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Going Fast

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By David QuammenPhotographs by Michael Nichols

The famed primatologist meets the chimpanzees of Congo's Goualougo Triangle, animals so isolated they have no fear of humans—at least for now.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

As a small complement to other conservation measures taken
in this part of Africa, saving the Goualougo Triangle carries major significance. It enhances the possibility of preserving a very large expanse of continuous chimpanzee habitat and, within it, a sizable interbreeding population of chimpanzees (thousands, rather than merely hundreds or dozens) into the next century and beyond. Securing such a single big area is crucial to the survival of the species, given that so many of Africa's other chimpanzee refuges are, like Gombe, far too small and too isolated to support viable populations.

The chimps of the Goualougo Triangle still enjoy the possibility of an unbounded and genetically robust future. That fact, in addition to their naive attitude toward humans, is what has made them such a focus of interest and concern. But can they remain so naive? If not, then what forms of chastening experience await them? Will they lose their ingenuous curiosity about humans by way of the intrusive attentions of ecotourism, rather than by the lethal traumas of hunting, habitat destruction, and beleaguered insularity? Such questions reflect the real distance—it's more than just land miles—between Gombe and Goualougo.

Naïveté is a delicate, perishable state of being, and in fact the Goualougo chimps have al-ready begun to lose theirs. Although they haven't acquired any noticeable fear of humans, their curiosity seems less strong and impetuous than it was three years ago. The episodes of excited mutual ogling are less frequent. The limelight of continuous study, even by two such deferential scientists as David Morgan and Crickett Sanz, seems to have jaded them slightly. The physicist Werner Heisenberg warned us about this: You can't observe anything closely without affecting it somehow.


It's been ten years since she walked so far, Jane said. Her blistered soles reflected that fact. Still, at age 68, her signature ponytail now going gray, she had a reservoir of strength to spare—spiritual strength, if not muscular. She seemed invigorated by the sheer joy of being back in a forest full of chimpanzees.

Next morning Jane ventured out onto the Goualougo trails, hoping for a view of the animals Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz have been studying. But it wasn't like the solitary, early days at Gombe. Here, now, she moved at the center of an entourage: a Pygmy tracker, Morgan, Sanz, Mike Fay, photographer Michael Nichols with his unobtrusive little Leica—and that was just the half of it. With each step Jane took, a crew from National Geographic Television shadowed her, hungry to record every word and glance. The forest itself became a TV stage. But she was patient and professional, hitting her mark in every scene, repeating this or that comment when another take was called for, using the television attention as she uses all such burdens and opportunities of fame—to get her message out. That message, grossly compressed and presumptuously summarized, is: Every individual counts, both among nonhuman animals and among humanity, so if you renounce callous anthropocentrism and cruelty, your personal actions will make Earth a better place.

After five days in the forest it began to seem questionable whether Jane herself, the guest of honor, would have an extended encounter with any chimpanzees whatsoever. One problem was her damaged feet. Although the blisters didn't stop her from walking in the forest, they did inconvenience her. But she borrowed a roll of duct tape, for emergency foot maintenance, and carried on gamely. Another problem was the sheer collective bustle of such a large group. You don't parade through the woods in a party of ten if you want to see animals—not even if the animals in question are naive, or habituated, or flat-out deaf.

Finally, after most of a week, she did get a chance to enjoy what she had come for—three hours in the presence of a relaxed group of chimps as they fed, rested, and otherwise occupied themselves in a Synsepalum tree. It wasn't a dramatic encounter. The chimps went about their business, showing no excited curiosity or reciprocal fascination. But it was satisfying to Jane, who saw not just a gaggle of primates but individual creatures, particularized under the names by which Morgan and Sanz have come to know them—the female Maya, her infant daughter, Malia, the female O'Keefe, and a half dozen more.

Later that afternoon Jane and I sat in the forest discussing the problems facing Gombe, her own years of experience there, and the prospects of an alternate future for the Goualougo. At one point I asked about the difference between concern for individual animals and concern for endangered, isolated populations. To her it's a sterile distinction. "When I'm thinking about some forest being logged, and the bush-meat trade," she said, "it isn't just a population of chimps that's going. It's individuals." Destroy individuals of such a species, and you eradicate also "all their wisdom, all their cultures that have been passed down from one generation to the next." After a moment, she added, "I can't separate the loss of a population from the harm to individuals." At Gombe she had known four generations intimately. To the extraordinary chimps of the Goualougo, she was a stranger. "It does take me back to my childhood dreams," Jane said. "You know, I'm really happy that I got here—in spite of the blisters!" Next morning, on nearly healed feet, she started walking back toward the world. 

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Sights & Sounds

Meet the primates—chimpanzees and humans—who live in the Goualougo Triangle


See how a chimpanzee wields a stick to get to honey and how the right twist of a stem can mean a tasty meal of termites.

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Video from Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz


Chimp researchers Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz tell you about their work .

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The protection of chimpanzees in Congo's Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park now restricts Congolese to hunting for bush meat outside its boundaries. How can countries like Congo reconcile the conflicting needs of animals and an impoverished population?


Send this laid-back image of a friendly female chimp as an e-greeting to a friend.


Jane Goodall and Pygmy trackers Mbio and Koba wait out the rain beneath a tree in Congo's Goualougo Triangle.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Crickette Sanz is one of the researchers studying the chimpanzees of the Goualougo Triangle. For six years during her undergraduate and graduate studies, she worked at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Washington State. The institute houses five chimpanzees that were taught American Sign Language, and Crickette and her colleagues worked with them on several research projects. For one study, a researcher would begin a sign language conversation with a chimpanzee, and then interrupt the conversation to ask the animal a series of questions. Some of the questions were relevant to the conversation already taking place; other questions were completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. When an irrelevant question was asked, explains Crickette, "we expected that the chimpanzee would either maintain the previous conversation topic, switch to the new topic, or be stumped." But they were in for a surprise. "During one of these trials," Crickette reports, "a chimpanzee named Tatu responded to a wildly irrelevant question by signing 'you stupid.'  We did not anticipate that the chimpanzees would actually insult us!" Unexpected reactions like this were common during the researchers' conversations with the chimps. Although these responses didn't fit in with what Crickette and her colleagues had predicted, to the researchers they showed how insightful and intelligent a chimpanzee can be.

—Robin A. Palmer

Did You Know?

Related Links
Jane Goodall Institute
Read about the famous primatologist and the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania, and learn about conservation efforts in Africa and elsewhere.

Congo Trek
When Mike Fay headed off on his "Megatransect"—close to 2,000 miles of walking across Central Africa—the Goualougo Triangle was one of the first places he explored. Read dispatches from the trip, see video of the animals he encountered, and hear the sounds of the forest at this site.


Beck, Benjamin, and others, eds. Great Apes & Humans: The Ethics of Coexistence. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Goodall, Jane. The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Harvard University Press, 1986.


NGS Resources
Nyquist, Kate Boehm. Jane Goodall: Protecting Primates. National Geographic Books, 2003.

"End of the Line: Megatransect, Part III," National Geographic (August 2001), 74-103.

David, Quammen. "The Green Abyss: Megatransect, Part II," National Geographic (March 2001), 2-37.

"Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles of Untamed Africa on Foot," National Geographic (October 2000), 2-29.

Lassieur, Allison. "When I Was a Kid: Jane Goodall." National Geographic World (September 1999), 11. 

Miller, Peter. "Crusading for Chimps and Humans…Jane Goodall." National Geographic (December 1995) 102-29.


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