The crackle of our steps disturbed the ever-present forest murmur—the dull buzz of insects, the familiar drone of cicadas and the musical trills of birdcalls. We were setting out for our first day of ape tracking in the Republic of Congo’s Goualougo Triangle.
Each day three to four teams of trackers and research assistants head into the forest to collect essential data on ape behavior for the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. The three of us visiting from Chicago were sharing that experience, and we were all excited to (hopefully) catch our first glimpse of wild apes.
Curator of Primates Maureen Leahy, Fisher Center Director Steve Ross and I anticipated at least an hour’s hike ahead of us, as the previous days’ trackers had sighted chimpanzees in an area south of camp. Luckily, the incredible diversity of this virgin, unlogged tropical rainforest was enough to distract me from the sore muscles and blistered feet of yesterday's long hike into the field site.
Curator of Primates Maureen Leahy, Vice President of Conservation & Science Lisa Faust, Ph.D., and Fisher Center Director Steve Ross, Ph.D., pose in the Goualougo Triangle's untouched rainforest.
As we walked, dozens of fantastical mushrooms species erupted from the forest floor or downed trees. We saw mushrooms that were brilliant orange and the size of a pencil eraser, frilly white with delicate grey etchings and sprouting like wildflowers, and deep chocolate funnels with light gold circles.
An example of the forest fungi.
A look up into the untouched canopy of the Republic of Congo's Goualougo Triangle.
When we paused to listen, we could hear the incredibly loud rustling sound of thousands of termites foraging under the leaf litter. Towering trees with huge buttressed roots and bases about 15 feet in diameter reached so high above us that their tops were invisible. Strange seeds littered the ground, aerodynamically designed to be dispersed by the wind, with papery light “wings” resembling children's toys.
A seed pod with an elaborate frill.
A sinuous, undulating line of black crossing the path ahead reveals itself as a thick column of ants, 9–10 ants wide and stretching in either direction far to the left and right. “Sasa,” says the tracker in warning, indicating in Lingala, the local language, that these are the vicious biting ants that should be avoided at all costs. This was the rainforest biodiversity I’d read about in textbooks, right at my feet.
Dave Morgan, Ph.D., a Fisher Center research fellow and co-leader of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, poses with his tracking and research assistants.
I also tried to notice what the trackers were paying attention to, and each time we paused I grew a little more impressed. Some slightly disturbed leaves and a bit of brushed bare ground—a guineafowl slept there last night. A torn green twig, with the end barely looking chewed to my eyes—an ape fed here recently. A pile of brownish feces, still relatively fresh looking—distinguished by scent as chimpanzee, based on its slightly sweeter odor. A muddy footprint larger than a dinner plate, with curved nails at the front—forest elephant (even I could have gotten that one).
This vibrant butterfly was just one of the rainforest species we spotted. Larger ones were to come...
These trackers were seeing a completely different forest than I was. It was an amazing walk, even before our first glimpse of the apes that had brought us to Goualougo. More on that later...
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.
Trek to the Goualougo Triangle
Watch a video of the arduous journey taken by zoo researchers to reach the remote Congo forest home of wild gorillas and chimpanzees.