Not long after we initiated the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, it became increasingly apparent that having power at our camp site would be incredibly beneficial.
Mentor Mike Fay had told us early in our Congo field career that “field work here boils down to battery power.” This was rather counterintuitive considering we were working in one of the most remote places on the planet. But, nifty handheld gadgets like Global Positioning System units, Palm Pilots and video cameras quickly become a mainstay for collecting Goualougo ape data…and they all run on batteries. Beyond that, we’d also installed a network of “Chimpcams” stationed at termite mounds—all supported by battery power.
Dave and Crickette inspect a Chimpcam with two of their team members.
Ultimately, on any given day we have roughly 160 rechargeable AA batteries in circulation at the field site. Thus, you can see what sparked our interest in setting up a solar array to provide a cheap and renewable power source for our digital needs.
It’s ironic, though. We live and work on the equator, where the brilliance of sunshine is a near daily occurrence. But it wasn’t easy to harness this free, naturally occurring energy source. The problem? We work in an environment where “trees are king,” and there’s stiff natural competition from all sorts of flora to fill available gaps in the canopy. Even though our camp was established in a natural light gap, where two enormous trees had fallen long ago, the direct light exposure wasn’t sufficient no matter how many solar panels we put out.
We wanted to maintain as little impact on the forest as possible, we opted to avoid cutting down any emergent trees in the campsite. Instead, we decided to look elsewhere, where the vegetation wasn’t as tall and animal traffic wasn’t as heavy.
Nearly a football field–length away from the camp is a low-lying stream that provides us water for cooking, drinking and bathing. Over time it also started to serve as a makeshift area for drying clothes because it had few trees and sunlight easily passed to the water below.
Goualougo Triangle field assistants install the solar panels the power the field site's research activities.
It was here we decided to place our solar array and power station, and since that time, power hasn’t been an issue. Our experience with solar power mirrors in many ways that of individuals in the U.S. seeking alternative energy solutions. We had a particular energy need, and once we overcame initial obstacles in getting the system established and running we found it to be very reliable. We are also proud that this aspect of our work is productive and green. It’s a good fit for our work conserving chimpanzees and gorillas in one of the world’s wildest places.
Still running five years later, the solar arrays makes it possible for zoo scientists to study chimpanzees and gorillas in one of the world's most remote habitats.
Of course, power isn't the only support we need to conduct our research. I'd like to close by thanking the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund for supporting great ape conservation in the Goualougo Triangle with a 2013 grant! We're honored to be included with so many great programs aiming to make a difference in conserving the world's wildlife.