For the past 13 years, Lincoln Park Zoo researcher David Morgan, and his wife and research partner Crickette Sanz have been studying wild chimpanzees and gorillas in a remote corner of Republic of Congo-one of the planet’s last remaining pristine forest habitats. Recently, the couple got good news when the government of Congo agreed to expand the neighboring park’s protected area to include the Goualougo Triangle where they works. This month, David took a few minutes to talk about his life away from Lincoln Park Zoo.
How did you get started in chimpanzee research?
My start in ape research was originally with wild western lowland gorillas rather than chimpanzees. The opportunity came after writing many letters to scientists asking how I could get involved with working at a newly created national park in Republic of Congo, Central Africa, called Nouabale-Ndoki. I was fortunate to be offered a volunteer position at Mbeli Bai Gorilla Project. This was one of the first research projects in the park and they offered me a chance to assist in collecting behavioral data on gorillas and other wildlife that came into the Mbeli Bai clearing to feed on aquatic plants. I thought it was a great opportunity that provided me a chance to finally get some experience with wild apes, field research and eventually start the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.
Do you spend most of your time in the Congo and how long have you been working in Africa?
My wife and I have been incredibly fortunate to have spent a great portion of the last 15 years working in Central Africa in Congo. For the first 12 years we spent roughly 10 to 11 months out of the year in the field, studying chimpanzees and gorillas. Now, I spend roughly 6 months of the year in Africa and the rest in the U.S. Fundraising, report and scientific writing obligations make it hard to spend more time in Africa.
Working with chimps in the Congo sounds so exotic. How can kids reading this who are interested in that type of career get started?
I think kids interested in this field have a lot of opportunities available to them. Those interested in chimpanzee research can prepare themselves by taking relevant classes and courses in school. Doing well in subjects such as biology, math, psychology, and even a foreign language (French is spoken in Congo) is a good start, But grades are not everything and I spent a lot of time at the library reading about far off tropical places and what it is like to work in the field. Outside of school, getting involved in outdoor clubs, local zoo programs can make a difference and provide kids an opportunity to see just where their interests and talents are.
What has been the most exciting part about your work?
…Perhaps most exciting is being part of a project that my wife and I share that has contributed new discoveries into chimpanzee and gorilla behavior. Some of our observations have provided new insights never before documented in chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have been studied at some sites for over 60 years and so a lot has been gained in terms of understanding their behavior. Here in Central Africa however, chimpanzees have only just begun to be understood and there is great potential to gather information that will help conserve them. Being involved in such work is highly rewarding and an honor.