Lost Apes Of The Congo

6 minute read
Stephan Faris

Ron Pintier was flying light and low above the northern wilds of the Democratic Republic of Congo when he saw a dark shape racing between two patches of tropical forest. “It was huge,” says Pontier, a missionary pilot. “It was black. The skin was kind of bouncing up and down on it.” From its bulk and color, Pontier thought it was a buffalo until he circled down for another look. “I saw it again just before it went into the forest,” he says. “It was an ape–and a big one.” Not buffalo size, but big.

What Pontier saw was a piece of a primatological puzzle, another splinter of anecdotal evidence for a mysterious ape with characteristics of gorillas and chimpanzees, an animal that has scientists in a furious debate over what it might be.

Bili lies in Congo’s far north, about 120 miles east of the Ebola River, where deep tropical forest breaks up into patches of savanna. Civil war and neglect have left the region nearly untouched by man. Overgrown dirt roads with bridges of rough-hewn logs string together thatched-roofed villages. Nearly all freight is carried in by bicycle. Locals hunt with homemade shotguns and crossbows seemingly modeled on 16th century Portuguese design. “This area is the last part of Africa where there are still wild animals,” says Pontier, who grew up in the region. “It’s not a game park. It’s not a reserve. The animals are really wild.”

When Karl Ammann, a Swiss photographer crusading against the killing of wild animals for meat, first visited the region in 1996, he was looking for gorillas, hoping that the great apes still roamed its jungles. What he found surprised him. Locals had two names for the apes in their forests: the tree beaters, which stayed safe in the branches, and the lion killers, bigger, darker and so strong that they were unaffected by the poison arrows used by local hunters.

Ammann discovered a strange skull with the dimensions of a chimpanzee’s but with an odd, prominent crest like a gorilla’s. Motion-detecting cameras in the forest caught what looked like immense chimpanzees, and a photograph purchased from poachers showed hunters posing with an animal estimated to be twice the size of an ordinary chimp. Ammann measured a fecal dropping three times as big as chimp dung and footprints as large as or larger than a gorilla’s.

Most intriguing were the gorilla-like ground nests found in the riverine swamps. Chimps normally make their nests in the high safety of trees. Why would they build their beds of branches and shoots on the ground? And why here, of all places? At night Cleve Hicks, 32, a Ph.D. student who observes the animals, regularly hears the laughs of hyenas and the guttural cries of leopards. Recently, his trackers filmed the footprints of a lion crossing a river. But the apes here–at least some of them–pulled together branches and shoots to make a bed on the ground. “We know [the apes] are a perfect target for leopards,” says Hicks. “So how can they get away with that?”

The first scientist to see the Bili apes was Shelly Williams, an independent primatologist who visited the region at Ammann’s invitation in the summers of 2002 and 2003. She says she documented separate groups of East and West African chimpanzee subspecies and what she calls the “mystery ape.” The larger animal had a much flatter face and straight-across brow like gorillas and turned gray early in life. Females lacked chimps’ genital swelling. Two or three would nest on the ground, with others low in nearby branches. They made a distinct vocalization like a howl and were louder when the full moon rose and set. “The unique characteristics they exhibit just don’t fit into the other groups of great apes,” says Williams. The apes, she argues, could be a new species unknown to science, a new subspecies of chimpanzee or a hybrid of the gorilla and the chimp. “At the very least, we have a unique, isolated chimp culture that’s unlike any that’s been studied,” she says.

That last, least dramatic theory is the one preferred by most scientists who have visited the region, including Harvard ape expert Richard Wrangham, who thinks the ground nests are built by chimps looking to escape dampness during the day. When Hicks and Ammann describe the animal they are studying, they use “mystery ape” only with irony. Ammann is worried that Williams’ sensational pronouncements have brought ridicule to his project. “If there’s scientific data, that’s one thing,” he says. “But basing all of this on anecdotal stuff …” Recently, he was emailed pictures of a chimp with a pug-dog’s head and a seal sprouting a gorilla’s face. “Clearly, someone thinks we’re a joke,” he says. An analysis of hairs found in the ground nests identified their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as East African chimpanzee. Williams counters that finding with three arguments: the DNA could have been contaminated, the use of human genetic markers might mask hidden differences, and mtDNA would not show variation in the paternal line. “Until we know the father’s lineage, we can’t say if it’s a new species or not,” Williams insists. No longer welcome in Ammann’s camp, she says she will return to the area in March to set up her own project.

“I think people are going to be disappointed with the yeti in the forest,” warns Hicks, who says the apes he has seen are clearly chimps, although some are strangely oversize. “The evidence doesn’t point to [a new species]. I think what needs to be focused on is the cultural differences.” In addition to building ground nests, the apes fish for ants with tools that are several times longer than those used by known chimp populations. For now, Hicks is concentrating on habituating the animals, getting them accustomed to the noisy, nosy presence of researchers. The science–and the videotapes–will come later.

“Genetically, they’re not even a subspecies,” says Hicks. “But behaviorally, we may be seeing the beginning of a departure from chimpanzee norms. We could actually be catching evolution in the act. That is, if they’re allowed to survive.”

That’s an open question. The forests here have been hit hard by commercial poaching. Kalashnikov-wielding hunters stage raids from the Central African Republic and central Congo. Pontier, the missionary pilot, used to see herds of a hundred elephants when he first flew over the region in 1983. Now three together is a rare sighting. And with the big animals nearly gone, Ammann, who has set up a conservation project in the area, says the poachers are turning to hogs, antelopes, monkeys and chimpanzees. “The pressure on smaller game is increasing now that the elephants are gone,” he says. If there’s one thing all the scientists can agree on, it’s that if this part of Congo goes the way of other African wild lands, the great apes could soon disappear. All that will be left of the Bili ape is the mystery.

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