Published: April 2003
Jane in the Forest Again
The famed primatologist meets the chimpanzees of Congo's Goualougo Triangle, animals so isolated they have no fear of humans—at least for now.
By David Quammen

It was an amazing display of bravado from a species not generally perceived as being fierce. The chimpanzees moved in through the treetops, hooting and shrieking like a pack of hungry predators on the hunt.

At that moment, in fact, hungry predators was just what they were. Diving from limb to limb, gabbling excitedly, they set up a menacing ruckus.

Vines shook. Branches fell. Using their weight and their strength, they stirred the canopy like storm winds. Their war whoops were spookier than martial bagpipes on a Scottish moor. Intermittently they paused to crane and ogle, scanning the ground ahead for a glimpse of their prey. Chimps, after all, are by no means vegetarians; they eat fruit and leaves routinely but relish flesh when they can get it. This group had been drawn by the bleating moans of what they took for a duiker (a small forest antelope) in distress—and a distressed duiker, to them, represented a potential bounty of protein. Maybe they expected to find a wounded adult, or a newborn fawn, or at least a pile of succulent afterbirth. Anyway, they hadn't yet realized that the duiker bleat was a decoy call, made by a Bambendjelle Pygmy named Youngai, who hunkered quietly amid the understory, waiting for them to come. And they didn't know that beside Youngai sat three other human visitors, each of us thrilled with the privilege of encountering chimpanzees so bold as to mistake us for meat.

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.

Primate taxonomists currently recognize four subspecies within Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee, spanning a distributional range from Senegal on the west coast of Africa, through Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, into Uganda and southwestern Tanzania in the east. At one time that range may have been nearly continuous, but today the forest areas still occupied by chimpanzees present a map pattern of discontinuous remnants, small patches, and dots. Under pressure from humans, the species has suffered population decline, habitat fragmentation, and in some places local extinction. Although there were probably more than a million chimps in Africa a century ago, no more than about 200,000 (and possibly far fewer) survive today.

In many areas where humans and chimpanzees came into contact, hungry people treated Pan troglodytes as just another form of bush meat, and chimps learned that Homo sapiens can be lethally dangerous. When the source of conflict wasn't meat hunting, or the capture of infant chimps for the pet trade or for zoos, it was habitat destruction. Humans felled trees and cleared land for settlements and agriculture, wrecking the chimpanzee world, driving chimps away, leaving them marooned within remnants of habitat—little patches of forest such as the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall began her research career back in the summer of 1960.

Although Gombe is now a national park, it's a tiny one, just 13.5 square miles in area, bordered by Lake Tanganyika on one side and by deforestation along nearly all the rest of its perimeter. Its resident chimpanzees have been studied continuously for the past 43 years. To Goodall herself, each chimp has always been an individual, worthy of individual attention and concern—that is, in some sense a person—and many of those individuals became well-known through her writings. Readers worldwide remember her portraits of ragged-eared Flo, trusting David Greybeard, murderous Passion, and others. Their individual fame has tended to obscure the reality that, collectively, Gombe's chimps are few in number and perilously isolated.

The park now holds about 100 chimpanzees, which (as the modern science of conservation biology warns us) may not be a viable population. That is, it may be too small to renew itself indefinitely. Inbreeding could cause trouble. An epidemic might wipe out half the number, after which a drought, a fire, or some other project was supported by natural catastrophe might reduce the other half to a still lower level from which recovery is unlikely. Even without further human incursion, even without poaching or persecution, a population so small and isolated faces some considerable jeopardy of extinction. Jane Goodall recognizes that dire prospect and is taking important steps to try to avert it.

The chimps of the Goualougo Triangle inhabit a much different set of circumstances and possibilities. Their peculiarity was first noticed by Fay himself in 1990, when he and a Congolese colleague, Marcellin Agnagna, made a series of exploratory hikes to survey forest elephant populations for a study sponsored by Fay's employer, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). What seemed peculiar was this: These chimps didn't flee from the sound, smell, or sight of people. On the contrary, they sometimes approached, gawking, confident, and apparently fascinated. They were naive about any potential danger from humans—which suggested that they had never before experienced contact with Homo sapiens. The Goualougo was at that time so remote (unreachable by road, bush plane, or human trail) and so unsullied (there were not even any machete cuts of the sort left by Bangombe Pygmies of the adjacent region) that one could plausibly imagine it had gone unvisited by people for . . . well, maybe for centuries.

The exploratory treks by Fay and Agnagna led to the establishment, in 1993, of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, of which Fay became the first director. But when the park boundaries were drawn, in a process involving political compromise, the Goualougo Triangle wasn't included. The cone-shaped piece of spectacular chimpanzee habitat and old-growth hardwoods, delineated by the convergence of the Ndoki and the Goualougo Rivers, was left dangling beneath the park's southern boundary like a precious but vulnerable appendage. Instead of receiving park protection, it remained held within a timber concession. Eventually, in that status, it would likely be logged. In the meantime, remembering those eerily brazen chimps, Fay took steps to learn about them—with as little disruption as possible—before it was too late. In time, the assignment fell to Dave Morgan.

Morgan had studied biology at Western Carolina University and then worked several years as a zookeeper at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. His job there was to feed and tend the captive gorillas and chimps. He had never been to Africa, let alone seen an ape in the wild, until Mike Fay recruited him. In late 1995 Morgan came to Nouabalé-Ndoki as a volunteer assistant on a WCS gorilla-monitoring project within the park. After having proved himself hardy and very capable, he wrote a proposal for a pilot study of the chimpanzees of the Goualougo. Fay, increasingly concerned that the Goualougo might soon be logged, arranged funding for the study and set Morgan to it.

On February 24, 1999, Dave Morgan began work, basing himself at a simple field camp in the Goualougo. The chimps as he found them still seemed blithely innocent of the possibility that humans might represent any threat. They sometimes approached to within a few yards, lingering in trees just above, watching him as curiously as he watched them. He counted heads, observed behavior, sketched their faces in his notebook, and when possible captured them on video. By the end of September, despite a month lost for medical reasons (he'd been attacked and bitten by a distraught gorilla), Morgan had portraits of 93 individual chimps. "The naive behavior" of the Goualougo chimps, he wrote in his pilot-study report, "facilitates the rapid collection of a substantial body of data." And so the study continued.

At the end of 1999, during a visit back in the U.S., Morgan met a young graduate student named Crickette Sanz, then just beginning her work toward a doctorate in physical anthropology. Later she visited the Goualougo, in search of a dissertation project, and liked what she saw. Morgan and Sanz, assisted by a small crew of expert Bangombe woodsmen, now pursue the Goualougo chimpanzee study as a joint effort. Their work, coupled with the international attention thrown on the area by Mike Fay's Megatransect expedition, spurred ongoing negotiations between WCS and the logging company (Congolaise Industrielle des Bois) that until recently held the concession. The company has voluntarily relinquished its timber rights in the Goualougo—a generous act as well as a savvy one—so that the area can be annexed to Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.

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.

Naivete is a delicate, perishable state of being, and in fact the Goualougo chimps have already 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 Morgan and 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.

On the evening of Jane Goodall's arrival at the Goualougo field camp, footsore and weary after a long day's slog, accompanied by Fay and a handful of others (including me), Morgan and Sanz were there to greet her. Night had fallen before the hiking was done, and we found our way down the last thigh-deep channel by headlamp. Stumbling up onto solid ground, we pitched our tents, washed, and reconvened at the campfire for beans and rice.

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 Morgan and 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, Fay, photographer 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.