Curious chimps of the Congo

In the Goualougo Triangle, a part of the NouabalĂ©-Ndoki National Park in the Congolese rain forest, there are communities of "naive" apes, gorillas and chimpanzees who have never met humans before. These apes behave in ways that haven't been observed by scientists anywhere else in the world — they use "tool kits" in sophisticated ways and, perhaps equally surprising to those who study them, they are incredibly curious about any humans they do encounter. When these unhabituated chimps run into one of the few people in their habitat, they don't run like hell. Rather, they "call over all their buddies," according to former BB guestblogger Josh Foer, who in 2008 spent time in the Goualougo Triangle. Josh was visiting with primatologists Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz, co-directors of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Research Project, an organization established to study the apes in the area and help protect them. Josh wrote up his experiences for National Geographic. The video above, showing a juvenile chimp using a tool to poke at a remote cam, is one of many that Morgan and Sanz have posted online. From National Geographic:

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Originally WCS, which co-manages two of Congo's national parks with the Congolese government, had hoped to leave the Goualougo Triangle completely untouched as a kind of preserve within the preserve, off-limits even to the corrupting influence of science. But that calculation changed during Congo's 1997 civil war, when Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), the forestry company with logging rights in the neighboring Kabo concession, built a levee for transporting lumber across the Ndoki River a few miles south of its confluence with the Goualougo. Since CIB would soon be brushing up against the triangle's natural borders, WCS felt that it was critical to put some boots on the ground. "We had to beat the logging companies in here," says Morgan. In 1999 he hiked out to the Goualougo with a single Congolese assistant and set up one of the most remote great ape research sites in the world.

That Morgan was able to persevere out in the middle of nowhere, with spartan accommodations and minimal logistical support, had a lot to do with Sanz, who came out to the Goualougo in 2001 and has been his partner in both science and life ever since.

When I visited the triangle in 2008, I wanted to see what had become of this Eden and its supposedly guileless inhabitants. The Goualougo remains a primate wonderland, with an astounding density of both gorillas and chimps. Things that haven't been observed anywhere else in Africa happen here–and often. Morgan and Sanz have watched chimps and gorillas nibble on fruit in the very same tree. (Not quite the lion lying down with the lamb, but for primatologists, just as bizarre.) They've seen chimps cup their hands and beat their chests, as if mimicking their gorilla neighbors. But the most spectacular finding to come out of the Goualougo over the past several years is an expanded view of what can only be called chimp culture, a tradition of using complex "tool kits." After a decade of determined study by Morgan and Sanz, the story of the Goualougo is no longer how little the chimps know of us, but rather how much we now know of them.

"The Truth About Chimps" (National Geographic)

Goualougo Triangle Ape Research Project