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In Search of Congo's Bili Ape

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March 26 - 29, 2001 -- Listen to Morning Edition, March 26, 2001, for the latest National Geographic Radio Expeditions based on NPRís Alex Chadwick's visit to Central Congo and the search for the Bili ape.

Researchers have long wondered about a large primate skull found a century ago in the northern Congo. Gorillas have never been reported in this region. But there are stories of very large apes -- and recent evidence suggests that something unknown may be there.

Intrigued by the possible existence of a new species of ape -- news that would rock the world of science -- some of the most renowned ape researchers in the world agreed to undertake an expedition to the Bili forest.

The area falls within the highly unstable Democratic republic of Congo, the former Zaire. Two rebel armies are fighting the central government in Kinshasa, and only a week before the expedition was scheduled to begin in January, Congo leader Laurent Kabila was assassinated. The Bili forest research site is hundreds of miles behind rebel lines; there is little civil authority; roads and communications are poor; there is no medical care. No scientists are known to have explored the area.

Day One - Listen as Radio Expeditions begins the search for the Bili Ape at a dirt airstrip in Arua, Uganda, where a small plane is refueling before flying on to the Congo. On board are two scientists -- Dr. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University and the Leakey Foundation, and Dr. Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Wrangham and Boesch explain both their interest in and skepticism about the puzzling reports from Bili. The two scientists are skilled explorers with many years experience studying and following chimpanzees in the wild. They will need those skills in the days ahead, when they will camp in the forest with the Radio Expeditions team, trying to locate the elusive Bili Ape.

Day Two -- On a rutted road through the Congo forest, Radio Expeditions stops with the researchers to ask local villagers about the Bili apes. They say they know about a large ape, but pictures of gorillas donít look familiar to them. It's a clue that perhaps the animal weíre looking for is either a large chimpanzee or possibly a new species. Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick talks to expedition leader Karl Amman about some of the evidence thatís lured the biologists here -- including a plaster cast made near here a few weeks ago of a very large ape footprint. These are the forests of old Africa and there are things in them that are still unknown.

Day Three -- Listen as Alex follows two other scientists into the forest -- Esteban Sarmiento of the American Museum of Natural History and George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society. In a day of exploring, we find a nest that may suggest the presence of gorillas, but other evidence that leans toward chimps. We also find lion tracks, ape feeding sites, and a forest of sights and sounds that are thrilling even without a mysterious ape.

Day Four -- Listen as Alex joins Christophe Boesch on an early morning trek to a distant forest site to try to find chimps. Boesch explains his technique for locating the animals and the very real crisis that confronts apes in the wild everywhere: Their homeland is being turned into farm tracts and they are being hunted for food. Ape numbers are in sharp decline, and scientists are trying to find new populations that can be protected.

Richard Wrangham introduces us to an investigative technique that is -- challenging. We wash ape feces to learn what the animals eat. Wrangham is able to conclude that the Bili ape is not a gorilla, but rather a chimp. Karl Amman plans to keep trackers in the forest to continue looking for the elusive animals that he still believes may be a new chimp. But the other scientists agree with Wrangham that the Bili ape is in all likelihood a chimpanzee. Says Christophe Boesch, that is enough. For us, the chimp is still a mystery.

Find out more about primate research at:

The Leakey Foundation Web site

The Max Planck Institute Web site

The Wildlife Conservation Society Web site

The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation Web site

See an enlarged map of the central Congo region

Ape researcher Esteban Sarmiento logs data in the camp's main shelter Ape researcher Esteban Sarmiento logs data in the camp's main shelter

Esteban Sarmiento and Kongonyaysi examine a newly discovered ape nest Esteban Sarmiento and Kongonyaysi examine a newly discovered ape nest

NPR's Alex Chadwick in an ape nest Alex Chadwick enjoys the comfort of an ape "ground nest"

Alex lunches with a friend. The expedition adopted this orphan chimp and placed it in a sanctuary in Uganda The expedition adopted this orphan chimp and placed it in a sanctuary in Uganda

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