Lincoln Park Zoo Research Fellow Dave Morgan poses with wife and research partner Crickette Sanz in the Republic of Congo's Goualougo Triangle. This pristine home for chimpanzees and gorillas was recently protected as part of the national park system.
On January 20, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo made a significant and lasting step toward the protection of biodiversity in his country. With the stroke of a pen, he granted protected status to the Goualougo Triangle, a key conservation area, a stronghold of great ape research in the Congo Basin and a place with a remarkable history.
It’s hard to explain the excitement of my first hike into the Goualougo Triangle in February 1999. In conversations around Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park and Bomassa village, the area was legendary for having a population of chimpanzees who had never seen humans before and responded with curiosity rather than the fear typical of apes in areas that have been hunted. I soon discovered the “naïve” chimpanzees were only one of the remarkable aspects of this pristine wilderness, which features towering mahogany trees arching over well-manicured elephant paths that have been trodden by generations of these forest giants. Mike Fay had discovered the area a decade earlier during his reconnaissance walks in the northern Republic of Congo. He lobbied to keep humans out of the region so as not to disturb the wildlife or forests. In 1993, the government of the Republic of Congo created the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. But the Goualougo Triangle, which had provided the initial inspiration for these conservation efforts, was not included within the protected area’s boundaries. In fact, the area was slated for logging. When forestry teams began to press toward the rivers that form the boundaries of the Goualougo Triangle, I was asked to conduct a chimpanzee census and document the unique behavior of these apes. It was hoped this information could be used to lobby for the conservation of this area. That was the initiation of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. Over the past 13 years, Crickette Sanz (my research partner and wife) and I have had the honor of witnessing and documenting some of the Goualougo Triangle’s hidden treasures. We discovered that the complex tool traditions of this chimpanzee population surpass those of any other studied apes. The interactions and degree of overlap between chimpanzees and gorillas is also unparalleled compared to other forests. Beyond the richness of the behaviors on display, these intact forests have provided invaluable comparative data for ongoing studies on the impact of forestry on apes residing in active logging concessions. In a time when conservation initiatives are often “after the fact” and forests are commonly lost to fragmentation, irresponsible logging and unregulated agriculture, there are few issues more important to securing the future of great apes than effectively protecting old-growth mature forests such as the Goualougo Triangle. The official annexation of the Goualougo Triangle is the culmination of tireless persistence and years of collaborative conservation efforts among government officials, private industry and conservation organizations. Many individuals are to be recognized including Mike Fay, Jerome Mokoko, Paul Telfer, Paul Elkan, Bourges Djoni and Domingos Dos Santos. The Congolaise Industrielle du Bois is also to be commended for recognizing the significance of this area and volunteering it as a conservation set-aside. Nick and Ian Nichols of National Geographic Magazine have also made extraordinary efforts to share the wonders of this area with the world through their photography. Our next goal is to ensure that the protection of the Goualougo Triangle has an enduring legacy for apes beyond its borders. The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project’s applied conservation research aims to improve the survival prospects of apes residing in forestry concessions. Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, we are forging new collaborations with the Congolaise Industrielle du Bois to document the complexities of forest and wildlife ecology in secondary habitats and across large landscapes. We are also very proud that a determined cohort of Congolese nationals have jumpstarted their conservation and scientific careers within the Goualougo Triangle. This is a tradition that has only just begun, and we hope it will make a significant contribution to fostering the next generation of African scholars and activists. As for Crickette and I, we took those first steps into the Goualougo Triangle and have never looked back. Dave Morgan David Morgan, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes and co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.