Taking off from O’Hare International Airport prompted a surreal thought. As the blustery snow blew sideways and, far below, Lake Michigan resembled a wintry, gray mass of icebergs, I wondered whether I’d packed appropriately for 90-degree, humid, buggy central Africa.
The expedition team’s view of the Sahara Desert below soon gave way to the Republic of Congo’s vast rain forest terrain.
Steve Ross, David Morgan, Curator of Primates Maureen Leahy and I had planned this trip to the Republic of the Congo’s remote Goualougo Triangle for more than a year. We’re so excited that it’s finally here.
In a remote region of the Republic of Congo, researchers are conducting groundbreaking research into how gorillas and chimpanzees live alongside one another in one of the most pristine landscapes on earth. The Goualougo Triangle is home to forest elephants, chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas, many of which have never come into contact with humans. By studying ape behavior, tool-use and the impact of logging on these endangered animals, scientists David Morgan and Crickette Sanz are collecting data that will advance ape conservation throughout Africa.
En route, I scheduled a two-day layover in lovely Paris. While wandering past a shop window, I was shocked to spy my first chimpanzee of the trip. Powerfully muscled, he stood 6 feet tall and possessed massive hands—made of chocolate. French chocolatiers often make such sculptures to show off their artistry. For me, it was a sweet reminder of what was to come.
A chocolatier’s chimpanzee sculpture in Paris provided a sweet reminder of the wild primates the team would soon be seeing in the Goualougo Triangle.
The flight from Paris to Brazzaville—the capital city of Congo—leaves in the late morning and follows a direct south route within the same time zone. It was a clear, cloudless day. I watched out my window as we passed the mountains of southern France, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and flew over the northern coast of Africa, which was dotted with a few cities and towns.
We soon entered the Sahara desert with its vast stretches of empty sand and no signs of human settlement. It seemed like we flew over this dry, desolate area for hours (jet lag likely made the time frame a bit fuzzy). Then, suddenly, a mat of lush green appeared below—the huge swath of pristine rain forest that spans central west Africa. After a while, we could see the vast Congo River—the second largest river in the world—snaking through this carpet of green.
According to survey measurements last taken in 2011, 68 million acres of Congo are covered by dense forest and an additional 25 percent by mixed forest. As I viewed the land from above, its massive reach inspired awe—and added to the anticipation of journeying deeper inside it as we headed toward the Goualougo Triangle.
Lisa Faust, Ph.D.
The zoo’s Vice President for Conservation & Science, Lisa oversees the global reach of zoo research efforts, guiding projects that save species from Africa to the zoo’s backyard.