As the chimps approached closer, catching sight of us on the ground, their excitement didn't lessen—but it changed. Suddenly they looked surprised and perplexed. We could see ourselves register weirdly on their awareness. They showed no fear, and their hunters' menace had dissolved. Now they were curious. They settled onto limbs just above our heads and lingered there, gawking, chattering, like a gaggle of fascinated schoolchildren getting their first glimpse into a monkey cage. One female chimp held an infant whose large ears stuck far out from its head, glowing amber like a pair of huge dried apricots whenever they caught backlighting from a shaft of sunlight. I gaped at the little fellow, just a dozen yards above. His face was tranquil, his eyes widened by innocent wonder. He and his mother gaped calmly back.
Dave Morgan, the younger of my two American companions, positioned his spotting scope and began fixing on one chimp after another, looking for facial markings of distinctive identity. The other scientist of our little group, J. Michael Fay, put his video camera into action. They were both seizing precious minutes of close contact to document one of the most arresting phenomena to be found in an African forest: chimpanzees so remotely isolated that they showed no sign of ever having been hunted, or frightened, or otherwise contacted by humans.
Hours later, after we had stumbled through gathering darkness into a swampy campsite, we discovered that the chimps had followed. That night they bedded in treetops just a short stroll away. In the morning they were with us again. We moved slowly through the forest, and, a day later, one chimp approached by foot to within 20 paces of our morning campfire. He stood behind a tree, peering nosily. Maybe he fancied the smell of coffee.
The date was September 28, 1999. It happened also to be Day 9 of Mike Fay's epic survey hike across central Africa. Our location was deep in the northeastern corner of the Republic of the Congo, within a spectacularly pristine wedge of forest known as the Goualougo Triangle. From this point Mike Fay would keep walking—and walking and walking—until he reached the Atlantic Ocean, 447 days later. Dave Morgan would remain behind, continuing his study of the Goualougo chimps. None of us foresaw that three years later we'd be together again, joined in our search for another glimpse of these trusting animals by the world's foremost chimpanzee maven, Jane Goodall.
The return trip occurred last summer, just weeks before the World Summit on Sustainable Development convened in Johannesburg. Goodall was committed to attend the big gathering, which would include presidents, cabinet ministers, scientists, conservationists, development experts, and activists from roughly 190 countries. But in the meanwhile she had made space in her schedule for a quiet walk, with a few kindred souls, in the Congo forest. It seemed a good time and a good place to contemplate the future prospects—if any—for the survival of viable chimpanzee populations within large intact blocks of African forest.