On the Atlantic Coast of Africa, just south of the equator, I come across a surprising sight: two African forest buffalo, on the beach.
“It even looks weirder if you see the elephants,” says my guide, Wynand Viljoen.
Viljoen works for an eco-tourism company called Africa’s Eden, and he’s brought me to this rare strip of uninhabited coast, where the rainforest meets the sea, in the nation of Gabon.
This is Loango National Park, one of 13 Gabonese national parks established by presidential decree in 2002.
Just inland, Viljoen shows me forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, red river hogs, and the fresh tracks of chimpanzees and leopards.
With an abundance of wildlife and unspoiled habitat, Gabon’s parks – which cover more than ten percent of the country’s land area – made big news when they were created a decade ago.
Conservationists hailed the move as a way to protect Equatorial Africa’s endangered animals and dwindling forests.
Gabonese authorities saw the parks as a way to boost to their country’s economy, long dependent on oil. The idea was to turn Gabon into the African equivalent of Costa Rica – a country that has profited off its rainforests and wildlife through eco-tourism.
Of all the new parks, Loango held perhaps the greatest potential to lure international tourists, given its rare wildlife and unique setting.
National Geographic Magazine called Loango “the land of the surfing hippos” in a 2004 article on the park. As Viljoen says, you can occasionally see hippos here doing just that.
“They’re body surfing in the waves,” he says. “It’s quite amazing to see.”
From the start, though, it was clear that bringing tourists to an out-of-the-way corner of this underdeveloped country would take serious investment.
That’s where Rombout Swanborn comes in.
Swanborn is Dutch, but he grew up in Gabon, where his father worked for the Shell Oil Company. As an adult, Swanborn himself made millions in the oil industry, and at the time Loango Park was being created, he used part of his fortune to open a tourist operation here.
“It was actually meant to function as a demonstration project,” he says. “I’d hoped that in our wake more people would see that Gabon would be a viable area to invest in.”Swanborn opened a facility called Loango Lodge, which is operated by his tourism company, Africa’s Eden.
Perched on a lagoon across from the park, Loango Lodge boasts a restaurant, conference center, curio shop, swimming pool, and ten bamboo-sided bungalows complete with air conditioning, hot water, and other amenities international tourists expect.
Inside the park, Swanborn’s company maintains rustic camps where visitors can spend the night in tents on wooden platforms and experience close encounters with wildlife.
“Sometimes at night you even get elephants crossing the platforms,” says guide Wynand Viljoen.
Swanborn’s investment seemed to pay off. Within a few years, Loango Lodge was drawing several thousand visitors a year, many from the U.S. and Europe. It was the busiest tourist operation in Gabon.
The tourist dollars provided local employment and supported conservation work on gorillas and elephants and sea turtles. Some of the money went to build a school in a local village. In 2008, the British Guild of Travel Writers named Loango the top new tourist destination in the world.
But then, in 2010, Loango Lodge shut down.
“As a pioneer, they became victim to the fact that Gabon wasn’t really ready,” says Lee White, director of Gabon’s national park service.
White, a British-born biologist who formerly worked for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, pushed for the creation of Gabon’s parks and helped launch the tourist and conservation effort at Loango.
“When you’re trying to move a country that has no experience with tourism to become a tourist friendly country, there are huge challenges,” he says.
Transportation in Gabon is unreliable. Hassles with police and immigration officials are common.
Rombout Swanborn says he was able to circumvent these problems for some time. He purchased his own planes and flew tourists directly to Loango from throughout the region.
But Swanborn faced problems with Gabon’s civil aviation authority, an agency considered so ineffectual by the European Union that the EU put Gabon on an air safety blacklist.
“These guys, before they do anything at all, they ask you for a lot of money,” he says.
Swanborn says he refused to give money when officials asked for “an extravagant additional tax of which we knew that it wouldn’t benefit the country.” (He declined to call it a bribe.) The government grounded his planes.
Swanborn tried to bring tourists to Loango by other means, involving a four-hour boat ride down the coast followed by a car ride on potholed roads. But that proved too inconvenient and time-consuming for many tourists. Reservations dried up, and the lodge shut down.
It may seem a straightforward tale of a well-meaning businessman stymied by African corruption and inefficiency, but others who were involved say it’s not that simple. They say Swanborn didn’t do enough to build trust with the Gabonese, and that undermined his efforts.
René Hilaire Adiaheno, a former head of Gabon’s national park service, says Swanborn should have done more to train and employ villagers who live near Loango.
“The definition of eco-tourism is this,” he says. “You have to help local people. You have to share the benefits.”
Romain Calaque, an early employee at Loango who now works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says Swanborn tended to play loose with contracts and rules, including government regulations.
“The government became very upset,” he says, “and it was almost impossible to find a way to get all the partners back around the table.”
For his part, the current head of Gabon’s park service, Lee White, chalks up the trouble to a clash of cultures – an aggressive European businessman operating in a country where people prefer to avoid conflict.
“Everybody made mistakes,” he says. “The truth is there are both good and bad on both sides.”
Whatever went wrong at Loango, White remains optimistic about the eco-tourism potential of Gabon, and he says things are looking up.
Gabon has a new President – Ali Bongo Ondimba, elected in 2009 – and by all accounts he is serious about rooting out the corruption that plagued this country under the former president, his father, who held office for 42 years.
The new government is negotiating with tourism companies to build as many as nine new national park lodges in the next few years.
Loango Lodge, meanwhile, may still have a future.
Rombout Swanborn recently announced that he was reopening the lodge. He hired workmen to repair and upgrade the facilities, and he is trying to resolve his dispute with the Gabonese government so he can resume flights.
For now, though, his planes remain grounded, and visitors are scarce.
Everyone involved hopes things will go better this time because what’s at stake isn’t just money. If tourist dollars don’t start flowing into the economy here, pressure could mount to open the parks to other forms of revenue.
The land that had been set aside for the buffalo on the beach and the hippos in the surf could be handed over to people who value this place for other reasons – to extract its timber and minerals and oil.