Kingo and his family of western lowland gorillas live comfortably in a tract of protected jungle that spans the border of the Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Buffered by Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park to the east and the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic to the west, their homeland is one of the last chunks of pristine rain forest left in the Congo Basin. Even so, nearby forests have been logged, which often opens up access for poachers, who kill gorillas for bush meat. Without the efforts of Diane Doran-Sheehy, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York State, Kingo's jungle would already be gone.
Since 1995, Doran-Sheehy has spent up to six months a year studying the gorillas. The area she chose was part of a logging concession, but in 2004, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, she helped persuade the forest products company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois to give the gorillas a 39-square-mile stretch of primordial forest called the Djéké Triangle.
During her first year, with grants from the National Geographic Society and the Leakey Foundation, Doran-Sheehy established the Mondika Research Center, along the Mondika stream, and hired a crew of BaAka Pygmies from the Central African Republic to track the animals. Unlike mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains where Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda meet, which number fewer than 700, western gorillas inhabit swampy forests a few hundred feet above sea level. (Gorillas are classified into four subspecies: mountain; eastern lowland, or Grauer's; Cross River; western lowland; plus Bwindi, an eastern gorilla subpopulation.) Nobody knows how many there may be, but they are declining at an alarming rate. Ravaged by the Ebola virus and squeezed by habitat loss, their population may have been cut by more than half since the 1990s, when the best guesses put it at about 100,000. In September 2007 their status was changed from endangered to critically endangered. Even though all gorillas found in zoos around the world are western gorillas, little is known about their behavior in the wild.
Doran-Sheehy came to the Congo Basin to find out how the search for food shapes the gorillas' social behavior, reasoning that western lowland gorillas must eat a different diet than their cousins in the mountains. Mountain gorillas have long, thick, black mossy hair to keep them warm in their cool climate, while western lowland gorillas have thin, short hair that can be brownish to brilliant red on top.
Shy, hyper-wary creatures, gorillas flee from encounters with humans, one of their few natural predators. But to study them, you must be able to observe them. To observe them, you must accustom them to your presence. As Dian Fossey, the celebrated mountain gorilla researcher, found out in Rwanda, this takes years of closely following a silverback and his family—essentially living with the gorillas. It took six long years for Doran-Sheehy and her crew just to locate and track Kingo's family, to which they gave names. It took two more years to win the family's trust.
"Habituation could not have been accomplished without the BaAka trackers," Doran-Sheehy says. "The BaAka know the forest, they understand gorillas, and their skills as trackers are stunning and essential."
Patrice Mongo, an indefatigable Congolese researcher with a master's degree in anthropology from Stony Brook, is the field director at Mondika. He oversees the daily activities of the BaAka Pygmy trackers and has an almost mystical faith in their abilities.