Operation Freedom

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  18. 07. 2020

Almost nine months have passed since Rachel Hogan and I sat in her office in the Primate Sanctuary in Mefou, Cameroon, planning the building of children’s accommodation. The children are brought to Mefou from the villages surrounding the Dja Biosphere Reserve by our Wandering Bus. Here, they take part in an educational program, meet gorillas and are transported to the Yaoundé metropolis where they spend the night in a house we rent for them. However, this arrangement is not very practical, so we have decided to build our own accommodation here in Mefou.

“Operation Freedom”. Photo: Passion Planet “Operation Freedom”. Photo: Passion Planet

After we had discussed our latest project in detail, I got up to leave but Rachel stopped me. “I need to tell you something, but it’s very, very confidential.” That’s how I found out about a male gorilla named Freedom. He appeared in Mefou as if out of thin air on Saturday morning, August 24, 2019.

The rescue staff sounded the alarm immediately. “A gorilla has escaped!” But when they did a headcount of the gorillas, not a single one was missing. Did they miscount? They didn’t. The gorilla, who Rachel named Freedom shortly after, came to Mefou from the wild.

It was a great surprise for everyone as the nearest wild gorillas live at least a hundred kilometres from Mefou as the crow flies. Freedom is estimated to be between 15 and 17 years old and had set out to start his own family group. He had to cross a considerable distance while travelling through densely populated areas where danger could be lurking behind every corner. In the end, the smell of gorillas lured him into the Mefou Primate Sanctuary.

“We put him under and placed him here in the sanctuary,” Rachel told me last November. Then her eyes lit up: “After more then twenty years of rescuing gorillas from the wild, I’ll finally have the opportunity to actually release one of them.”

The crucial question was where to settle Freedom so that he wouldn’t be easy prey for poachers. Several options were considered, and eventually, the Dja Biosphere Reserve near the town of Somalomo was chosen. This is where our Wandering Bus services are based and where we have spent years trying to convince the locals not to hunt gorillas and other endangered species. There was no safer place for Freedom!

He was moved there last December in secret. The task of relocating a 135-kilogram gorilla was an arduous one and required the help of a great number of people. A raft had to be built in order to transport Freedom across the Dja river, a path was cut through the jungle, and Freedom was carried to the forest in a heavy crate by twelve men. The negotiations with the locals that the release site be a no-go zone were equally as difficult.

That’s how on December 13, 2019, Freedom was once again a free gorilla. Rachel described that “even though we quickly lost sight of him, we could clearly hear the sound of his feet pounding the ground as he ran deeper into the forest, back to his natural habitat, back to nature.” After Freedom had disappeared into the Dja Biosphere Reserve’s forest, only once did someone hear him. Since then, there has been no sign of him, which is very good news.

For security reasons, the whole “Operation Freedom” was only made public after a few months, at the beginning of March this year. Right after, however, the covid-19 pandemic began and veiled the entire affair in anonymity. It has also impeded our attempts at setting up accommodation in Mefou.

Although the story of Freedom did not receive the attention it deserves, it was still a great success. Not only did it form connections between numerous people, it also further inspired the efforts to protect the Cameroon nature.