Tuning in to Goualougo

It’s 10:57 p.m. I’m lying in a small but comfortable tent at our base camp in the Goualougo Triangle deep in the pristine forests of northern Congo.

View from tent at Goualougo Triangle Ape Project base camp

The view from Steve Ross’ base camp tent at dusk. Click the photo to hear the sounds of wildlife in the teeming deep forest ecosystem.

I know the precise time because my iPad tells me so. It’s a strange thing to bask in the glow of a modern technological convenience in one of the most remote places on earth. Yet here I am. In Congo. Awake.

My desire at this time is to fall asleep, but the night world outside has other ideas. A cacophony of sounds surrounds me. Some are recognizable: the constant buzz of cicadas, the croak of a frog.

But wait—what was that? A mournful hooting sound rises from the darkness. Was that a monkey? An owl? Do they have owls in Congo? I’ll have to ask Dave Morgan, our research colleague and expedition host, in the morning.

Now a chorus of chirps above me. Surely that’s some type of bird? Something flitters close to the tent. Moths drawn to the light of my screen?

Now silence. Everything turns off as quickly as if someone flipped a switch. But not for long. The insect orchestra starts up again and the frogs join in. A percussion section enters: a faint putter-patter as something drops onto the tarp covering my tent again and again. Exactly like rainfall if only a dozen large drops fell. Maybe seedpods from the trees above. Almost enough to put me to sleep...

A slap jolts me awake. What was that? A scraping followed by another slap. Completely unrecognizable and emanating from the forest to the right of my tent. A crash in the distance as a tree limb falls. Then silence again. A few more pods (I hope) drop on the angled canvas and roll down to the ground.

Tin cans suspended on wire as elephant alarm system in Congo

Metal cans and scraps suspended from a wire surrounding base camp provide a rudimentary alarm system designed to deter forest elephants.

The knowledge that very large animals, from forest elephants to leopards, are lurking in the forest takes hold of my imagination. I hear the slap again, this time much closer. The camp’s makeshift "elephant alarm system"—a long wire hung with an assortment of tin cans around the perimeter—provides little relief.

I poke my flashlight outside, half expecting to see the reflection of glowing eyes staring back at me. Nothing. I lay back down, turn off the iPad and settle in to enjoy the nocturnal orchestra, hoping its next performance will lull me to sleep.

Steve Ross

Steve Ross, Ph.D., Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo  

Steve Ross, Ph.D.
Steve is Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Learn More

VIDEO: Trek to the Goualougo Triangle

Reaching the Republic of Congo's remote Goualougo Triangle Ape Project field site—home to wild gorillas and chimpanzees—is no walk in the park. To get there on their recent expedition, Lincoln Park Zoo researchers required a succession of aircraft, Land Rovers, an automobile river ferry, dugout canoes and—for the final, arduous 6-hour trek—their own two tired feet. Experience their journey to base camp in this travelogue video.


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