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Loss, resilience and community amid an outbreak: Q&A with gorilla researcher Magdalena Bermejo

Western lowland gorilla. Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

  • Magdalena Bermejo, a prominent expert on western lowland gorillas, experienced the loss of thousands of the great apes to Ebola, including two groups she and her team were studying and had worked to habituate.
  • Having remained in the Republic of Congo, Bermejo is now facing the arrival of a new epidemic that could potentially spread between humans and gorillas.
  • In this interview, Bermejo discusses her ongoing work in the Congo, the importance of working with communities, parallels between Ebola and COVID-19, and how researchers can find the strength to persevere and rebuild in the aftermath of catastrophe.

Between 2002 and 2005, a series of Ebola outbreaks spread through the forests of northwest Republic of Congo. Dozens of people died. For the region’s western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) population, the virus was even more deadly: an estimated 5,000 died from the disease, a blow so devastating their conservation status was uplisted from endangered to critically endangered.

Magdalena Bermejo began studying the western lowland gorillas in and around Odzala-Kokoua National Park in 1994 and is now widely regarded as the foremost expert on the species.

Spanish scientist Magdalena Bermejo has spent more than 25 years studying non-human primates in Western Equatorial Africa. Image courtesy of Magdalena Bermejo.

In 2001, the Lossi Reserve was created as a community-run sanctuary and research base. Bermejo and her team were instrumental in working to habituate gorillas to humans, allowing for both research and tourism. The reserve, which is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) outside Odzala-Kokoua National Park, remained in the hands of its traditional owners and offered a new model for conservation and ecotourism.

But the project was cut short. Between 2002 and 2003, 95% of Lossi’s gorillas died from Ebola, including two family groups Bermejo was studying. But Bermejo and her research team didn’t leave; they stayed, studying the transmission of the Ebola virus between humans and apes for six years, working in different sites around the reserve.

Since then, their work with the gorilla population of northwest Congo, around Odzala, has been heavily focused on community-based conservation and how research and conservation businesses can be more inclusive and wide-ranging.

In 2009, the researchers set up the Ngaga Field Station Network, made up of scientists from different universities and institutions. The station is also used as a base for high-end gorilla ecotourism, operated through Congo Conservation Company (CCC). The gorilla trackers, who lead CCC’s guests to the primates, work for Bermejo’s research team. (In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk to humans and primates, tourism has been suspended for the foreseeable future.)

Mongabay spoke to Bermejo about parallels between the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks, the importance of putting local people at the center of conservation work, and finding resilience in the face of catastrophic events like Ebola and COVID-19.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

Western lowland gorilla in the Republic of Congo. The species was devastated by Ebola outbreaks between 2002 and 2005. COVID-19 presents a new threat, and a new Ebola outbreak was declared across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late May. Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

Mongabay: How are you finding the COVID-19 pandemic in comparison to the Ebola outbreak in the 2000s?

Magdalena Bermejo: It’s difficult to say, because Ebola came from the forest. During the Ebola outbreak, we continued working with our trackers and our community monitoring teams to try to understand how it was moving, where it was happening, what are the animals that were contaminated, and how it was progressing. We starting with an area of 100 square kilometers [about 40 square miles] and ended up with 5,000 kilometers square [1,930 mi2], because we needed to understand the progress of the disease and how many areas were affected, while trying to avoid the hunters visiting these areas, who could be infected.

This [COVID-19] is similar, but it’s not coming from the forest. It’s more about how we all work in solidarity together, how the government is planning things for the communities as soon as possible.

At the same time, the reality in Africa is very complicated. You need to empower the local authorities, and try to give as much scientific information as possible. And then they feel interested to work with you. It’s very important that the local authorities have police and security, but at the same time there should be an understanding of the community’s concerns and situation.

I am working the community angle that I was using during Ebola: That is, trying to make sure they understand us, that they see our role. Then they see that we work with facts, but also that there are things that we don’t know, exactly, and we need to study more. In this particular moment, we are together. We are perplexed and we need more info to advance and progress. I think that this makes people understand that we are equal.

We try to maximize what people know. For example, distancing is something that they accepted and agreed on with Ebola. They were greeting each other by clicking their fingers with a distance between them. Now we are trying to find different ways, for example, ways to say, “I’m here, hello,” and “I’m with you.” They continue to go for the finger clicking, because it was something very strong during Ebola, and it’s there. So we adopt it again, the clicking fingers.

As you know, there are people who understand quicker and there are people that lose the energy to understand.

What we are doing in terms of the forest and following gorillas is, we are monitoring the gorillas the same way we were with Ebola, but also maintaining even more distance and trying to inform the trackers that they are tracking the gorillas just to make sure they are safe and healthy.

At all times, we explain that we’re protecting the people — also the gorillas, but the focus is the people. And then if the gorillas are sick, it’s the same thing, we will try to protect the people. But we are of course conservationists and we want to protect the wildlife and the forest.

It must help that the community has such an attachment to the gorillas?

 Yeah, a lot.

You learn more, try to observe and understand what can be done, who are the possible youth leaders, they can have an attitude that can help convey a message, because it’s not just conveying the message.

Now, for example, [funder] Sabine Plattner African Charities (SPAC), CCC (Congo Conservation Company), and the Odzala Foundation are really working like one.

The police suddenly were not like police — they were human beings trying to say that they are also afraid and close to crying. We saw people that we know in certain roles completely differently. Now there is a more intimate and psychological aspect in how people are trying to adapt to this new reality.

The Ngaga station serves as a base for high-end gorilla ecotourism, operated through Congo Conservation Company (CCC). Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

What would your advice be to people, emotionally and practically, when research has to pause because of something like the pandemic?

It depends on your personality. But you need to be curious enough to explore something. Of course there are moments when it is difficult, some things that you don’t know and you don’t understand. But at the same time, you need to discover the good. How we can be better in our activities in general, not only with nature, but with human beings?

A lot of people will find their own meaning; each person needs to find this.

For me, it is not difficult. For me great apes, forests, golden light in Africa, and people, or faces of the people, are like a picture. It’s like a picture you see in a museum. It gives me feelings, the forest and the light of the forest. The faces of the people in certain moments when they are afraid — but they click their eyes to you, and you understand, even if you can be very far in that particular moment. It’s something that makes me wake up. Makes me more open to read papers, to contact some colleagues, scientists, some of the professors.

When I see these pictures, even if they are old pictures, they have a lot of meaning. And I will try to explain the meaning of each of these pictures. This golden light in the forest, the green, the black with the animals — gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are black, you know — and all the myths and histories that the communities were explaining to me. How do we find this common point between myths, legends and science, and how do we actually respect it in science?

This particular moment matters more to humans. Globally, we can change things — how we remember this moment or how we handle this moment. There are people that say, “Wow, this political situation is bad.” Yes, we can do all of that to make ourselves feel better, emotionally, but after that you need to find one purpose or something that you can do yourself, or with your friends, with your colleagues.

The people working in our network, they rang me and they feel guilty because they can’t do some part of their duties with us, and I say, “Don’t worry. You are contacting me now, when you are very busy trying to follow 100 Ph.D.s online. That, for me, means a lot. Don’t worry about that.” This means that the field station network still exists, even if it is this kind of thing.

I think that this pandemic has some power to really do something for wildlife and for humans. Even the tourism operation, I don’t think it needs to be the same way.

I’m trying to be more creative, and if we want tourism to be useful we need to find new ways to be more creative, because we’re throwing around the same things and we are not giving the public everything we can give them.

If we make some spiritual experience with the forest and gorillas in a certain way, we can make these kinds of tourism activities more powerful. Especially in our area. We have 45 different gorilla groups, that is a minimum of six years of information. You can jump from history, to the personality of silverbacks, to one gorilla that is a little delayed in their development, and you can go for a lot of things. I think that we need to really explore this space also.

CCC was never a business operation, per se, it was a business of conservation. Together, we do conservation and research, with community involvement.

I will try to maintain this methodology that we’re replicating now with local leaders and try to empower people to suggest what they can bring. I tried to reinvent the thinking in a way that everybody can contribute.

From next week, we’ll begin to take bullet points all together, and we’ll work on that with all the communities.

The police said they are frustrated, because people don’t believe that the disease is there.

So, we make them feel OK, and we are all afraid. In Odzala, the elders are important here, because people don’t find fault with them. The police, they have a pistol, they have all the things that they need to impose security — but they will not do that, no? We need to find different ways, and this is why these elders are here, trying to cultivate a different point of view. We find some common themes.

I saw how the superviseur [local authority] was handling it. I never thought that he could do that — and he’s a person that I’ve known for six, seven years. He analyzed the situation and he handled it, because something happened in his mind. He said, “No, this situation is not comparable to others.” He was doing the analysis in the meeting, exactly how I take my notes. He was empowering them. There were five minutes of suggestions, and in the next meeting you say, “What about this point that we discussed yesterday?” And then they began to analyze what we can do, and how we can work together, strongly, because he understood that if we are not all doing the same thing, it will be a disaster. Because then there will be fear, a non-rational mindset. And who is at fault? You, because you’re French? Because you’re Italian? Because whatever, whatever — because they are afraid. This is something you need to prevent. With Ebola it was the same thing.

At the same time, you need to be aware that you’re not God, you’re not transforming realities in five days.

They need a calm situation now, but in the current situation, we are questioning as much as possible, gathering good information and making it visible and attractive. I hope that we can prevent the virus spreading, but we don’t know. Everybody will run, but I think some of the strong points, we’ll keep in mind. People will adopt them, people who are already role models in the communities.

A young western lowland gorilla, the smallest of the four gorilla subspecies. Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

Do you have any COVID-19 cases around Odzala so far?

No, the closest that we have is in one case in Ouesso, and another case in Oyo [both at least 300 kilometers, or nearly 200 miles, from Mbomo].

The problem is, if we stop tracking completely, we will not know what happens in the forest. And if we don’t know what happened in the forest, we can’t save some people that are risking going in the forest where, perhaps, there are contaminated gorillas. Some people are crossing the forest, some hunt there for duiker, not too much, though.

We are buying hundreds of units of soap, cloth and chlorine so you can clean your hands and surfaces.

I hope some people will understand. But some people will not understand. And then we need to be prepared: which areas can we confine people in if they are sick? There is one doctor here.

Ebola is visible. We were seeing this man or this woman with these red eyes, seeing the vomit and all that. You see that — this is something that is really imprinted in the human being, these symptoms. But with the corona, where’s the corona? You need to prove to people that it is invisible. But this is the thing that is hardest, because you don’t know. You can feel well, but you have transmitted to two or three people. And these people will do the same thing.

Now the trackers and all the team we have here in the lodges are staying. I think that they understand, but they have been very close to researchers for years. But what about the other communities that need to go to the crop field, or if dad is sick — how do you explain that it is better that the whole family stays there with these people in a small house in Mbomo? Is it better to confine this person in a church, prepared for receiving people that have this problem, because otherwise the whole family will contract the virus, and the neighbor that wants to visit them? It will be very difficult at the beginning, because the police will need to act not as the police in normal circumstance, just to save lives.

You’ve seen COVID-19 play out elsewhere. There’s some understanding of how it spreads and how to prevent it. Do you think that could be a big factor in parts of Africa?

Following the WHO, it seems that they think that in some countries it will be really hard, depending on the density of population and how concentrated the population is in cities. The president here reacted very quickly and located one place for confining people traveling here from outside, because the virus was coming from Congolese people living in France and coming back to stay with family, feeling that “I need to be with my people,” no? And after that, now it’s local contamination. They are also tracking a lot of people, or they’re making a lot of tests.

They are prepared to recognize that they need to act quickly. And I see that even in this part of Congo, they were testing and isolating. And I am very curious to see how the government will prepare for unlocking, because this will be our challenge.

I’m preparing some of the staff here to stay. We are maximizing this time to train everybody. They are afraid for the women, because their wives are there with the kids.

They have systems, ancestral systems. When they have had diseases in the past, their ancestors, they decided to leave the village and go someplace not too far from their crops. They have small houses, like temporary camps. We see that in Mbomo already. The wife will move with the kids, 1 kilometer, 2 kilometers from the village. Then you avoid the concentration of people. This is really good. I did not notice this during Ebola, because we were immersed in the forest. This means that they know already, they recognize that in some part their ancestors adopted this system to prevent everybody in a village dying.

Now they understand us, because we’ve recognized this really good choice.

Western lowland gorilla infants ride on their mothers’ backs for the first years of their lives. Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

It seems like your highest priority is people.

Yes, of course.

Sometimes biologists are so afraid to mention communities. I was one of them. And I learned to change completely. I was very lucky to be in places that were good examples of conservation with communities in Central Africa, because in other areas you can find that more easily, but not in these areas. We were very lucky, because they changed our minds.

To explain research, I need to explain histories, legend. I think that these things bring us some internal understanding. When some elders are explaining “I see this and I saw that and my grandpa brought me there and saw that” — we have hundreds of histories about that, about chimpanzees, relations between chimpanzees and humans, explained by the elder people. We were lucky to be in these places, working with incredible people.

You’re funded privately, by Sabine Plattner African Charities. Is that funding safe for now?

I don’t think she will stop it. She’s really engaged. She’s really sad for the situation, but she’s really committed. She loves what we’re trying to do. And I think that she will understand when we finish this primary proposal, about tourism and conservation businesses in Odzala, she will understand where we are going.

Lots of people won’t have that security.

Yeah, it’s one of the preoccupations. We are in a group suggesting new ideas: What is the new future for conservation businesses and for research? Is this still the process?
There are a lot of people responding already. We need to work together. It makes a huge difference. But it needs to be real.

Western lowland gorilla photographed near the Ngaga Field Station in the Republic of Congo. Image courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

Banner image: western lowland gorillas, courtesy of Congo Conservation Company.

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