A Journey Into a Wondrous World Hidden Deep in the Congo Forest

Excerpted and adapted with permission from John Reid and Thomas Lovejoy’s Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet, published March 2022 by W. W. Norton and Company. All rights reserved.

The ferry that carries cars, trucks, and people across the Sangha River runs only in the daytime. We were on our way back from a weeklong visit to one of the Congo’s most intact, wildlife-rich forest redoubts, called the Goualougo Triangle, which is separated by the Sangha from the country’s paved roads and towns. When we reached the crossing at sunset, we maneuvered around several trucks loaded with lumber, manioc, and charcoal. Across the water, lights were winking on in the small city of Ouesso. Our driver dismounted to chat with someone called “Manager” on the concrete ramp. Calls were made with people on the other side to see if the ferry could be prevailed upon to make another run; we had no apparent sleeping options on this side of the river other than crammed in our vehicle. To the east, a landscape of forests and wetlands—with scattered villages—stretched for hundreds of miles. Just as the sky ignited in a weave of salmon, red, and gray, we received the news that the ferry was done for the day.

There was an alternative: a boat called a pirogue that might still cross that evening. We drove a short way upstream to a village called Djaka, guided by Manager (this turned out to be his name, not a title). As we waited, a pickup truck dropped off a full load of passengers, who streamed down to the waterside with packages. A taxi delivered three beautifully dressed women with various children who all walked down to wait for the pirogue. A scholarly looking young man in wire-rimmed glasses appeared, carrying a goat, and proceeded down the hill. We asked Manager if perhaps we shouldn’t heave our suitcases down the bank and stake out an advantageous spot in the mud to assure places on the pirogue. He brushed aside the suggestion at first and then, as more prospective passengers amassed, agreed, and we moved our hillock of belongings closer to the water.

At length, we spied the pirogue’s bow light as it approached the shore. It looked skinny. Like a canoe. The idea of all the well-dressed women and the dozens of other people milling about in the dark, as well as our party of four Americans and four Congolese conservationists, and the scholar and his goat, and Manager, all boarding this slender craft was preposterous. At Manager’s signal we hoisted our luggage and made our move toward the pirogue’s bow, which was now beached in the mud. There was a great deal of shouting in French and Lingala, the regional lingua franca, but no shoving or elbowing. In fact, there was room to walk in the pirogue, with wooden benches along each side.

Goualougo research project.

To get there we drove for two days from the capital Brazzaville, managed to catch the same ferry across the Sangha River that we would narrowly miss on the return journey, and drove three more hours on orange dirt roads that narrowed until the bushes slapped the Land Cruiser’s mirrors on both sides. At the road’s end, we climbed into small pirogues and wound our way up the slow and swampy Ndoki River and then the smaller Mbeli, under tree arches in a channel that smelled like a garden and dwindled in spots nearly to the width of our canoes. After an hour we disembarked and started walking on trails made by elephants.

These smooth paths bend elegantly this way and that, converging at four- and six-way crossroads. Following one of these trails, you can almost imagine an elephant’s day, visiting one tree after another. Furry octagonal Duboscia macrocarpa fruits are chewed and scattered. The next tree announces itself with a burnt-sugar-and-cherries aroma. Long reddish-black pods of Tetrapleura tetraptera, a local cure-all, are strewn half-chewed on the trail and in the bushes all around its base. Elephants cut the trail to this tree, but gorillas love the seeds, too, inserting a canine and running it the length of the capsule. The sticky pods might simply taste good, but gorillas and elephants, like many other species, are known to use plants medicinally. Further along, we come upon a “scratching tree,” deformed and stuccoed with red dirt that elephants throw on their backs and rub off on selected trunks.

documented 22 different instances of tool use among chimps, including tools for feeding, self-care, first aid, comfort, and play.

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Our first night in camp, Morgan explained that we might witness a behavior few humans have ever beheld: ape co-feeding, which is when two ape species eat together. Co-feeding involving gorillas and chimps was not known to occur a couple decades ago and is being documented exclusively here in the Goualougo Triangle, the only place in Africa with both chimps and gorillas that have been habituated to the presence of researchers. For days, Morgan’s team has been monitoring a massive Ficus recurvata, a fig tree about 30 minutes’ walk from camp that produces golf-ball-sized fruits. They smell like a smoothie made of green mangoes, cardboard, and cut grass. A botanical survey in the area found only one of these trees in every 1,500 acres. They fruit once every 13 months, and the chimps have the locations and dates marked on their mental calendars. In the days preceding our visit, the research teams observed a female chimp coming by several times to test the figs for ripeness, like someone squeezing supermarket peaches.

We set off before dawn the next morning. When we arrived, the fig tree held two gorillas and four chimps, plus some vivid green pigeons and noisy birds called giant plantain eaters. Co-feeding is not a lovefest. There is an obvious power imbalance. The chimps are canny, fast, territorial, and move in large communities. The group we met is called the Moto community, after the Lingala word that means both “fire” and “man.” It has 55 members, around half of whom were present. Gorillas live in smaller family groups, like the company of five we observed, led by a silverback called Loya. The chimps seemed, at best, to be tolerating the gorillas. The gorillas in the trees, Loya’s sons Mojai and Kao, ate with one eye on the fruit and the other on the chimps. At one point Mojai got into a pickle. Hugging a fat smooth branch, he slid down to the place where the fig tree first bifurcated, far above the forest floor. Soon there were chimps directly above him on both of the main branches, and the central trunk was too big for him to embrace for further sliding. He nervously looked for options. Eventually, the chimp on one of the exit branches moved off and Mojai scrambled up and into a neighboring tree. The rest of the gorilla family settled for fruits scattered on the ground.

This towering fig specimen draws the two ape species into a temporary bubble of intimate, if uneasy, coexistence. While in proximity, they benefit from each other’s alarm calls. The younger individuals will engage in cross-species play and even sexual exploration. There is chest-beating and sometimes violence. Gorillas are known to benefit from chimps’ awareness of ripening fruits and follow them to the trees. And the researchers are watching for any sign that the gorillas pick up on the chimps’ tool use. Nothing conclusive so far. Morgan also points out that what we watched was a dynamic that could very well have been part of the Pleistocene human experience, during which Homo sapiens had human contemporaries such as Denisovans and Neanderthals. “Bones can only tell us so much and seeing real behavior in the wild is instructive. All we have to go by at this point is sympatric chimpanzees and gorillas.” The term sympatric describes species that inhabit overlapping areas.

We moved away from the ficus with botanist David Koni to look for Loya. The silverback was asleep, sprawled on the forest floor. Koni is a plant savant, able to identify almost anything in the forest with his eyes shut. He whispered that when Loya woke up, the ape could reach out in any direction and find something edible, from the gorilla point of view. Like cows, gorillas ferment their food during digestion—in the apes’ case within oversized colons. They can eat just about anything green. As if on cue, Loya stirred, rolled, reached out a huge arm, and stripped leaves from a nearby bush. He munched, stood, and then ambled along an elephant trail, back to the co-feeding tree.

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