Given the past couple months, I’m sure every Chicagoan could use a warm-weather getaway. But while cold commuters may have spent their travel time dreaming about Orlando or Tucson, I doubt many considered visiting the steamy rainforests of the Republic of Congo’s Goualougo Triangle.
Forest elephants were one of many wild species observed by zoo experts during their trip to the Goualougo Triangle field research site.
For three zoo experts, though, this pristine landscape—home to gorillas, chimpanzees and countless other wild species—was the destination of a lifetime. Vice President of Conservation & Science Lisa Faust, Ph.D., Curator of Primates Maureen Leahy and Steve Ross, Ph.D., director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, made the trip to the Goualougo in February. They were there to visit the field site of Fisher Center research fellow Dave Morgan, Ph.D., who studies great ape tool use, behavior and the impact of logging in one of the most remote places on earth.
Chimpanzees are among the species making their homes in this untouched ecosystem. Photo by Ian Nichols.
As you’d expect, it isn’t easy to get to the Goualougo Triangle. The several-day trip from Chicago to the jungles involves travel via air, water and land, culminating in a seven-hour hike through the swamp leading to the base camp. But because the site is so remote, Dave and his wife and research partner, Crickette Sanz, Ph.D., have been able to study chimpanzees and gorillas in what is basically their natural habitat, largely untouched by human influence.
Expedition team members Lisa Faust, Maureen Leahy and Steve Ross (left–right), led by Congolese guides, navigate a stretch of swampy river in Nouaboule-Ndoki National Park.
Over the years, this has produced some impressive results. The research team has observed unprecedented tool use by chimpanzees, including the use of sticks to puncture termite mounds as well as “honey pounding,” where the apes use a series of tools to gather the sweet treat from hives far up in the forest canopy.
Our experts made the trip to see this research firsthand—and help plan the next stages for this vital conservation work. Dave and his team continue to use a network of “camera traps” to collect footage of chimpanzee and gorilla behavior. His trackers are attempting to habituate a gorilla troop to their presence, enabling them to follow and learn from these endangered animals, much like Jane Goodall with her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park. Finally, they’re conducting groundbreaking research on how sustainable logging practices impact apes—research that will have a widespread conservation impact.
Goualougo Triangle Ape Project Directors Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz inspect a "Chimpcam" with two of their team members.
After an otherworldly week in the jungle, Steve, Maureen and Lisa have now returned to the familiar chill of Chicago. But they’ve been recapping their journey on our Goualougo Triangle Field Blog, and they’ll continue to share their amazing experiences in the coming weeks. I encourage you to follow along. In doing so, you can see how Chicago’s free zoo makes a big impact on conservation a world away.
Protecting a Refuge for Great Apes
By adding the Goualougo Triangle to the national park system, the Republic of Congo has ensured this pristine landscape will remain untouched. As a result, zoo researchers will continue to make groundbreaking discoveries about wild chimpanzees and gorillas for decades to come.
Goualougo Triangle Field Diaries
What's it like to study chimpanzees and gorillas in the Republic of Congo's remote Goualougo Triangle? Find out with these updates from the field!