Living Among Apes

May 15, 2020

Wild western lowland gorilla

For the last 20 years, the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project (GTAP) staff have lived and breathed wild great ape research and conservation. Under the leadership of Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes research scientist David Morgan, Ph.D., the team has grown across two remote field sites and employs site managers and more than 100 Congolese nationals.

The Goualougo Triangle is located deep in the jungles of the Republic of Congo in the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. To get there from Chicago requires multiple plane rides, a 2 ½-day drive, a one-hour-long canoe ride, and a treacherous six-hour hike through thick jungle brush and waist-high swamps. Turns out great ape research is not for the fainthearted.

To say it takes a village would be an understatement. In addition to the field researchers and trackers, dozens of porters, drivers, logistics coordinators, and partners are vital to continuing the crucial work of saving western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees in their forest homes.

“The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project may have started with great apes at the core, but it has become so much more than that,” says Morgan. “We have become a community—a family—dedicated to preserving not only the apes but also the land, the language, and the ecosystem.”

Poachers Turned Conservationists

In Bon Coin (which means “cozy corner” in the local language), the closest village to the Goualougo Triangle, there lived a man named Gaston Gobalo, who was a very influential member of the community and the chief of the village. The inhabitants of Bon Coin mostly consisted of indigenous Bayaka, who had long subsisted on fish, as well as meat from wildlife inhabiting the neighboring forests. Gaston was among the first local inhabitants recruited by newly arrived scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who wanted to create what would become the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. He was instrumental in convincing local inhabitants not to kill protected species, like elephants and apes. In return, he received a full-time job as a boat driver based at the nearby park headquarters. His foresight and belief that the conservation of wildlife and protection of forests would be more sustainable in the long run than exploitation was visionary and impactful.

A glimpse of the kitchen at the camp site of Goualougo Triangle Ape Project researchers. Photo courtesy of Jillian Braun.

Even in retirement, he continued to have a huge impact on conservation and research, particularly through the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. In 2007, he encouraged his nephew, Davy Koni, to join the growing project in the hope that he would learn new skills, establish a career in conservation, and earn a living working with GTAP. Today, Davy is one of the most knowledgeable botanists in the northern Republic of Congo.

Discovering Species and Preserving Language

As one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the Nouabale-Ndoki Park is teeming with hundreds of species of flora and fauna, and discoveries are still being made. Former GTAP Research Assistant Sydney Ndolo-Ebika, Ph.D., now a botanist, has dedicated his life to documenting the various plants and fungi that make up the Goualougo forests and beyond.

Sydney is part of a team that recently identified 27 species of Ficus (“figs”) in Sangha Trinational, a World Heritage Site. Sydney is now a collaborator on GTAP botanical surveys, and his research has led to the discovery of a new species of mushroom, called Amanita griseostrobilacea, found in the Goualougo Triangle.

In some cases, the flora is ‘re-discovered,’ meaning it has not yet been written about in science books but has been known locally for generations by indigenous people. Many times, the local people not only have names for these species but also have invaluable insights into their history, ecology, edibility, and medicinal uses.

“The importance of the wealth of knowledge of the local communities cannot be understated,” says Morgan. “Information has been passed down for decades, and part of our goal is to preserve this wisdom of our shared natural world for generations to come.” As part of this preservation, the team conducts ethnographic surveys, and when researchers like Sydney and Davy Koni come across these ‘re-discovered’ plants, they document the local name in association with the scientific name so that it is recognized worldwide.

Appreciation for the Jungle

“We see many young people that feel pulled toward city living,” says Wildlife Conservation Society Country (Republic of Congo) Director Richard Malonga. “Instead of staying in the villages and inheriting forest knowledge, they are compelled to attend university and enjoy the excitement of a city, like Brazzaville.”

Training the next generation of ape researchers and conservation scientists has positively impacted the local community, which now has an understanding and appreciation of the importance of protecting national parks and the flora and fauna within.

The impact of this enlightened view of wildlife conservation has reached beyond the individuals who collect data; it has also impacted the ape tracking staff. Through the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project’s long-running mentor-apprentice program, more experienced staff teach skills to newer project members. This includes the ape tracking staff, with fathers often teaching their sons how to habituate and track gorillas. In the process, the importance of monitoring the apes and protecting the forest is passed on to the next generation.

Club Ebobo: Inspiring Conservation

Decades ago, Richard Parnell and Morgan predicted the health and protection of the forests would diminish unless the local communities came together to protect it and its inhabitants. In 1997, Club Ebobo—or “Club Gorilla” in English—was formed to teach local children more about the important role apes and other local wildlife play in the forest, as well as the aims of the research being conducted in the park.

Club Ebobo, which still exists today, now leads monthly conservation education sessions that are filled with activities to teach children about a variety of topics, from animal behavior to disease transmission to conservation and everything in between. Found throughout multiple villages, Club Ebobo serves children of all ages and has helped change the understanding of great apes in the region and the trajectory of some individuals’ lives.

The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project team. Guitan pictured fourth from right in top row. Lincoln Park Zoo’s David Morgan in light green shirt, center. Photo courtesy of Jillian Braun.

In some instances, Club Ebobo graduates have gone on to become GTAP trackers and research assistants. Gaitun Fidel Mbeouti , for example, was born at the park headquarters and participated in the nature club starting at the age of 5. He now leads teams of trackers in the Goualougo Triangle, where they collect invaluable data on gorillas from direct observations.

“My impressions of nature and the possibilities that come with such employment have changed greatly. I’ve learned a great deal about gorillas, the forest, and data collection,” says Mbeouti. “I now have hope for long-term conservation of wildlife and the forests, not just for this generation but for future generations.”

Learning Across the Pond

Many of the great ape researchers are conducting graduate-level research, despite perhaps never attending university. Due to their dedication, long-term monitoring, and knowledge of the forest, they are best equipped to habituate the apes, gather observational data, and summarize their data for later analysis.

“These men are extremely gifted and can be limited by circumstance, so we try to find ways for them to accomplish their goals, whether that is becoming a research assistant, attending university, or becoming a project manager,” says Morgan.

Between 2015–2016, researchers Crepin Eyana Ayina and Fabrice Ebombi came to the states to attend English training classes at Central Washington University. While here, they also attended Chimpanzees in Context, an international conference hosted at Lincoln Park Zoo, where they met Jane Goodall, an icon and one of their conservation role models.

Fabrice (right) overseeing data collection while observing gorillas. Photo courtesy of Jillian Braun.

One of the most notable experiences Crepin had during his stay was working side by side with Fisher Center staff collecting behavioral data. “It was inspiring to see the level of respect and care the chimpanzees and gorillas receive at Lincoln Park, and that such a wonderful exhibit is free to anyone who comes to see them”.

This spring, research assistant Wen Mayoukou will attend two workshops, one on using spatial mapping programs and the other on biomonitoring surveys using remote field cameras.

Protecting the Forest

Logging is prominent in the Republic of Congo, which has extremely large logging concessions. GTAP researchers are working with the logging companies to evaluate the impacts of their forestry practices on great ape populations and to encourage reduced impact measures.

Many partners, including GTAP, also continuously work with government agencies to further protections in the forest. From supporting the government in declaring national park status to dedicated conservation set-aside areas, various stakeholders work in tandem to ensure the future of the trees and wildlife that rely on them.

Photo courtesy of Jillian Braun.

From Zoo to Jungle

The work in the Goualougo Triangle extends much further than its borders. Every piece of knowledge is shared with researchers at the Fisher Center and with the zoo’s Animal Care team to improve care for the resident gorillas and chimpanzees—and, in turn, apes across the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and partner sanctuaries, like Chimp Haven.

The field research and observations are critical to promoting positive welfare among apes at the zoo. Collected data was used to design Regenstein Center for African Apes, which includes elements that accommodate species-specific preferences, such as imitation termite mounds that encourage the chimpanzee to use tools and raised platforms that encourage the gorillas to build nests.

In addition, many initiatives at the zoo inform research in the wild. Fecal samples that are non-invasively collected at Goualougo are then analyzed at Lincoln Park Zoo to measure stress and understand how apes react to various stimuli. The gorillas and chimpanzees at the zoo also voluntarily participate in research, which helps researchers learn more about how great apes think and experience their world. Findings from these studies can be used to inform research questions addressing similar inquiries in the field. Everything goes hand in hand to benefit apes around the globe.

This article was first published in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Lincoln Park Zoo’s magazine. Read the full issue.