who walked more than 5000km through the Congo Basin, and helped to create 13 new national parks in Gabon.

A moustached guenon monkey in the arms of a young boy. Whether the boy was the monkey’s savior or captor, I could not tell.

Friend or hostage?

In a remote coastal village in Gabon adjacent to Loango National Park, a young boy cradles a mustached guenon monkey. In his other hand he holds a knife. The boy tells me that the monkey is an orphan, and that he is raising it.

The killing of animals for bushmeat is commonplace in central Africa, and primates are particularly vulnerable. Sometimes the young of these animals are kept as pets or for trade. The practice of killing wild animals to eat is an ancient and culturally significant part of life in this region, however the practice of capturing animals to trade is a new and far more sinister threat.

The monkey’s vulnerability is apparent, his future dependent on the boy’s benevolence. To me this represented the bigger picture in the region. The ongoing preservation of wildlife and wilderness in the region is now in the hands of humans, who must ensure that remaining wilderness is left intact.

Forest Monarch

In the cool twilight air I caught sight of this majestic lone elephant in the mosaic of forest and grassland that fringe the Atlantic Ocean in Gabon’s Loango National Park. I was alone on foot and shaking with excitement at the rawness of the encounter. I hid myself behind a small tree and quickly shot through the foliage, holding my breath to try and stop camera shake. I had only a moment, as the elephant caught my scent on the ocean breeze and melted away into the forest.

This wariness of humans is likely, in part, the reason that this elephant has lived to this great age. Elephants with tusks of this size scarcely exist today. So valuable is the ivory they carry, that a set of tusks this large is a curse to an elephant, a bounty on his head. For this bull to survive the approximately 60 years required for him to grow to this stature, he has managed to consistently avoid poachers and hunters, whilst living a nomadic life roaming across vast regions.

How many more generations of humans will share our planet with such magnificent creatures before they are gone forever?

A red-capped mangabey monkey pauses, hand extended, eyes skyward, as rain begins to fall.

The First Raindrop

I was sleeping in a tent on an isolated beach in Gabon’s Loango National Park when I was awoken by a raucous troop of red-capped mangabey monkeys. In the predawn light they were highly active and very vocal, however one Mangabey remained motionless, his head raised to the sky. He extended his hand, cupped, as if to hold or catch something. At that moment I became aware of heavy irregular raindrops falling. This silent gesture, so human-like, held more power over me than the rest of the troop combined.

Elephant roaming a polluted beach.

Polluted Paradise

At first glance, this scene is perfect. A mother elephant and calf, feeding on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, in Loango National Park, Gabon. Look closer. The elephants are surrounded by litter.

These elephants are perhaps 100km from the nearest human settlement. Only a handful of people see this place in a year. Where does this litter come from? Oil drums from China, shampoo bottles from Spain, cooking oil from India. All of this and more carried thousands of kilometres across the ocean, drawn by global currents, and dumped here, where ocean meets forest, and no human voice is heard.

For me this was a powerful reminder that there is no ‘away’. Everything you throw ‘away’ goes somewhere. There are few more powerful incentives to recycle, to reduce your waste, and to make more informed choices when purchasing, than to see a land without people so badly affected by the waste of humans half a world away.

Trainee ecotourism guides with an elephant skull.

Over 11,000 forest elephants have been illegally killed in Gabon in the last 10 years.

The problem of why Gabon’s national parks remain largely unvisited more than a decade after their creation has a number of complicated causes. Inefficient national infrastructure, exorbitant prices, an inhospitable investment climate, and a lack of initiative within the Gabonese people are partially to blame, however the solutions remain more complex and less defined.

Gabon has so much to offer that no other African region can match. In diversity of habitats, species and experiences, Gabon is almost unparalleled. The country has extensive protected regions, and has the opportunity to develop these regions from a blank slate. Let us hope that when it happens, lessons are drawn from decades of global ecotourism practice, and that it is done right.

Poaching, illegal animal trade, habitat destruction, and resource extraction are very real threats to Gabon’s remarkable ecosystems. It is vital that well managed sustainable ecotourism be a part of Gabon’s strategy in order for wilderness areas to remain for future generations to marvel, as I did, at a land that appears never to have known man.