Protecting a Refuge for Great Apes

Chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle

Goualougo Triangle Named a National Park

Untouched. More than any other description, that sums up the Republic of Congo’s Goualougo Triangle. This pristine landscape stretches over 95,000 acres, providing a home for forest elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas—many of which have never encountered humans. Now, thanks to a new conservation decree by the African nation, this unspoiled forest—and Lincoln Park Zoo research site—will remain untouched, permanently joining neighboring Nouabale-Ndoki National Park.

“It’s an important achievement for wildlife conservation,” says Dave Morgan, Ph.D., a research fellow in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. Morgan leads the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project with wife and research partner Crickette Sanz, Ph.D. “This area has never been logged, which is increasingly rare worldwide. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what there is to learn here about chimpanzees, gorillas and other wildlife.”

Morgan and his research team have spent more than 10 years gathering data on apes in this natural habitat. Their countless surveys, transects and images from remote camera traps have transformed our understanding of ape behavior and the impact of logging. “In this very short amount of time, we’ve made some of the most important discoveries in terms of chimpanzee tool use and tool complexity in the animal kingdom,” says Morgan.

Researchers have long known that chimpanzees use tools. Jane Goodall’s pioneering research at Gombe National Park—another Lincoln Park Zoo research site—revealed that chimpanzees modified stalks or stems to “fish” termites from their mounds. But observations from the Goualougo Triangle revealed the unprecedented step of chimpanzees using as many as five tools for a single task. The animals may use a pointed stick to perforate a mound before using a slender tool to gather the insects that surface. At a beehive, they may use one tool to create an opening, another to enlarge the break and then a strip of bark or stick with a frayed end to gather honey.

Those aren’t the only breakthroughs from the Goualougo Triangle. Fecal samples collected from the region’s western lowland gorillas contributed to pioneering findings on the origins of malaria. The protected landscape also provides a key baseline for ape behavioral observations, giving scientists the information they need to accurately weigh the impact of logging elsewhere. “If you don’t have pristine forests you can’t make these kinds of comparisons,” says Morgan.

In protecting the Goualougo Triangle, the Republic of Congo has preserved a window into the wild, an unobstructed view of how chimpanzees and gorillas lived before human contact. They’ve also preserved a priceless resource for researchers, giving scientists the chance to compare ape behavior and conservation across intact and altered landscapes.

“You could argue we’ll never be associated with anything as great as protecting an area from logging and keeping it in its natural state,” says Morgan. “But I’m excited to see how baseline data from Goualougo will help us advance ape conservation throughout Africa.”


by James Seidler

Other Goualougo Triangle Highlights

Lincoln Park Zoo Researchers Back from the Field
In October 2011, Lincoln Park Zoo researcher Dave Morgan and partner Crickette Sanz discuss recent field work and plans to return to the field to help conserve great apes.

Researchers Crickette Sanz and Dave Morgan in the Goualougo Triangle

Goualougo Triangle Field Diaries
What's it like to study chimpanzees and gorillas in the Republic of Congo's remote Goualougo Triangle? Find out with these updates from the field!

Researchers in the Goualougo Triangle

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.

Guest gather to learn about chimpanzees

Wine & Wildlfe: The Truth About Chimpanzees
Fans of wine and wildlife gather to hear David Morgan (Lincoln Park Zoo) and Crickette Sanz talk about studying—and conserving—the apes occupying the Republic of Congo’s Goualougo Triangle.