/ 2 August 2010

Gabon tourist operation forced to close

A lodge airline has been grounded by the new government’s aviation authority bungling

It took nine years, a dedicated airline and €15-million (R140-million) invested by a private operator to ensure tourist access to Loango National Park in Gabon, one of the most pristine and spectacular wildlife preserves in the world.

Under Africa’s Eden, owned by Dutch businessman and conservationist Rombout Swanborn, the black lagoons and rainforests of Loango became the jewel in the crown among the country’s 13 national parks. It earned Gabon huge global exposure and praise for wildlife protection.

Last week Africa’s Eden announced it had been forced to abandon the park and will wind up operations there within a month. The move follows failed negotiations in a dispute between the Gabonese civil aviation authority (Anac) and Africa’s Eden’s sister company, SCD Aviation, which ran a regional airline charter company from Libreville to the park.

Following the death last year of Gabon’s president Omar Bongo — an enthusiastic supporter of rainforest conservation — Anac has consistently refused to renew SCD Aviation’s air operator’s certificate, even though all requirements were met.

One reason is the apparent malfunctioning of the civil aviation authority, which has failed to create the conditions necessary for regular and safe air transport in the country.

In 2008 the European Union blacklisted all Gabonese airlines when, according to the European Commission, deficiencies were reported about the capability of Anac to perform its air safety oversight responsibilities.

More than 93% of the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation were not implemented, the lowest percentage of all audited countries, making Anac one of the worst-performing civil aviation authorities in the world.

“We have made numerous attempts to resolve this dispute amicably for over a year now,” said Swanborn. “The ongoing events and consequences of not being able to operate our aircraft have financially crippled our organisation, leaving us no choice but to take this drastic measure. We are highly disappointed as a solution would have benefited all parties involved, particularly the Gabonese people.”

Loango National Park has 100km of unspoilt coastline where elephants and buffalo roam. There is a main lodge with luxury bungalow accommodation overlooking a lagoon and five satellite camps on a mosaic of open savannah, deserted beach, rainforest and rivers. Safari activities included game drives, kayaking, forest treks, gorilla and birdwatching.

It’s where the naturalist Michael Fay of National Geographic fame ended his 3200km mega-transect through the African rainforests and was startled to find hippos surfing waves and pigmy forest elephants and buffaloes wandering on the beaches.

Fay called it “Africa’s last Eden”. The park is also renowned as a sport-fishing site for tarpon and barracuda.

From the air the intense green forest unspools to the horizon. Huge trees, some maybe 80m high and looking like broccoli heads on steroids, dominate the canopy. Along the edge of lagoons, mangroves dip their legs into the dark, tannin-stained water like shy ballerinas.

Colourful parrots flock over iridescent green grass swaths crisscrossed with hippo paths. It’s a technicolour wonderland of greens, blues and purples, ancient, inscrutable and infinitely precious.

Millions of euros invested in the park’s infrastructure will be lost following the closure, 125 employees will be laid off and tourist access to the park will effectively end.

At risk are the many research and conservation projects in the park, towards which Africa’s Eden contributed about €3-million (R30-million) earned from tourism. These include research and monitoring studies of whales, manatees, crocodiles and turtles by the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund.

In the north of the park primatologists from the Max Planck Institute have been pioneering the habituation of western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees.

Another gorilla sanctuary and reintroduction project funded by Africa’s Eden made international headlines last year when young ­western lowland gorillas rescued from the bushmeat trade were transferred on to a safe island in the Fernan-Vaz Lagoon.

There could be another reason for SCD Aviation’s failure to secure a flight certificate. Gabon’s wealth has been derived mainly from oil, but this is running out and, increasingly, the country is looking to the logging of its ancient indigenous hardwoods for revenue.

Most of Gabon’s national parks encompass large areas of pristine rainforest. Africa Eden’s presence in Loango limited logging in areas within its influence. With Africa’s Eden out of the way, logging and the bushmeat trade will undoubtedly escalate.