Lopé National Park features a forest-savanna mosaic habitat, where narrow fingers of forest follow rivers and streams that flow through the savanna. Because mandrills regularly cross the savannas, Lopé is one of the few sites where they can be more easily observed by researchers and tourists alike. As a result of WCS’ long-term project at Lopé, its mandrill hordes are some of the most studied wild mandrills in the world. However there’s plenty that we still don’t know about them.
Supported by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WCS will soon be putting GPS collars onto four females from one well studied horde in the park. The collars will transmit GPS coordinates to WCS researchers at certain times each day, allowing us to build up a more detailed picture of their daily movements. Previous research at Lopé has shown that mandrill movements are related to availability of fruit. Combining the movement data with phenology data (which tree species are fruiting and when) gathered by the National Parks Authority, will allow us to confirm this relationship and assess other ecological- or human factors.
The collars will also transmit radio signals, allowing researchers to locate the mandrills in the forest and predict the direction in which they will move. Researchers can then get ready inside a portable hide, so that the passing mandrills will be oblivious to the human observers! As well as providing a good opportunity to gather more data on the mandrills, this is a really great way for tourists to be able to get up close to the mandrills without them noticing their presence.
In partnership with the National Parks Authority and with funding from ECOFAC, new ecoguides have undertaken field training at Lopé, and have learnt all about how to create an amazing tourist experience with mandrill viewing as a specific example. The newly trained ecoguides will improve Gabon’s ability to provide a high-class 'safari' experience to the increasing number of ecotourists that the government hopes to attract.
In the meantime, an increased presence of staff from WCS ecoguides in the National Park reinforces the National Park's efforts to deter potential hunters from slipping into the park and hunting mandrills for bushmeat. It is hoped that people from the local communities will participate in the tourism project, helping them to get involved in the conservation of their mandrill neighbours.