I had heard about the coastal forests of Republic of Congo and Gabon for a long time. This is where the moist tropical forests and wildlife of central Africa meet the beach and crashing waves of the Atlantic. Can you imagine—surfing hippos and elephants strolling through white sand on a beach? And what about the apes that make this ecosystem—which is clearly different from Goualougo—their home too? For these reasons and more, I wanted to see this place.
So I was really excited when, plane ticket in hand, I was heading from Brazzaville for Conkouati National Park. It was no sure thing: Regional in-country flights are continually problematic, for no apparent good reason. Thankfully, though, my flight was on schedule to Point Noir, the economic capital of Republic of Congo. The following morning I was off, and after a bumpy five-hour truck ride, I arrived at the scenic park headquarters overlooking Conkouati Lagoon.
Though it was just a short expedition, I was determined to make the most of it and see the remote area known as “Mifoumbi,” which was recently identified as supporting a high density of chimpanzees. Accompanying me on the trip were Research Assistants Richard Mboumba and Emmanuel Dlambaka. After a four-hour motorized boat journey north on the Ngongo River, we stepped out of the boat and headed for the camp.
We started our five-hour walk by immediately climbing a mountain! This was my first mountain in Congo. During that first 45 minutes, I gained a healthy respect for researchers (like Elizabeth Lonsdorf) who work at Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, where the terrain is reported to be equally rugged and hilly.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find the valleys were cut by clear streams, which fell in waterfalls small and large. The water could be heard rushing from a great distance away. These forests didn’t look like ape or elephant country to me. Rather, they looked more like the terrain of the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina.
Most exciting for me though was the diversity and abundance of tree species and the very open understory. Everywhere I looked, I discovered tree species I’d never seen but had only read about as being important chimpanzee food resources. Many of these trees were found in groups of six to eight individual stems next to each other—we had clearly found excellent ape habitat. Signs of chimpanzees and gorillas were all around, indicating they were close.
I was impressed not only by the forests of Conkouati but also by the research staff and their commitment to conserving those forests. Conkouati is clearly not an easy place to work because of its remoteness, but I believe the effort is worthwhile. I was honored to have visited these coastal forests and look forward to our continuing collaboration. Important discoveries about chimpanzees and gorillas are clearly waiting to be made!