Operated by the CCC, Odzala Discovery Camps lies within the luscious rainforests, rivers, and savannas of Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Odzala’s three lodges reside amongst astonishing biodiversity, with one of the densest primate populations in central Africa. Specially located for both ecotourism and Western Lowland Gorilla research, the lodges allow guests to live harmoniously with the local environment while supporting the work of Paul and the in-house research team.
Mood of Living Q&A
Mood of Living: What is your hometown?
Paul: I don’t really have a hometown. I was born in Boston, Mass, but moved away when I was two years old. My father was in the US Air Force, so we moved quite a bit when I was younger. When my father left the service, we settled in northern California (Oroville) where I finished High School.
MoL: Where did you go to college?
Paul: I attended UC Davis in California for my undergraduate degree and earned my PhD from NYU.
MoL: Where are you currently located?
Paul: I split my time between Congo (Odzala and Brazzaville) and Cape Town.
MoL: What was your career path to becoming the Chief Executive Officer of the Congo Conservation Company (CCC)?
Paul: After earning my PhD, I became a Senior Conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). I worked for WCS in Gabon and Congo and became the WCS-Congo Country Program Director. I accumulated a significant amount of experience working in Gabon and Congo, which prepared me for my role in CCC.
MoL: What was your first visit to the Republic of Congo like?
Paul: My first visit to Congo was in 2002, while I was working on my PhD. As part of a 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 recent Ebola outbreak. I crossed the border between Gabon and Congo by car and spent a week in the Lossi area just outside Odzala. I was impressed with the wildness of the area and 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 hardships.
MoL: What inspired you to pursue biodiversity conservation and primatology? What drew you to researching primates?
Paul: 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. While I was there, I realized 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.
MoL: What has primatology taught you about yourself and your relationship to the environment?
Paul: I am often asked if my studies of primates has shown me how much they are similar to “us”, and my answer has always been that I have really learned that it is “us” who are really like them. The study of Primatology is part of the field of Anthropology, and my studies have only reinforced my understanding that we humans are deeply linked with the environment, no matter how much we try to control or manipulate it. Nature will always influence us, and we need to be careful not to upset the balance that we have with nature.
MoL: What is the focus of your most recent research?
Paul: 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 Africa.
MoL: How has working with primatologist Magdalena Bermejo helped shape your present research of biodiversity conservation?
Paul: I have known Magda for 18 years and we have a strong friendship and share 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 working on for years.
MoL: What’s the best risk you’ve ever taken?
Paul: The best risk I’ve ever taken was to leave the US for a job and come to Africa.
MoL: What inspired the Odzala Discovery Camps? Why did you decide for the camps to be both luxurious and educational sites for tourists?
Paul: The Odzala Discovery Camps were inspired by the wildlife and people of Odzala-Kokoua National Park. We have tried to incorporate the beauty of the rainforest setting into each camp, while offering our guests an opportunity to experience the forest as a researcher does. The educational part of what we offer is of primary importance because we are trying to create a sense of wonder for our guests, with the hope that they will be inspired to help protect these incredibly fragile habitats. While offering an educational experience, we really want our guests to feel comfortable and safe in our remote and pristine wild forests.
MoL: How has tourism from the Ngaga, Mboko, and Lango camps contributed to preserving local habitats?
Paul: Tourism has contributed is several key ways. The first and most direct way is through employment. Odzala is very remote, even by Congo standards, and there were virtually no employment opportunities before we created the camps. Most people rely on small farms and hunting to feed their families, as there were no viable alternatives for income. Today we employ over 60 local staff from the area and each salary we provide will help feed and clothe up to 10 additional people. These people no longer rely solely on slash and burn agriculture and unsustainable levels of hunting to survive, which ultimately helps protect the ecosystem. The tourism revenue is dependent on a healthy ecosystem, so there is a new felt appreciation for the park and its ecosystems at the local level. Additionally, the national and regional governments are very appreciative of the international interest generated by tourism. This has helped create a renewed sense of national pride and awareness of the importance of healthy wildlife.
MoL: How do guests reach each of these camps?
Paul: Guests arrive in the newly built international airport (Maya Maya) at Brazzaville, on flights arriving from Paris, Addis Abiba, Nairobi, Kigali, and other international cities. From Brazzaville, they access Odzala (Mboko Airstrip) on a private charter that takes just under two hours. From the airstrip, it’s a short ride in a game viewer to the camps.
MoL: What do you find guests take away from the unique experiences offered by these camps?
Paul: 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. They are left with a sense that they have participated in an exploration of one of the last great landscapes in Africa, a place that few people have seen and explored.
MoL: Was there one architect for all three camps? What was the inspiration for the architecture?
Paul: There was a group of architects involved in the building the three camps, but it was the forest itself and the way the local indigenous peoples build their own dwellings that inspired the architecture.
MoL: How do these camps give back and impact local communities and the surrounding environment? How are they socially and environmentally responsible?
Paul: We (CCC) contribute 5% of our tourism revenue to a local community development fund, and work very closely with our owner’s charity (SPAC) that provides early childhood education in SPAC community centers in strategic villages around the park. All of our camps are also models of environmentally responsible management, being solar powered and biologically friendly toward waste management.
MoL: Have you ever faced a time when you wanted to give up?
Paul: Not really, I’ve gotten tired of some of the battles but would never give up.
MoL: How has the CCC’s partnership with African NGOs and private business sectors benefitted your research and conservation work?
Paul: CCC is in of itself a conservation tool, used to support the protection of Congo’s national parks. The steps we take with our NGO partners and the business sectors in Congo form part of a greater conservation effort to protect the protected rain forests of northern Congo, and ultimately across the Congo Basin.
MoL: What areas of conservation do you think are largely overlooked by the public?
Paul: The public is generally not aware of how difficult it is for the governments of developing countries to commit the needed resources (human and financial) to protecting their natural heritage. Many of the governments have very good policies and protected area networks within their country, but do not make the resources available which are needed to adequately manage their parks. This results in “paper parks” if there is no outside support, technical and financial support mobilized by conservation NGOs or through revenues generated by Ecotourism.
MoL: Do you have a philosophy for living positively?
Paul: I generally apply the “Live and Let Live” philosophy and like to take the long term approach to my way of life. I understand that good things take time and that persistence and tenacity are important in how you go about your endeavors.
MoL: Where do you like to go to unwind?
Paul: I like to go to any beach that has warm water. Lately, it has been the Atlantic coast of south Florida.
MoL: What is your favorite recipe to make while you are traveling for fieldwork?
Paul: I like to make Louisiana style “red beans and rice” or gumbo if I can get the ingredients.
MoL: What have you found to be most emotionally fulfilling about your work in biodiversity conservation, primatology, and anthropology?
Paul: The most fulfilling thing is to take a moment and look back on what we have accomplished. One often finds that when presented with all of the many challenges that face us, it seems as if we haven’t accomplished much. But when you stop and look back, you can see that you have made a difference and that feels good.
Paul Telfer, CEO of Congo Conservation Company