Creating a Community of Conservationists

October 11, 2023

Diving Deeper: Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, Part VIII

At the primary school in Bomassa, the village nearest Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (NNNP) headquarters in the Republic of Congo, Club Ebobo is taking place. First, teachers split children into different age groups inside their classrooms to learn about gorillas, or “ebobo,” in their native language, Lingala, as well as French.

The younger students sing, engage in role-playing using animal hand puppets, and do arts and crafts. The older ones get an environmental education activity book that’s designed to encourage creativity as they consider conservation issues. Students may go outside, read comics, view videos and photographs, or listen to conservation-themed music as part of their instruction in the ways of the apes that live basically on their doorstep. They get basic school materials and T-shirts, too, to provide a sense of teamwork and make sure they’re set up for success.

Club Ebobo has been taking place since 1998, when about 100 children were introduced to conservation ideas by NNNP authorities, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staffers, and gorilla researchers from multiple study sites nearby—including David Morgan, Ph.D. co-director of the Gorilla Triangle Ape Project (GTAP). Since then, this course of study has become an almost monthly fixture at five schools in three towns: Bomassa, Makao, and Sombo.

The purpose of Club Ebobo is to increase environmental awareness and knowledge among children. They might then be encouraged to make behavioral changes to protect great apes and other wildlife in Central Africa—right in their backyards.

Finding Family

When GTAP began in 1999, there were only three or four staffers involved. Today, the stacked roster at multiple campsites includes 80 research assistants, around 45 trackers, camp logistics managers, a project manager, and others.

From the beginning, incorporating the knowledge and expertise of the local community while helping it grow has been a goal of GTAP—and is considered vital to its mission of implementing conscientious research and management programs. To that end, more than 90 percent of GTAP’s workforce is from three local villages.

Morgan and research partner and wife Crickette Sanz, Ph.D., have been involved with GTAP since 1999. Morgan, who has been described (by as “like Indiana Jones joined Seal Team 6,” says, “I think one of the most rewarding aspects of my job out in the Goualougo Triangle and Mondika is the fact that we are some 20 years on, and we’re creating all these jobs,” Morgan says. “Creating jobs for indigenous people, with upward mobility as well—that’s really special to me.”

This is a project that may have started out studying animals, but has become much more—a multi-generational, multi-national family, all with the same mission: to protect the land, the language, the ecosystem, and the apes. It could not succeed without the partnerships with local groups such as the Bangombe, Mbendgele, and Bantu.

For example, Gaeton Mbebouti, a research assistant at GTAP, learned about the importance of conservation through Club Ebobo when he was a young student—and is returning to Club Ebobo to inspire a new generation of conservationists. He was also an Eco-guard, so his perspective on the region is multi-faceted.

Gaston Abea, another research assistant, also has work experience at WCS—but he enjoys working with gorillas the most. “After having carried out many tasks such as transects and ecological reconnaissance walks, when I arrived at Mondika, I was impressed by the fact that we could get so close to the gorillas,” Abea says about his work.

As research assistants, Abea and Mbebouti have come at their education in a slightly less conventional way than some researchers in the U.S., who may be studying in ivory towers at big universities. However, their work is being recognized internationally through some of the scientific publications where they detail their methods and discoveries and the implications of their work.

And it a quite literal family affair for some. When the Wildlife Conservation Society’s scientists came to the area, they recruited some of the local Bayaka people who lived in nearby communities. This included Gaston Gobalo, the chief of Bon Coin, the closest village to the Goualougo Triangle. He not only signed on to the conservation mission wholeheartedly, he became a boat driver at NNNP headquarters.

In 2007, he convinced his nephew, David Koni, to join GTAP. Today, Koni is a research assistant in botany, whose work has included investigating the impacts of logging on intact forest landscapes as well as recording evidence of the social relationships between chimpanzees and gorillas in the Goualougo Triangle.

GTAP has a long-running mentorship program, which allows more experienced members of the team to teach newer ones. This includes trackers, who didn’t always start out very skilled at their jobs, but have spent a lot of time doing on-the-job training; some have now been in their jobs for two decades. They are passing their knowledge—and their commitment to conservation—on to their children so that they, too, feel like part of something bigger.

Building Community With a Common Mission

But those who run the GTAP camp aren’t the only ones who have a stake in this place. The community also includes NNNP staff, including the eco-guards that are basically law enforcement officials who protect wildlife in the park from illegal trafficking, and the fine folks at WCS, who work with the Congolese government to manage the park and its buffer zone. It even includes companies like Congolaise Industrielle de Bois (CIB), which gave up its logging rights to the Goualougo Triangle so it could become a protected area as part of NNNP.

Of course, the people in the local villages near the park are also part of this ecosystem. They have long benefited from their proximity to the park in numerous ways. Some of these towns were once staging grounds for elephant hunters, and some also thrived as a result of logging activity that exploited the land for profit. Today, the presence of ape-oriented research campsites and Club Ebobo have changed local views on the area wildlife for the benefit of all.

In the future, GTAP will continue its work in reaching out to communities and spreading the word about conservation issues, the interconnectivity between human and ape health, food sustainability, and more. As job seekers come into the area, local life will change—but the data GTAP is collecting, and the tools it’s developing, will help generate economic change while protecting the forests.

“If we can do that, I think it will be a large step toward getting people in these remote areas to better protect what’s right…and protect health and sustainability for the long term,” Morgan says. He notes that longtime residents of the villages see things changing and understand that their survival is tied to the health of the forests—as is ours.


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