October 15, 2020
Paul Telfer, at his office in Cape Town, when he's not exploring the rainforests of Congo
Think of a safari to Africa, and perhaps names like Serengeti, Okavango or Kruger may pop into your head. How about the Congo Basin? Probably not, right? It remains conspicuously absent from most travel brochures.
This huge region in central Africa is 1,8 million square kilometres, about the size of western Europe. The Congo Basin is a complex geographical and political region, extending across the countries of Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Angola, Zambia and even Tanzania. (And yes, for many of us who don’t know yet, there are two independent countries with Congo in their names).
And just as Europe comprises diverse cultures, countries and landscapes, so does “the Congo”. Although there are still relatively small pockets across the region that suffer political unrest and skirmishing militia, the vast majority of Congo is far safer to go on safari than you may think. And few people know this fascinating part of Africa better than Paul Telfer.
Paul first came to Africa in 1991, arriving in Sierra Leone as part of the team working on discovering the origins of the HIV epidemic. Subsequent work took him to Gabon, criss-crossing that country’s expansive forests to further his research on the link between human and other primate diseases. His extensive experience with zoonotic diseases lends weight to Paul’s views on Covid-19.
Several years later, Paul survived a terrifying attack by a captive chimpanzee, losing two of his fingers on his right hand.
Paul has first-hand experience of Africa’s primates, quite literally. It was in Gabon that Paul saw lowland gorillas in the wild for the first time, a pivotal moment that changed the course of his life. Several years later, while working in that same country, he survived a terrifying attack by a captive chimpanzee, losing two of his fingers on his right hand.
His passion for primates was undiminished however, and after recovering in the USA, Paul went back to Africa to head up Wildlife Conservation Society in Republic of Congo, where he helped the government establish several new national parks. More recently, he headed up Congo Conservation Company, a safari company operating in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Republic of Congo. These days he is a director at Sabine Plattner African Charities, the non-profit organisation which, among other conservation and education initiatives, manages Congo Conservation Company.
When people speak of “the Congo”, they often don’t realise the name can refer to several different things. It’s not just one place, right?
Yes, the Congo can refer to the Congo Basin, that huge part of central Africa which the Congo river drains, and it spans several countries. The Congo River is the second longest in Africa, and the second-most voluminous in the world after the Amazon.
The Congo can also refer to two different, autonomous nations. There’s Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a large country, and was colonized by the Belgians, and whose capital is Kinshasa. And then adjacent to DRC is the smaller Republic of Congo, colonized by the French, and whose capital is Brazzaville. Both capital cities lie opposite each other on the Congo River in its lower reaches.
So the Congo can indeed be many different things.
Map of Congo Basin
You’ve spent 30 years living and working in the forests of Sierra Leone, Gabon and Republic of Congo. How does a kid from sunny California end up in the immense rainforests of Africa?
My father was in the US air force, so we moved around a lot. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. I spent part of my childhood in southern Mississippi, with a creek and forest where we used to have adventures and play Tarzan, funnily enough.
I’ve always been a huge fan of National Geographic. When I went to University of California Davis, I thought I’d have to be a lawyer or doctor, unable to follow my passion for wildlife. To cover my university fees, I took a job cleaning cages at Davis’ Primate Research Centre.
At the time it was just a job, but after graduating the centre hired me as a lab technician. That’s when I got very interested in primates. That’s also where I met my wife Trish.
I then came to Africa to look at the origins of the human aids epidemic. We got a grant in the late 1980s to figure out the origins of HIV.
The macaques in the USA’s primate centres were exhibiting symptoms similar to human AIDS, getting immune deficiency. We figured out that the macaques had got it from sooty mangabeys. And where do sooty mangabeys live? In the forests of Sierra Leone and Liberia.
So I was sent over to Sierra Leone in 1991 to take samples from mangabeys and other wild primates for quite a few years.
The remarkable Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Republic of Congo, one of many protected areas which Paul Telfer has helped establish or promote.
Your first encounter with Earth’s largest ape was in Gabon, and it was a decisive moment in your life.
I’ll never forget it. It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-1994. I was in Lope National Park at the research centre with Lee White, a world-leading biologist who is now Minister of Forests, Oceans and Environment in Gabon.
Lee invited me out on a walk to find a flowering specimen of a new plant that he believed was new to science. On the way back that afternoon, we saw a group of lowland gorillas.
We were climbing slowly down the hill to try get a better view of them. Then this big silverback lowland gorilla – he was massive, probably 200kgs – comes rushing up to us, not making a sound. And he stops just in front of us, posing in a typical dominant way with his huge arms in front of him, reaching to the ground.
It was mindboggling. I realized then how majestic and massive they are. They really are the king of the jungle.
The silverback sat down, and his family came out to join him. They were more curious about us than we were about them. They were all looking at us, while their kids were swinging in the vines above.
"I had seen what mankind had done to the forest. Fifty years ago 75% of that country was covered in rainforest. When I arrived in 1991, only 5% of the rainforest was left."
It was momentous. For four years up to then I had lived in Sierra Leone, and I had seen what mankind had done to the forest. Fifty years ago 75% of that country was covered in rainforest. When I arrived in 1991, only 5% of the rainforest was left. The monkey species had been decimated. The locals ate everything.
But here I was with these gorillas, in this pristine rainforest in Gabon, and I realized straight away that this is what I wanted to do for rest of my life. I wanted to help conserve Africa’s rainforest and its animals.
A younger Paul Telfer watching a group of lowland gorillas for the first time, in Gabon in 1994, a life-changing moment for the researcher from California.
You’ve subsequently worked extensively across the Congo Basin. What is it about the Congo that you so admire?
Many things, but particularly its huge size and large mammal diversity. Like the rest of Africa, the Congo is incredibly rich in large mammals. The Amazon, for instance, doesn’t have any large apes. They’ve only got new world monkeys, and all are small.
I always tell people, “Don’t come to Congo just for the gorillas! Come for the whole forest.” If you’re tired of the usual safari and game drive experience in East and Southern Africa, then a visit to the lowland forests of Congo will blow your mind.
The Congo lowland forest is home to two species of chimpanzees (common and bonobo), the forest elephant (a different species to the savannah elephant), leopards, golden cats, bongos, okapis, spotted hyena, forest buffalo…and unique species like pottos and giant pangolins.
"Odzala National Park is very special. Not many people realise that we have 130 000 lowland gorillas in northern Congo, including 18 000 in Odzala alone, and they go wherever they want in the huge forest."
If you want to see gorillas, the experience with lowland gorillas in Odzala National Park is very special. Not many people realise that we have 130 000 lowland gorillas in northern Congo, including 18 000 in Odzala alone, and they go wherever they want in the huge forest.
Compare this to just over 1 000 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda, where they are effectively trapped, surrounded by one of the densest human populations on Earth.
For some reason I’ve never managed to see the mountain gorillas. But I’ve heard from people who’ve done both that the lowland gorilla experience in Congo is more spontaneous and authentic, rather than the choreographed experience of mountain gorillas.
The forest elephants of the lowland forests are phenomenal. If you want to see elephants, then a place like Dzanga Bai in Central African Republic is unbeatable. Giant tuskers come out into the forest clearing, along with buffalo, bongos and other animals. It’s the quintessential Tarzan scene. Other bais in the area are hotspots for gorillas, depending on the type of vegetation they contain.
Odzala National Park is also great for forest elephants – we’ve got between 6 000 and 9 000, one of the healthiest populations left in Africa.
A silverback lowland gorilla descends the rainforst in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Republic of Congo.
A forest elephant browsing in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Republic of Congo
You’ve explored many of the finest national parks in the Congo region. Which stand out for you, and how does Odzala rank on this list?
Odzala is definitely one of the most impressive, mostly because of its size. Is it the richest? No. It doesn’t have a high level of endemism. But it’s big, and it’s absolutely intact and pristine. It’s never been commercially logged or hunted.
It’s the crown jewel of the Republic of Congo, and has a diversity of habitat types. Forest, savannah, dense marantacea, closed canopy high forest, an escarpment and massive swamp areas. There’s actually still so little we know about Odzala.
Noubale-Ndoki National Park in northern Republic of Congo is seriously impressive. Up to about 35 years ago, these were the last true untouched, unseen forests of Africa. Specifically, the Goualougo Triangle in Noubale-Ndoki is so remote that even the pygmies couldn’t get in there, because it’s surrounded by swamp land.
"Noubale-Ndoki is so remote that when National Geographic explorer Mike Fay found his way there, the chimps and gorillas came out and practically walked up to him, because they’d never seen a human before."
It’s so remote that when National Geographic explorer Mike Fay found his way in there in 1999, the chimps and gorillas came out and practically walked up to him, because they’d never seen a human before.
Lope National Park and Loango National Park in Gabon are very special. The latter is famous for hippos that surf in the waves on the ocean shoreline. Although Gabon is not technically part of the Congo River Basin, it’s rainforests are contiguous with the rest of the Congo.
Plateau Batéké National Park in Gabon is also one of my favourites. It has a fascinating, stunning landscape, comprising not rainforest, but mostly rolling green hills. This is because of its underlying geology of Kalahari sands which stretch all the way up from Southern Africa, eventually forming a tongue of sand into the Batéké plateau.
Because of the high rainfall, everything is really green, but the soils are leached of their nutrients, because the Kalahari sands can’t hold much moisture. In some places, the Kalahari sands are up to 900 metres deep. It’s the only place in Africa where you can find lions, leopards, servals, golden cats, forest elephants, forest buffalos, side-striped jackals and spotted hyenas in one place.
From a conservation perspective, what makes Central Africa’s forests so important?
Of course there’s the incredible richness of animal and plant species, but from a global perspective, the Congo is actually sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazon.
There’s a new scientific, peer-reviewed paper that was recently profiled in Nature magazine, that shows that the Congo, even though it’s not as big as the Amazon, is taking out more carbon from the atmosphere.
Sadly the Amazon is getting badly hammered, as more and more of it gets converted into agricultural land for soybean and cattle. And as we lose the Amazon, the Congo becomes so much more important.
You worked on the team that discovered the source of the HIV virus, which was eventually traced back to sooty mangabeys and chimps. With Covid-19 top of mind, how do viruses get transmitted from primates to humans?
These are zoonotic diseases, so you need contact between animal and human. Do people get diseases by walking through the forest? Probably not. If you look at all the ebola human epidemics, for instance, they’ve all been traceable to someone coming across a dead great ape in the forest, whether it’s a chimp or a gorilla.
In the case of HIV, it arose because humans were killing lots of primates, and eating them. The monkeys had a type of immune deficiency virus, called SIV (simian immunodeficiency) which mutated into HIV because humans were exposed to the raw flesh and blood of the monkey.
The people who butcher the monkeys are most at risk, because that’s when the meat is freshest. Typically, butchers have small cuts on their hands anyway and there’s a direct exchange of blood.
Once the meat is cooked, the virus is dead. So if you eat bush meat in a restaurant you’re probably not going to be at risk. But it’s the guy out in the forest, who shoots an animal and has to chop it up. Or the person who’s preparing it, like the market lady who is cutting it up. That’s where the real risks are.
And if you’ve got multiple species on the table, there’s a possibility for the viruses to jump and mutate.
"Pangolins and bats were near each other in the Chinese “wet” markets, so the virus could hybridise. That virus then becomes capable of infecting humans, whereas historically a bat virus or pangolin virus would not have been able to infect a human."
So the general thinking on Covid-19 is that pangolins and bats were near each other in the Chinese “wet” markets, so the virus could hybridise. That virus then becomes capable of infecting humans, whereas historically a bat virus or pangolin virus on their own would not have been able to infect a human.
In the case of simian immunodeficiency, if you inject it into a human, you’re not going to get SIV or HIV. You may get flu-like symptoms, but that’s it. The virus has to adapt to humans somehow. It’s got to go through some sort of mutation.
So with HIV, it turns out that it was the exchange between the glass syringe and stainless steel needles in the village clinics, which weren’t being sterilized.
So a farmer, who had butchered a monkey, may have had an SIV infection (which would have ordinarily been eliminated by the human’s immune system). But let’s say that the farmer goes to a clinic because of his flu symptoms, and is injected with a needle, which remained unsterilized and is subsequently used on somebody else, and then again on other people.
So the virus is serially exposed to several people. The non-human primate virus then rapidly reproduces, and a lot of the new virus replicants have mutations, and some of these mutations become adapted to the new human host and become a human virus.
Given your extensive experience with these types of viruses, what’s the message for the world about Covid-19 and exposure to wild animals?
We need to be very careful about the commercialization of any wildlife, when you start hunting large numbers of wild animals, butchering and re-selling them. And it also becomes dangerous when people go into areas that have never been disturbed or exposed to humans before.
"People have been eating monkeys in some parts of Africa for millennia, and if you look at the pygmy populations in Gabon or Congo, there’s a percentage of them that have Ebola anti-bodies."
People have been eating monkeys in some parts of Africa for millennia, and if you look at the pygmy populations in Gabon or Congo, there’s a percentage of them that have Ebola anti-bodies. They’ve been exposed to it for a long time, and they have survived. But most humans have never been exposed to the meat of these animals, so we don’t have the anti-bodies.
The biggest problem is the so-called “wet markets” in Asia, where these species are mixed together on the same table, in conditions which allow viruses to mutate rapidly.
If you pick up a pangolin in a forest, or any other kind of animal, you’ll probably be fine, as long as it’s not dead. But if you find a dead great ape in the forest, and take it back to your village, you’ll probably get a disease like Ebola and die. That’s how most of the human epidemics have started.
The Congo forest was at one stage more densely populated with humans, then they seemed to have disappeared. Would it have been something similar to HIV or Covid-19 that wiped them out?
We just don’t know. Yes, there’s this perception that the Congo rainforest was always empty of humans, but in fact there were abundant tracts of cultivated palms deep in the forests, which supported a very large population. And about 900 years ago, these people all died out. We don’t know what happened to them.
It probably wasn’t HIV, rather something much more transmissible. But we just don’t know. It could have been climate related too, or a combination of both.
What are the major conservation challenges for the Congo Basin?
Governments need to take their national parks very seriously, but funding is always an issue. How do you fund the protection and management of national parks? Governments have good legislation mostly, but the communities aren’t getting things they need from their governments. And so they rely on natural resources in the national parks.
Tourism is the low-hanging fruit. If we can get tourism going in a few key parks, then the entire Congo basin can be stabilised.
But logistics is a major issue. You can’t just drive into these rainforests in a 4×4. We have to put airstrips down and fly in, which makes any holiday trip expensive.
"I believe that the Congo basin is going to be the most important tourism drawcard in Africa. The usual east and southern African safaris are clichéd. Guests don’t want to be crammed into a lion sighting with ten other vehicles."
However, I believe that the Congo basin is going to be the most important tourism drawcard in Africa’s future. The usual east and southern African safaris are clichéd. Guests don’t want to be crammed into a lion sighting with ten other vehicles.
I still remember, back in November 1992, when I was the only guest at Fig Tree Lodge in the Maasai Mara and it was amazing. I went back 20 years later, and there were so many people it wasn’t even fun. It was like Yosemite National Park on a busy day. When I was a kid, we’d go camp in Yosemite during winter and we had the whole park to ourselves. But in the summer holidays it was a zoo. It wasn’t even tolerable. East Africa is going that way currently.
A boat with visitors exploring the Lekoli River near Mboko Camp in Odzala National Park
How do African governments – and poorer communities – balance conservation of natural resources with livelihoods? For example, what is the appropriate response to a local family living near Odzala, if they asked: “Why should we protect this forest when we are poor and we need to make a living?”
It’s important to have a balance. Yes, people are financially poor and so rely on the local natural resources. And right now they’re going into national parks to do so. Why the national parks? Because the unprotected areas of Africa have been hammered. There’s simply nothing left.
It reminds me of the old growth redwood conservation issue in northern California. We wanted to stop the logging. So the loggers said “we can’t stop, because our lives depend on it.” But if the loggers haven’t survived on 99% of the forest so far, how will the last 1% make a difference anyway?
These forests – and other pristine places – are important biologically and intrinsically. Yes, communities must be included in the process, and have access to the forest, but there can’t be the expectation of buying a Mercedes through bush meat hunting.
If you want to feed your children, then yes, the forest can do that. But the national park can’t provide schools, roads, clinics and all the other public services. These are the government’s responsibility. It’s not the park’s job to build these things.
Building schools is job of the ministry of education, not the national park. And building clinics is the job of ministry of health. Building roads must be done by the ministry of roads.
Three young men on a public road near Odzala-Kokoua National Park. The man on the left is carrying a duiker antelope which he had caught in a snare.
Africa’s wildlife tourism is a significant catalyst for job-creation and social development. What role does tourism play in the Congo Basin?
National parks provide jobs through tourism and park management. And if your tourism in the parks works, then your hotels in Brazzaville are full, the taxis are busy, the restaurants and shops get busier. There are a whole lot of secondary economic benefits to tourism. These jobs will help provide taxes to governments that will be used to provide schools and roads, and clinics.
Tourism has the opportunity to transform the government’s stance on conservation. International people are coming to Congo and Gabon to see the parks, and the governments are taking more pride in their country because of it.
A place like Odzala is already a centre of excellence for Republic of Congo.
"When you show your letter of invitation to Odzala, they start smiling and being really friendly. They are extremely proud of their parks, their country, and especially the gorillas!"
When you arrive at Brazzaville’s airport, the immigration guys are usually grumpy, but when you show your letter of invitation to Odzala, they start smiling and being really friendly. They are extremely proud of their parks, their country, and especially the gorillas!
These governments want a positive international image, they want to be proud, and they want their people to be proud. Countries like Costa Rica or Belize don’t’ have standing armies, yet they’re investing in their environment and conservation, and they’re doing really well. Gabon is on the same path currently.
Ngaga Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, an excellent base from which to see lowland gorillas.
You’ve spent hundreds of hours with primates, but one encounter with a captive chimpanzee in south-eastern Gabon was particularly memorable, albeit not particularly pleasurable. How did you lose the two fingers on your right hand?
In the early 2000s I would spend six to eight weeks on the road with a small mobile lab, taking samples from live monkeys that locals had captured, to further our research on the origins of HIV and other zoonotic diseases.
Anyway, it was 2002, and I was in south-eastern Gabon near a town called Ndende on the border of Republic of Congo. I was with my assistant and a gendarme, who usually accompanied me wherever I went.
The locals told us there’s a captive chimpanzee nearby, a pet of a French mercenary living there. The former president of Gabon Omar Bongo got kidnapped early on in his presidency. He escaped, but afterwards, as a precaution, he installed French mercenaries around the country just in case.
So we meet this French mercenary, and he greets us and says: “So you’re here to see Marc my chimpanzee?”
"And there was Marc, an adult male chimpanzee, about 65kgs, a big boy chained around his neck to a tree. They’re incredibly strong, about four times stronger than a big human man."
And there was Marc, an adult male chimpanzee, about 65kgs, a big boy chained around his neck to a tree. It’s very rare to find chimps in captivity, and even more rare to find an adult. At age three they become unmanageable and it never ends well. They’re incredibly strong, about four times stronger than a big human man.
But this chimp seemed to be the most docile thing. The French mercenary walked over to him and gave the chimp a glass of water. They smoked a cigarette together, and the chimp’s put his arm around him. Then the Frenchman’s five-year-old daughter walked out and gave the chimp a kiss and sat down with him.
I thought I don’t need to get a sample from the chimp, because I’d already collected 40-50 blood samples on my trip. And I knew that if I had to dart the chimp, I’d need to use six darts, because he was so big. That would just make him really aggressive, so I started packing up my lab kit to leave.
Just as I’m packing up, the chimp waddled over to me and holds out an empty sardine can to me. So, thinking he’s at the end of his chain, I hold my right hand out so he can smell me, like you would to a dog.
"He stepped forward and held my arm. He wasn’t hurting me, but he slowly pulled my hand to his face. I’m still not panicking. He looked me in the eye, and then proceeded to try and kill me."
He stepped forward and held my arm. He wasn’t hurting me or anything, but he slowly pulled my hand to his face. I’m still not panicking. He looked me in the eye, and then proceeded to try and kill me.
He started ripping my hand apart, threw me to the ground. At that stage I was fighting for my life. I figured he was going to rip my arm right off my body.
I knew that when chimps go for humans, they go for fingers, eyes and genitals. The nurse and the gendarme tried to pull me away, but he threw them to the ground too. The owner kept punching the chimp in the face, telling him to let go. It made no difference.
After what seemed like an eternity to me, but was probably just 15 seconds, the chimp let me go. Blood was pumping everywhere. I threw my car keys to my assistant, and shouted “get me to the nearest hospital!”.
He caught my keys and promptly passed out from shock. We were ten hours away from the nearest hospital.
We tore up the road in the Land Cruiser, and I fashioned an old inner tyre tube into a tourniquet. But at that stage I thought I was going to die. I’d lost my pinkie and ring finger, and big chunks of flesh out of my arm. My middle finger had been de-gloved, skinned to the bone. There was blood everywhere.
We drove for ten minutes, when the gendarme told me there’s a missionary clinic on the Congo border, deep in the forest. But the missionary doctor wasn’t there. After about five hours the doctor returned, and said he can’t save the two fingers, but can save the middle one. The chimp had munched them, bits of them were lying on the ground.
"I was fighting for my life. Three days later I woke up. They had used Ketamine on me but turned out I was resistant to it. Apparently I had kept waking up and grabbing the surgeon."
I was fighting for my life, doing my best not to pass out from shock. Three days later I woke up. They had used Ketamine on me but turned out I was resistant to it. Apparently I had kept waking up and grabbing the surgeon.
They had sown up my hand with nylon sutures like fishing line, and had left a lot of bone fragments inside my hand, so it got seriously infected.
A day later I was medevacked back to the USA. The first doctor I saw said he had to amputate at the elbow. The second doctor said he had to take my arm off at the elbow, and if not in the next four hours, then he had to take my whole arm off, up to the shoulder. And he couldn’t guarantee my survival.
So I called my boss, a virologist, and he said “shit, okay, let me make some phone calls.”
Twenty minutes later he called me back, and said “I’ve got this colleague at Harvard, he’s got a new delivery system and a state of the art anti-biotic, and if you’re prepared to waive all liabilities, then we can try. But nothing’s guaranteed.”
So I said “sure”, and we found a surgeon who would waive the liabilities.
"They put a 44cm catheter into my arm, all the way into my heart. They hooked me up to a one-litre bag of antibiotics, and they pumped one litre of antibiotics into my heart every 12 hours for six weeks."
They put a 44cm catheter into my arm, all the way directly into my heart. They hooked me up to a pump, and a one-litre bag of antibiotics, and they pumped one litre of antibiotics into my heart every 12 hours for six weeks.
It saved my arm, and my life. At the time, my wife was pregnant with my daughter.
Were you traumatised by the experience?
I’ve been very lucky. The chimp munched my right hand, but I’m naturally left-handed. There’s no pain anymore. Although I’ve only got eight fingers now, I’ve still got my eyes, and I’ve had two kids. I can even touch type! And at least it wasn’t two of my toes, because then I couldn’t go running.
The only problem is that when I go to the bar and order four beers [Paul laughs, holding up the three remaining fingers of his right hand.]
I also thought “cool, I’ve got this really interesting cocktail party story now”, but when I tell people that a chimp bit my finger off, they don’t believe me! They think it was a carpentry accident or an injury from the Iraq war or something.
Did you go back to Gabon to resume your work? Did you visit the French mercenary and chimp again?
After the operation, and once I’d healed up, I went back and kept taking blood samples.
"I wasn’t going to let a chimp chase me out of Africa! Chimps are amazing animals in the wild, and I’ll defend them until the day I die, but they should not be in captivity."
I wasn’t going to let a chimp chase me out of Africa! Chimps are amazing animals in the wild, and I’ll defend them until the day I die, but they should not be in captivity. It never ends well.
I also went back to tell the French mercenary that I didn’t have any hard feelings. But he hid from me, and I was told that he had killed the chimp. But he hadn’t.
Six months later, my friend Lee White in Gabon calls me up. “Hey Paul, your chimp is named Marc right? He did one for the good guys.”
Apparently on the edge of Lope National Park, one of the logging companies was a really bad operator, and the CEO had gone down to Ndende to visit the mercenary who had the chimp. And the chimp attacked the CEO as well, and killed him. And the logging company subsequently went bankrupt.