A Day in the Life of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project

October 4, 2023

Diving Deeper: Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, Part III

Life in the Goualougo Triangle is never dull. When you are surrounded by wildlife, no two days are the same. Days also vary for each role on the Goualougo team. Cooks have early mornings to prepare food for the team and trackers and botanists spend time organizing their packs for a day in the jungle, while porters gear up for the trek back to Bomassa to restock supplies. At camp, a select team of researchers who follow transects and monitor ape nests to inform ape population and density will load a month of supplies on their back before heading out on their singular mission.

The role of a Goualougo Triangle Ape Project tracker is to follow the habituated western lowland gorilla and chimpanzee groups to monitor behavior, land use, health, and more. Here’s what a “typical” day for a tracker looks like.

4 a.m. – Wake Up!
Time to pack up for a day in the forest. The goal is to keep your pack as light as possible while still including all the essentials—rain gear, iPads, binoculars, water, and other essentials. They’ll also bring surgical masks; researchers always wear masks in the presence of apes to prevent any spread of disease. And they’ll need branch clippers to clear paths, since clippers are more sustainable than machetes and can help clearly mark where they’ve been.

A GTAP camp tent

4:45 a.m. Breakfast
Breakfast at camp typically includes leftovers from dinner the night before, oatmeal, or some bread with jam or chocolate spread.

5:30-6 a.m. – Hit the Trails

Trackers begin the journey into the jungle following either forest elephant paths or paths created by trackers the day before. Due to the consistency of daily tracking, the trackers typically know where the gorillas nested the previous evening and begin their day there.

6-8 a.m. – Hike to the Gorillas

Entering the depths of the jungle is a sensory experience. Sounds of nearby monkeys, myriad bird species, and millions of insects fill the air. The forest smells both sugary and sour, like a sweet onion or a fruit on the verge of rotting. The ground changes from compact dirt to soft mud to thick patches of herbaceous greens to a river of fire ants (be careful!) seemingly every few steps.

It takes an hour or two to hike out to observe the gorilla troop, but time along the way is never wasted. Researchers take note of scat from species such as elephant, duiker, and forest buffalo. On this day, researchers see leopard scat complete with patches of red river hog hair. They also check motion sensor cameras strategically located throughout the jungle and nearby termite mounds—a favorite spot of the chimpanzees to use tools and feast on the little bugs.

A chimpanzee nest in the Goualougo Triangle

8 a.m. Arrive at the Fig Tree

It’s no surprise to find the gorillas at the fig tree this time of the month. The tree is fruiting and the trackers are treated to a unique event— chimpanzees and gorillas co-feeding. This is the only place in the world this has been documented.

In an even rarer occurrence, curious juvenile chimpanzees can be seen sidling up to gorilla youngsters, taking a closer look at their distant cousins.

The trackers don their masks, hang their packs on nearby tree branches, and unload their iPads and binoculars to start identifying the apes and monitoring their behavior. The apes and trackers will both spend their mornings here.

There are other species joining the observation as well, though they are much less welcome. Thousands of sweat bees swarm the trackers, crawling into their eyes and ears and buzzing relentlessly around their heads. Harmless as they may be, they are abundantly annoying.

12 p.m. Picnic Lunch

The crew takes a moment in the jungle to eat a lunchtime snack. Today’s bite is homemade bread from the camp cooks with some cheese spread. This is a perfect time to appreciate the immensity of the jungle, including towering trees with gigantic buttresses—perfect for resting your back on after a busy morning.

A tree’s buttresses

1 p.m. – Huddle in the Rain

An unexpected downpour appears as trackers quickly pack up their equipment and unload rain gear. In storms like this, the crew stays in place as the rain bears down. Why? Because it is incredibly difficult to see or hear in the rain. This means it is far too easy to accidentally sneak up on a forest elephant, which can be extremely dangerous when caught unaware.

2 p.m. – Find the Gorillas Again

The gorilla troop has taken shelter in the rain so it is time to head out and find them again. The first two gorillas the team happens upon are two young brothers playing—vocalizing and wrestling. The older male is in the awkward phase of life where he is beginning to test his strength and boundaries. He false-charges the trackers and beats his chest. The team is used to this posturing and stays still in place as a sign of indifference. The two youngsters go back to playing.

2:37 p.m. – RUN!

While following the youngsters to the rest of the troop, the leader of the GTAP hiking team cuts through some branches to look up and see a forest elephant a stone’s throw away. While best practice is typically to stand motionless or find a new path, this elephant is too close for comfort. The leader shouts “Run!” and the GTAP team takes off, sprinting through the forest. After what seems like eternity but is likely just a handful of seconds, the team determines the elephant has gone on its way and regroups.

3 p.m. – Find the Gorillas…Again

On the path to relocate the gorilla troop again, the trackers point up to the trees—chimpanzee nests! They take note of the locations, how old the nests appear, and the number of nests. The team has been hearing chimpanzee calls all morning and estimate they’ve passed six communities made up of roughly 50 chimpanzees total since this morning’s hike. The chimpanzees spend a majority of their time high up in the dense tree canopy, making them much harder to spot.

3:30 p.m. – Nursing Mother

The team locates one of the troop’s female gorillas first. She is sitting with her back against a large tree and nursing her young. These are always special moments for the GTAP team, as new life signifies the continuation of this incredible species.

4 p.m. Back to Camp

After another adrenaline-inducing day filled with highs and lows, it is time to return to camp.

The toilet at GTAP camp

4:30–6 p.m. – Tea Time

Back at camp, well-deserved downtime is in order. Coffee, tea, and chocolate are offered and the team members even get some solo moments.

It’s also time to handle personal matters such as showering and using the toilet. To bathe, there are two options: utilizing the river waters (watch out for wildlife!) at the edge of camp or the dump shower near camp. Think a bucket with a spout, set upon precariously placed sticks. For bathroom matters, there is a deep hole which has been covered with a pallet base and a square “toilet” constructed of wood. Loose toilet paper rests nearby in a plastic bag to ward off insects and humidity.

6 p.m. – Team Dinner

The full camp gathers for dinner. The cooks have prepared a meal of tinned fish and fufu, a dense and filling side dish in which a starch (cassava, yams, or plantains) has been boiled, pounded, and rounded into balls. As the evening wraps up, one of the crew begins to play a handmade harp around the fire.

Fish and fufu

8 p.m. – Bedtime

Tomorrow brings another day of hiking, tracking, and unexpected forest encounters. Until then, researchers head to their tents set up on dense mud platforms, rest their eyes on a small sleeping pad, and fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle: nature’s sound machine.

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