The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology started a project in 2005 to habituate western gorillas for both research and tourism purposes in Loango National Park, Gabon. The main goals of this project have been to better understand the ecology, behavior, and demography of western gorillas as well as to establish gorilla tourism as a conservation strategy in collaboration with the Gabonese National Park Authorities (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux - ANPN). Due to the difficulties of habituating western gorillas, only a few long term studies of them have been done, so we know relatively little about them compared to their better studied cousins in eastern Africa. Since 2014, the Loango Gorilla Project has been collecting data on one habituated group of western gorillas, making more than 1000 hours of behavioral observations annually. In March 2017, the ‘Atananga Group’ consisted of 16 group members: one silverback, six adult females, and ten immature individuals. The Gabonese park service started gorilla tourism in Loango in June 2016.
Loango is ecologically unique and distinct from other locations where western lowland gorillas have been studied, contains a mosaic of habitat types including seashore, coastal forest, lagoon, savannah, swamps, secondary forest, and primary forest. Our research has revealed that several of the herb and fruit species commonly eaten by western gorillas at other locations (eg. Bai Hokou, Lopé) are absent or found in very low abundance in Loango. We have documented large differences in the ecology of gorillas in Loango compared to other sites. Therefore, this location provides us with an opportunity to better understand the ecological and behavioral flexibility possible in gorillas. We are using similar methods to those used in Bwindi on mountain gorillas so we will be able to make directly comparisons in the social behavior, activity patterns, and movement patterns for the two species of gorillas.
In addition to studying the habituated gorillas, we are also using innovative, non-invasive techniques for strategic monitoring of gorillas and other large mammals. First, we have remote sensor camera traps placed systematically throughout the field site to help us know what other gorilla groups are in the area as well as to monitor changes in the groups over time. We have previously used the camera trap data in a mark-recapture analysis to estimate the densities of gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants in the area. Secondly, we have been collecting ape feces over a 100 km² area since 2005 for genetic analysis. This is an effective way to examine group composition, dispersal patterns, and population size of unhabituated animals. Much more information can be obtained from genetically ‘tracking’ individuals over time than from conventional methods of following habituated individuals, which typically focuses on only 1-2 groups. Because group compositions and ranging patterns are not static, it is useful to monitor these dynamics in the long term.