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Life of chimp research and 'adventure' for scientific duo

Frank Kehren

For more than a decade, Washington University anthropologist Crickette Sanz and Lincoln Park Zoo research conservationist David Morgan have lived and worked in a remote stretch of forest in Africa’s Congo Basin, studying chimpanzees and gorillas.

Together with local Congolese, they founded the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project, whose mission is to study and protect great apes and their habitat.

Sanz and Morgan are giving a talk about their work tonight at the St. Louis Zoo — they spoke with St. Louis Public Radio's Véronique LaCapra.

SANZ: The Goualougo Triangle Ape Project was set up to study the chimpanzees and gorillas in a unique area where there hadn’t been any human presence for a long time, but it was gazetted for logging.

And so David and I set forth to get to know all the chimpanzees and the gorillas and their behavior, in the hopes of protecting the area. And we were very fortunate after 13 years to have achieved that goal, when the area was annexed to the new Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in January of this last year.

People may not be familiar with African geography, can you explain a little bit where this region is? It’s part of the Congo Basin – how do you get there, and where is it?

SANZ: The Republic of Congois located in Equatorial Africa, in Central Africa, it’s actually bordered by Gabon, and Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. You would fly from St. Louis to Paris, and then from Paris down into the capital of Brazzaville.

From Brazzaville we take a domestic flight to a regional capital of Ouesso, which is about 20-some-thousand people, I believe. We then take a dugout canoe, which is a big, hollowed-out tree, about six hours up the Sangha River.

We spend the night in the park headquarters. We then take a truck ride for an hour, on a logging road, another dugout canoe — this time you can just barely fit your hips in it — you paddle yourselves down a river.

And then we hike for six hours into one of the most pristine and remote field sites in the world.

What’s it like to live in such a remote area doing your research? I mean, what do you have to bring with you, where do you — how do you live, is there anybody else there with you?

MORGAN: We have a team of about 10 trackers and several field assistants from Congo. We do camping, we have a base camp, so we live in tents. Very rustic, as Crickette likes to call it. No communications basically, except for satellite telephones. No e-mail contact.

And we love it. It’s very remote, and it that case it’s very special. There aren’t many places like that left, even in Central Africa, in the Congo Basin.

How long do you typically stay when you go there?

SANZ: When we first started we would go for 11 months of the year, and just come back for one month. We did that for about eight years.

And now I’m teaching at Washington University, so I’m here in the spring and the fall, and go over in the summer for about four-month stints, but David will spend between six to eight months of the year there.

Wow, so you were talking about how hard it is to get there, so you must be carrying a whole lot of stuff to be able to stay there for months at a time.

MORGAN: Yeah, we bring our computers, lots of backpacks, we go in with teams of maybe 25 to 30 porters at a time —

SANZ: We typically have about 500 pounds of luggage, coming from the states.

You’ve chosen what many people would consider a pretty unusual life-path, if I can put it that way. What made you want to do this kind of work?

MORGAN: Since I can remember I wanted to be out in the forest studying chimpanzees. I can remember the first time I saw a chimpanzee in a zoo. And I spent my lifetime trying to get to that point, to find a place. And fortunately, we did find an area where chimpanzees had never even seen humans before.

I remember when I was young, people saying, “chimps are endangered, they’re declining.” And so this is really a great opportunity.

SANZ: When I was in university I worked at a facility where chimpanzees knew American Sign Language. And so I volunteered there. I was fluent in sign language from when I was a child and had a neighbor that was deaf. And [I] asked a chimpanzee a question, and she answered, and [I] looked into her eyes and thought, “I could definitely study these individuals for a lifetime, they’re just fascinating.”

Has there ever been a time when you felt like, this is just too hard, I can’t do this anymore?

MORGAN: No, I think for us, every day is extraordinary when we’re out in the forest. It’s hard fundraising, and doing the science, and managing teams, but we feel very fortunate.

SANZ: There are some days when you get charged by an elephant, and you think, boy, my goodness! What am I doing out here? But it’s also very exhilarating and exciting and it is every day is filled with adventure and you look forward to getting up, and wondering what you’ll see that day.

Rehman Tungekar is a former producer for KBIA, who left at the beginning of 2014.