“In a world of human use, this extraordinary forest is a reminder of Eden, an untouched gem teeming with chimpanzees, gorillas, and forest elephants. It is the definition of wild nature and must be protected.”
-Steve Sanderson, President and CEO of the Wild Conservation Society
Goualougo Triangle Ape Project (GTAP) is a conservation organization dedicated to conserving chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa’s Congo Basin. Within the Basin, GTAP focuses on the chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle and gorillas in the Djéké Triangle in Mondika.
The Djéké Triangle region is a 38-square-mile (100 km2) tract of land located outside the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. The region falls outside the logging protections allotted by the national park and is included in the Kabo logging concession. In 2005, the area was designated as a “conservation set-aside area,” providing protections from logging.
The Goualougo Triangle is a 100-square-mile (260 km2) region located at the southern end of the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. The Congo Basin is key in that many critically endangered western lowland gorillas and central chimpanzees live in its closed canopy forests. When GTAP was founded in 1999, the Goualougo Triangle fell outside of the National Park and the protections it provided. The land was protected by the Kabo logging concession until it was annexed to Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in 2012.
Called “The Last Place on Earth” by National Geographic, the region is pristine with a population of great apes that have had little to no exposure to humans. The great apes were first reported in 1989 by a team of researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Unlike most wild populations of chimpanzees, these apes were curious about humans. They preferred to investigate the researchers rather than flee.
The untouched forest provides an invaluable opportunity for researchers to learn more about the great apes and the other animals who share their forest. It provides an insight into the evolution of chimpanzees outside of human influence. J. Michael Fay, a member of the original 1989 expedition and conservationist who helped set up the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, commented, “The Goualougo is probably the only place on Earth where humans will ever have the chance to see what chimpanzee culture is really about. Ninety-five percent of chimps on Earth don’t live like this because of humans.”
Organizations like GTAP are critical in researching the great apes in the Congo Basin and continue to conserve and protect them and their environment.
Goualougo Triangle Ape Project (GTAP) researchers use passive monitoring and survey tools to study great ape populations. In 2003, they were pioneers in adopting and developing “Chimpcams.” These trail cameras are housed in specially designed chimpanzee-proof casings and are used in a variety of research projects.
There is currently a network of 65 motion-activated cameras covering 60 square miles of forest. The footage gathered by the trail cameras is compiled into the Goualougo Video Lab, which now contains over seven terabytes of video. The footage is reviewed and processed by researchers at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Notably, 35 of the Chimpcams monitor termite nests in four different communities of chimpanzees. The researchers track repeat visitation by individuals as well as the use of complex toolkits to feed on the termites. They even observed chimpanzees sharing tools with each other, a previously unknown behavior.
Over the past 20 years of monitoring, researchers gained new insights into chimpanzee tool use. The Goualougo chimps use 22 different types of tools, combined into regularly used toolkits, for a variety of behaviors, including social interactions, self-grooming, protection from the elements, and during foraging. Mother chimpanzees give their tools to their offspring when teaching them how to use the tools for themselves. Researchers believe that passing down the tools may “enhance transmission of complex technology in wild apes.” As humans encroach on the Goualougo forests, researchers have found a decline in tools transferring from one generation of chimps to the next. With it, the complexity of the tools and tool use has also declined. This information is being used by GTAP to lobby for improved protection of the apes to include cultural processes and behavior diversity.
Chimpcams are used to track biodiversity within the research areas, particularly the Djéké Triangle. Strategically placed cameras allow researchers to estimate species density and population size of different mammals and birds. While the Djéké Triangle currently holds protections as a conservation area, this information helps conservationists lobby for additional protections and inclusion into the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park.
Monitoring efforts within the Congo Basin continues to yield new insights into gorilla and chimpanzee coexistence. The Goualougo Triangle is the only site where people have observed chimps and gorillas interacting with each other in the wild. Researchers found the two species feed near each other, engage in social play, and spread information. This suggests that there is “a greater depth to their social awareness than previously imagined.”
When researchers first began working on the project, they recorded their observations using pen and paper. While traditional pen and paper is effective, it is not efficient in standardizing data collections between researchers. If data is not collected in a uniform manner, than it becomes more difficult to compare and analyze data between researchers.
GTAP incorporated smart phones and tablets into their field research practices. Researchers use the same apps to consolidate observations into the same data tables. The apps then compile their data, allowing for more efficient analysis.
GTAP uses two main apps: CyberTracker and Ape Health.
CyberTracker is a smart phone app that allows researchers to record georeferenced and timestamped observational data. CyberTracker takes a habitat-wide approach, recording information from wildlife sightings, tracks, and calls to active threats (ie: gun shots, traps).
Ape Health is a tablet app that focuses on individual animal observations. This app allows researchers to record specific health, behavior, social, and resource use data. This app allows the researchers to quickly compile information about the ape populations and gather in-depth data about their members.
Historically, most study sites run by different organizations have worked in isolation. However, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), working in adjacent regions to GTAP, are beginning to integrate CyberTracker and Ape Health into their data collection practices. Doing so will allow all three organizations to better compare their findings and build a comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem in the greater Congo Basin.
Evaluate Logging Impacts
The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project closely monitors the success of sustainable logging and certification in the region. In addition to observing different behaviors in the ape populations, researchers track population differences and fluctuations between ape populations within and outside of the park, as well as before and after timber operations.
The information gathered is used to improve the Forest Stewardship Council certified logging practices and help develop a blueprint to protect apes across Africa.
The more we learn about chimpanzees and gorillas, the more we realize how little we understand about these important animals. Projects like Goualougo Triangle Ape Project provide invaluable insights into great ape biology, behaviors, and community. Their work creates important building blocks for successful conservation for generations to come.
Take Conservation Action
- Donate to the Sacramento Zoo’s conservation fund.
- Be sustainable! Download the sustainable palm oil app. Created by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, this apps allows you to scan barcodes on food packaging to learn if the company is RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified and committed to sustainable palm oil. The app also provides alternatives that are sustainable.
- Share the Goualougo Triangle story with others on social media! Awareness and education are the first steps in working together to make a difference.
- Every time you visit the Sac Zoo or purchase a membership, you are contributing to wildlife conservation efforts around the globe.