A Dream of Goualougo: The Importance of Place

October 6, 2023

Diving Deeper: Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, Part V

The forests of the Goualougo Triangle in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park are among the most remote in the world. Here, in the Congo Sangha Trinational region—A UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses part of the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon—pristine green landscapes feature old-growth trees, plus important waterways and swamps that are associated with the Ndoki and Goualougo Rivers.

In this region of about 300 square kilometers, which is within a logging concession held (but not actually logged) by a company called Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), you may find gorillas traveling through the trees and along the ground as chimpanzees rest in their nests or vocalize into the hot and humid air. Meanwhile, forest elephants, bongo antelopes, and other large mammals make their way along paths only they know. Smaller creatures, such as the tiny antelopes called duikers, dart into shady hiding places. Crocodiles, leopards, red river hogs, water chevrotains, and a diversity of species all find homes here under the full, protective canopy.

Around 1,000 plant and tree species, some of which are still yet to be catalogued, provide lush richness to the environment with their colors, differing leaf styles, fruits (like figs, for example) and even bioluminescent fungi. Insects, like bees, and flies buzz around constantly. Some of the more than 300 species of birds that live here can be heard calling to each other. In this almost-untouched place, there’s a constant chorus of sound from animals of every description.

map of central africa showing goualougo and djeke triangles

A Pristine Place

Most of us have never seen an intact forest like this; and honestly, most of us never will. This region is so isolated and far away from urban centers like Chicago, where Lincoln Park Zoo is located—6,818 miles, give or take a few—that we probably won’t have the opportunity to experience this place for ourselves. In a way, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Its remoteness, along with its location between two rivers, protects it and makes it a safer place for the animals and plants that call it home. The large peatlands here trap carbon emissions, mitigating climate change.

Plus, such conditions make it possible for us to study a unique and beautiful ecosystem in a way we may never be able to do so again. Many of the animals here were “naïve” when the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project began, meaning they haven’t had much exposure to humans; this has allowed researchers to do some important research about “first contact” with chimpanzees. It also lets us learn more about how apes operate when there’s no human-animal conflict to be concerned about, like how they use tools, how they use space, and their group dynamics.

This type of research allows us to determine what an untouched environment provides for wildlife, and it also helps us make a case for protecting places like Goualougo so more species may thrive. Additionally, it helps us figure out how to be as un-invasive as possible when encroaching on space that animals have been using, free of humans, for a very long time.

Having a long-term research camp in this area also means being able to make change in a positive way for both local human and animal communities that will last over millennia.

But the importance of this place is so much more than just “the facts.” David Morgan, Ph.D., GTAP director and co-founder and Lincoln Park zoo research fellow, says that when Dr. Jane Goodall visited back in 2002, she understood. “She said to me, it was the forest she dreamed about as a kid—the big trees, large buttresses, the African forest with chimps and gorillas, were eye-opening for her,” Morgan remembers.

Expanding Our Knowledge

The environment is ripe for new discoveries around every corner (or tree, to be more accurate). And they can come at any time, so researchers must be paying attention.

“Sometimes, when you’re walking around in the woods, you don’t see too much. And then, all of a sudden, everything seems to happen,” Morgan says about the forest ecosystem here, explaining that he might suddenly come across an important tree used for feeding by both gorillas and chimps at the same time—a phenomenon rarely documented.

GTAP researchers have been trained to make as little impact on the environment as possible. So, even though they’ve been encamped in this spot for more than two decades, this remains a spot to gain new knowledge, even as areas outside become more populated with an eye toward effective yet protective management. “Eco-guards,” under the supervision of the Congolese Ministry of Forestry, enforce laws about poaching and other illegal activities within Nouablé-Ndoki National Park.

This allows the researchers to work on learning more about the chimpanzees and gorillas, but over the more than two decades Goualougo has been in operation, new subspecies of plants, fungi, and more have been found. “There are still a lot of discoveries to be made,” Morgan says.

Tourism and Local Communities

GTAP’s presence in the Republic of Congo has assisted development in the region through employing local people, building community, and fostering education about the biodiversity of the forests in the region. It is also in the process of creating additional economic opportunities through the potential of tourism to this special place.

The man first known to explore the Goualougo Triangle, Michael Fay, wrote in a 1990 report to Wildlife Conservation International, “The Nouabalé site could be one of the best sites in Africa for forest tourism if the proper infrastructure was put in place.”

For years, community players in the Goualougo and Djéké Triangles have been working on that infrastructure. The Congolese government is making strides toward a greener economy, and officials believe that tourism will help secure the country’s long-term future. The process of habituation itself, which helps scientists observe primates engaging in their national behaviors, is part of this effort.

“It’s a risky process,” Morgan says. “It’s a challenging process for humans as well as the gorillas involved. But we do believe it’s important that we do it, that we have groups out there that can help us learn about gorilla behavior, diseases, and things that are impacting their lives…But also for tourism as well.”

Having apes that are habituated to the presence of humans means that they’ll act naturally with tourists around, making the place appealing to many international travelers looking for opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitats. And that brings money into the villages that support GTAP, like Bomassa, which has already been able to expand and build schools as a result of additional monies provided by scientists coming into the area. This, in turn, makes it more desirable for local people to protect the forests that provide them with such economic boosts.

The longevity of GTAP and Mondika, and the many partners that support it, have turned all these once-abstract possibilities into reality. “We’re very lucky to have support such as Lincoln Park Zoo, the Republic of Congo, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in the local communities. And I am fortunate in doing what I always wanted to do in my life, trying to have an impact,” Morgan says. “Goualougo was a dream—but in the beginning we had no certainty, we had no money. It was year to year, basically. And there’s a lot of projects that start up and very few of them last long term, like this.”

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