An interview with Mood of Living
A primate specialist with a foundation in research from Sierra Leone and Gabon in the 1990s, Paul Telfer Ph.D investigated primate viruses and the origins of the HIV epidemic in Africa, spending years in Central and West Africa. Paul pioneered non-invasive sampling techniques for wild primates and, since July 2008, had been the Country Director for the WCS-Congo Program. Paul worked closely with SPAC, LCA and the Congolese government to establish low-impact tourism in the Congo Basin through Congo Conservation Company, as well as supporting our communities and researchers in that process.
Paul first visited Republic of the Congo in 2002 while working on his Ph.D as part of the Gabonese government’s research team to investigate the Ebola outbreak. Paul spent time in the Lossi area just outside of Odzala-Kokoua National Park and worked closely with the research teams of the region, which included Magda Bermejo. This fostered a lifelong friendship and Magda continues to head up the research at Ngaga Camp.
Paul has conducted research into human-primate relationships with regards to HIV, SIV and Ebola and with him came a wealth of in-depth knowledge of conservation, communities and ventures in the Congo Basin. In a special interview with Mood of Living, Paul gives us a glimpse into his expertise, passions, insight and vision for the Congo Basin. Here is an excerpt from the interview…
Q: What inspired you to pursue biodiversity conservation and primatology?
A: While an undergraduate university student at UC Davis, I took a summer job cleaning cages at a primate facility. This led to my fondness for primates and ultimately to my first job in Africa. I was sent to Sierra Leone to study the non-human primate relationship to HIV and SIV and realised, while I was there, that wild primates were under threat from hunting and habitat loss. After moving to Gabon in 1994 to continue that research, I was lucky enough to encounter a group of naïve gorillas in their natural habitat in Lope National Park in central Gabon. This experience changed my life and I decided then and there that I wanted to commit my life to working in conservation.
Q: What was your first visit to Republic of the Congo like?
A: My first visit to Congo-Brazza was in 2002, while I was working on my PhD. As part of the Gabonese Government’s research team (I was working with the Centre International de Researches Medicales, Franceville – CIRMF), I was sent to Lossi to help investigate the Ebola outbreak. I crossed the border between Gabon and Congo by vehicle and spent a week in the Lossi area just outside Odzala-Kokoua National Park. I was impressed with the wildness of the area and the spirit of the people who lived there. The research team at Lossi had suffered so much during the epidemic, but they maintained their dedication and helped us in spite of their own hardships.
Q: What is the focus of your most recent research?
A: My most recent research has been on the biogeography of primates in central Africa. I am interested in the historical factors (i.e. climate, geology, biological communities and evolution) that influence the species composition and distribution of plants and animals that are found in the Congo Basin in particular.
Q: How has working with primatologist Magdalena Bermejo helped shape your present research of biodiversity conservation?
A: I have known Magda for 18 years and we have a strong friendship, sharing similar perspectives in our research. We both care deeply, not only for the primates and wildlife we study, but for the people who share their environment. Making sure that the human element is always considered as part of the ecosystem is something we have been converging on for years.
Q: What inspired the synergy of luxury experience and immersive education for travellers at Odzala Discovery Camps?
A: Odzala Discovery Camps was inspired by the wildlife and people of Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Our goal was to incorporate the beauty of the rainforest setting into each camp for guests, while offering an opportunity to experience the forest as a researcher does. The educational part of the experience is of primary importance; the creation of a sense of wonder for travellers with the hope that they will be inspired to help protect the incredibly fragile habitats they find themselves within. Gorilla tracking with the research team at Ngaga Camp is central to this. Yet, while offering an educational experience, CCC wants guests to feel comfortable and safe while exploring the remote and pristine wild forests of the Congo Basin on holiday.
Q: How has the tourism in the camps Ngaga, Mboko, and Lango contributed to preserving local habitats?
A: Low-impact and conscious tourism has contributed is several key ways. The first and most direct way is through employment. Odzala-Kokoua is very remote, even by Republic of the Congo standards, and there was virtually no employment opportunities before the camps were founded. Most people relied on subsistence farming and hunting to feed their families as there were no viable alternatives for income. Today, CCC employs over 60 local staff from the area and each salary will help feed and clothe up to 10 additional people – this means CCC supports around 600 people in our region. These communities no longer rely solely on slash and burn agriculture and unstainable levels of hunting to survive, thus, this helps protect the ecosystem as locals have placed higher value on the preservation of the forests. Additionally, the national and regional governments are very appreciative of the international interest generated by tourism and the low-impact commercial viability of the region, meaning more intrusive methods are avoided, such as logging. This has helped create a renewed sense of national pride and awareness of the importance of healthy wildlife.
Q: What do you find guests take away from the unique experiences offered by the Congo Conservation Company?
A: Guests are generally impressed with the truly unique experience they get from visiting a remote and unspoiled African rainforest. Their expectations are almost always surpassed when it comes to the beauty and abundance of the wildlife. You are left with a sense that you have participated in an exploration of one of the last great landscapes in Africa, a place that few people have seen and explored.
Q: How is the Congo Conservation Company socially and environmentally responsible?
A: CCC contributes 5% of their tourism revenue to a local community development fund and works very closely with the owner’s charity (SPAC) to provide early childhood education in SPAC-built community centres strategically located in villages around the park. All of the CCC camps are models of environmentally responsible management, being solar powered and biologically friendly toward waste management. This was key when we founded the camps and continues to be at the fore. In each area in which CCC operates, working closely with the park conservation managers such as African Parks, WWF and WCS is integral to drive revenue for them through the tourism concessions and bring awareness to these remote regions. It has been incredible to be a part of establishing a truly collaborative approach to conscious and responsible tourism by partnering with government, communities, researchers and conservation groups to ensure regions like the Congo Basin flourish and can support all its inhabitants.