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Following Wildlife Cheerleader Mireya Mayor into the Congo swamps

What’s it like to be a National Geographic explorer/filmmaker/scientist, hip-deep in a swamp in equatorial Africa, edging up to a family of grumpy lowland gorillas?

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Photo courtesy Mireya Mayor

It’s anything but comfortable. Sweat bees get in the eyes, tsetse flies bite, worms can burrow into the skin, and there’s always the prospect of being charged by an elephant that thinks you’re up to no good.

All these things have been endured by Mireya Mayor, who is working on a documentary about western lowland gorillas for the National Geographic Channel.

She is on her way to the eastern Congo to resume filming–but thanks to the wonders of digital technology we will be able to keep track of her whereabouts via the Mireya Tracker on her Web site and receive live updates from the field.

“The last time I was in close proximity to the gorillas,” Mayor told me in a phone interview while she was boarding a plane en route to Africa earlier today, “a silverback ran up to me and gave me a swat. It’s the ultimate experience one can have with a gorilla.”

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Photo courtesy Mireya Mayor

It’s a good thing that Mayor gets a thrill from such wild encounters. Not many people would relish the arduous schlep into swampland only to be charged by a 350-pound gorilla at the destination. It’s like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.

But this is all in a day’s work for Mireya Mayor, who has been described by the New York Times as a female Indiana Jones.

The former Miami Dolphins cheerleader and model has a Ph.D. in anthropology and is one of the world’s foremost experts on primates. Her work has taken her to some of the most forbidding places on the planet.

Mayor is an emerging explorer for the National Geographic Society and a National Geographic Television correspondent. Most recently she starred in the History Channel series “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone,” as one of four explorers to retrace the nearly 1,000-mile trip through Africa of Henry Stanley and David Livingstone.

Mayor knows her primates. She is credited with the scientific co-discovery of the world’s smallest primate, the mouse lemur, in Madagascar in 2002.

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Primatologist Mireya Mayor holding a newly discovered mouse lemur.

NGS photo by Mark Thiessen

Now Mayor is going back to one of the remotest corners of Africa, deep into the Congo rain forest, where one of the world’s largest primates, the lowland gorilla, has been observed behaving in fascinating ways.

Gorillas Mating Face-to-Face

“They’re the same gorillas that were documented mating facing one another,” Mayor reminded me. You can see pictures and read about this behavior in the National Geographic News story “Gorillas Photographed Mating Face-to-Face–A First.” Though the behavior had been observed before in mountain gorillas, it had never before been seen in the lowland gorilla subspecies–and had never before been photographed in the wild.

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The female in the photographs was also the first gorilla seen using a tool in the wild.

“And among these gorillas the males display some unusual splashing behavior to woo females,” Mayor said.

It’s gorilla behavior like this that Mayor and the National Geographic film crew are documenting. They will be trekking into Mbeli Bai, a swampy clearing in the Congo where at least a dozen gorilla families come to feed at a giant salad bar. The seasonal gathering of the clans is also an opportunity for males to find mates, and this is when they display some very interesting gorilla rituals.

“We still have so much to learn about them,” Mayor said. “Unlike mountain gorillas, these lowland gorillas are not easily habituated to the presence of people. They have been hunted for centuries, so they are very wary. They hang around in places difficult for us to get into and we aren’t able to get up very close to them.”

I asked Mayor if there were a lot of snakes in the swamp. “I’ve seen them … but I’m more on the look-out for elephants,” she said. “They can run faster they we can when they charge, so I like to know where they are and what they’re doing.”

Bookmark Mireya Mayor’s Web site for regular updates from her from the Congo. The documentary she is working on will air on the National Geographic Channel next year.