National Geographic : 2003 Apr
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. (See the "Megatransect" series: October 2000, March and August 2001.) 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 trust ing animals by the world's foremost chimpan zee maven, Jane Goodall. The return trip occurred last sum mer, just weeks before the World Summit on Sustainable Develop ment convened in Johannesburg. Goodall was committed to attend the big gathering, which would include pres idents, cabinet ministers, scientists, conserva tionists, 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 con template 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. 94 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * APRIL 2003 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 frag mentation, and in some places local extinction. Although there were probably more than a mil lion chimps in Africa a century ago, no more than about 200,000 (and possibly far fewer) survive today. In many areas where humans and chimpan zees came into contact, hungry people treated Pan troglodytes as just another form of bush meat, and chimps learned that Homo sapienscan be lethally dangerous. When the source of con flict 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, bor dered 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 remem ber her portraits of ragged-eared Flo, trust ing David Greybeard, murderous Passion, and others. Their individual fame has tended to ob scure 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 popula tion. That is, it may be too small to renew itself indefinitely. Inbreeding could cause trouble. An epidemic might wipe out half the number, SOCIETY GRANT after which a drought, This Expeditions Council a fire, or some other project was supported by natural catastrophe your Society membership.