Conserving the Congo

Getting to the Goualougo Triangle, the isolated field-research site of Lincoln Park Zoo Research Fellow David Morgan, Ph.D., involves the kind of journey that would be at home in an old adventure serial. From Chicago, you fly over the Atlantic to Paris; the next day features a jaunt to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. From there, you fly to Ouesso, where you embark upon a boat trip to Nouabale-Ndoki National Park headquarters (picture a red line snaking its way across the map). You transfer to a smaller canoe, paddle further into the jungle and finally step onto the shore at the park’s Mbeli Bai camp, where a six-hour hike into the protected wilderness area of the Goualougo Triangle awaits.

The very isolation of the Triangle is what makes it so interesting. The 95,000-acre region, which came to prominence during biologist Mike Fay’s 1999 Megatransect across Africa, is largely untouched, holding elephants, western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, many of whom have never come into contact with humans. It may be the most intact landscape in Africa. By studying this pristine place, scientists can gain a baseline for guiding conservation decisions across Africa.

The same old-growth forest that inspires scientists is also extremely valuable to loggers, however. While the Goualougo Triangle and Nouabale-Ndoki National Park are protected lands, nearby forests that provide resources to wildlife are being felled. The tension between research and resource extraction has increased the urgency of studying the region’s diversity.

As the first logging commenced in 1999, Morgan, now co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Chimpanzee Research Project through the zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, began conducting a survey of the region’s mammals. Chimpanzees, western lowland gorillas and forest elephants were the primary focus, although the wildlife observed included leopards, buffalo, sitatunga, crocodiles and even electric fish. All of these species were on the minds of Lincoln Park Zoo researchers Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D., and Dominic Travis, D.V.M., as they traveled to the field site in April. “The area is home to some amazing wildlife,” says Travis, the zoo’s vice president of Conservation & Science. “You can’t help but see some pretty spectacular species.”

Travis and Lonsdorf, the director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, had traveled to the Goualougo Triangle to assess Morgan’s research firsthand. Lincoln Park Zoo has supported research in the area since giving the project a small field conservation grant in 2003. When the Fisher Center sought to expand its conservation programs to include gorillas, the Goualougo Triangle immediately came to mind. “We already had a connection with this exciting conservation project impacting chimpanzees and gorillas, so it made sense to expand the relationship,” says Lonsdorf.

As Lonsdorf and Travis discovered, Morgan’s well-equipped field headquarters maintains a low impact on the pristine landscape surrounding it. Living quarters, labs, offices and a kitchen and dining area are constructed from tents, tarps, branches and mud bases. Solar panels power laptops and equipment, and all food and supplies are brought in via the same tortuous path traveled by Lonsdorf and Travis (garbage is trekked out on the return voyage).

Morgan shares the camp with field researcher Crickette Sanz, Ph.D., of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology; the pair are engaged. There’s also an impressive staff of Congolese researchers and assistants, including a team of 30 Biaka pygmies who use their knowledge of nature to guide researchers through the forest.

These resources are dedicated to a broad array of projects. The foremost question the researchers are trying to answer is whether apes are impacted by logging taking place in non-protected areas surrounding the park. From a conservation standpoint, the logging isn’t a total negative. Loggers have been convinced to eschew destructive clear-cutting for a less-invasive selective-logging process. Scouting teams enter the forest and mark a few select trees for removal; these trees are then cut down and sold for timber.

By monitoring chimpanzee movement, Morgan and his crew can evaluate the ultimate impact of selective logging. The scientists’ long-term presence at the site will enable them to compare data collected before, during and after logging—a rare resource for researchers. Behavioral data from nearby protected areas will offer a control against which to measure the impact of logging on apes. The early results show that increased human presence leads to decreased ape distribution—chimpanzees and gorillas range less widely, moving away from the human disturbance—but further research is needed to fully evaluate the impact of the logging.

Luckily, Morgan, Sanz and their collaborators are in place to gather exactly the data that’s needed. The results will help conservation planners better evaluate, and hopefully mitigate, human impact on fragile ecosystems. By compiling a comprehensive view of a logged landscape, Morgan can strengthen the case of every conservationist seeking concessions to protect nature. “This area, one of the most pristine in all of Africa, was almost lost to timber exploitation,” says Morgan. “Now, it can be used to protect other animals that might not be as fortunate as to live in a protected area.”

Beyond examining the impact of logging, Morgan and his colleagues are also surveying the behavior and tool-use of the Goualougo Triangle’s gorillas and chimpanzees. By following ape groups as they move through the wilds of the region and observing how group members interact, manipulate tools and forage for food, Morgan and his collaborators can increase our understanding of these endangered species.

Observations in the Goualougo Triangle complement the zoo’s work with chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, the site of Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking research. “It’s exciting, because the sites are so different,” says Lonsdorf. “In Gombe, the chimpanzees there have been studied since 1960. Their population is small—only 100 animals—and they’ve had a strong human influence. The chimpanzees in Goualougo are almost entirely naïve to humans, which gives us a new look into their behaviors.”

The landscapes vary between the sites: Gombe features punishing hills and patches of grassland and forest while the Goualougo Triangle features dense forest on flat land, making chimpanzees in the treetops tougher to spot. Perhaps the most interesting difference, however, is that the chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle share space with western lowland gorillas (the same arrangement seen at the zoo’s Regenstein Center for African Apes). “This could be another huge influence on their behavior,” says Lonsdorf. “It’s not something we see at Gombe.”

Through their observations, Morgan and his collaborators have seen some novel behaviors. The chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle “fish” termites from their mounds using a two-tool process: a sharp, thin stick is used to punch holes in the termite mound before fishing begins. (Gombe chimpanzees use their hands for this task.) Afterwards, much like at Gombe, a long, fine blade of grass is used to probe the termite nest and remove its six-legged inhabitants.

These findings, together with data collected on the impact of logging, showcase the Goualougo Triangle’s value as a research site. Back at Lincoln Park Zoo, the visiting scientists expressed enthusiasm about the work being done by Morgan and his colleagues. “The results they’re producing are essential for conservation and research,” says Travis. “In an incredibly difficult place, they’re doing amazing conservation work.”