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Seeing the Forest for the Apes: An Unlikely Partnership for Conservation

Look around your home or your office and you’ll quickly realize the sheer quantity of items and materials that are derived from the global logging industry. From printer paper to furniture and building materials, there is an unbelievable demand for wood and wood products. It’s simultaneously obvious but also easy to forget that for every...

Look around your home or your office and you’ll quickly realize the sheer quantity of items and materials that are derived from the global logging industry. From printer paper to furniture and building materials, there is an unbelievable demand for wood and wood products. It’s simultaneously obvious but also easy to forget that for every wooden park bench or mass-printed memo, there was a magnificent living tree that was chopped down create that product and likely dozens of animals that lived in, on or around.

Here in North America, that wildlife is familiar: squirrels, woodpeckers, and maybe a possum or raccoon.  In other parts of the world, species may seem more unusual and exotic but are no less reliant on the forest landscapes in which they have evolved for millions of years. This generation has already witnessed the horrible outcomes of rampant and virtually unregulated forestry in Southeast Asia, where literally millions of acres of rich tropic forest has been razed in the name of the palm oil industry. Orangutans — Asia’s only great ape species — hangs on the precipice of extinction in part, due to the unimaginable loss of suitable habitat as conservationist scramble to evaluate the full degree of impact. Today, it is difficult to even remember what those forests must have looked like before the logging began.

But in the dense forests throughout Congo Basin in Central Africa there is a reminder. Vast stretches of green, spotted with towering giant trees that reach toward the sky. Here, two species of great ape call these forests home — western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees.  Both species are heavily reliant on the forests for food and nesting sites and are unquestionably threatened by the imminent logging presence in the area. With logging comes not only the loss of trees but also the potential for increased poaching activity or bushmeat (in part to feed the loggers) and increased risk of disease transmission, the results of which could be catastrophic for both the apes and the humans traversing the growing network of logging roads that penetrate previously untouched forests.

Nestled deep in the forests of the region, is the Nouabále-Ndoki National Park, protected from industrial logging but surrounded by active logging concessions.  Like a precious gem, its beauty is created in part by the intense pressures around it. Scientists here, based at the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project site in northern Republic of Congo, have long anticipated these threats and seized the rare opportunity to study the apes and the forests before, during and after logging occurs. The results are shaping logging activities with the goal to protect the valuable wildlife.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s David Morgan, Ph.D., along with his co-authors, recently published a study that reveal some surprising findings. They evaluated the degree to which both gorillas and chimpanzees are affected by what is called selective logging, in which only “marketable” trees are removed from the forest.  This stands in stark contrast to the clear-cutting removal that is associated with the creation of palm oil plantations and undoubtedly have a devastating effect on local wildlife.

Dr. Morgan and the team determined that even this selective logging served to displace ape populations during road development and timber removal processes. Despite careful selection of particular trees for processing, the human activity in the area was enough to scare away both gorillas and chimpanzees, which, in turn, can disrupt feeding ecology and social structures. Perhaps more interesting was the evaluation of the apes in areas once the logging activities subsided. Gorillas, which thrive in high ground herbs and even swampy openings in the forest, tended to repatriate logged areas easier compared to chimpanzees.  The more arboreal chimpanzees, who thrive high in the canopy in those towering trees known as “the giants of the forest” seemed to be more impacted by the logging, and were slower to come back. Perhaps it’s not surprising in some ways —removing all the coffee shops in the neighborhood wouldn’t change my ranging patterns much as a non-coffee drinker but I know plenty of folks who would move out and never return again.

Understanding the degree and form of logging impacts on different species will be critical to informing future selective logging practices and guide how we can minimize the impact on wildlife. The scientists with Goualougo Triangle Ape Project have forged a unique and productive relationship with the logging companies in their study area, both sharing data on timber inventories and ape ecology with each other.  They support the continued certification of logging companies by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which demands adherence to practices aimed at protecting the forests, wildlife, human societal needs and  while maintain an economically viable operation.

With all the wood products we use on a daily basis, I think we all wish it was a renewable or infinite resource. But it isn’t. Equally certain is the fact that logging will continue to happen and contribute to the economies of nations, some of which really need the boost. What we can do is use good science to evaluate those impacts and work with industry to implement those findings to protect the natural world. Consumers can also make an impact by only using sustainably-sourced products by looking for the FSC label on products – small steps can make a great impact on our closest living relatives even if they are far away.  In an inevitably urbanizing world, science and education are our tools to find new ways to co-exist with the wildlife we value so much.


Authored by: Stephen Ross Ph.D., Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, Lincoln Park Zoo

In 2000, Steve was hired by Lincoln Park Zoo as a behavior specialist with a primary role in the design of what eventually became the award-winning Regenstein Center for African Apes. He conducted a wide breadth of ape and visitor studies that helped directly influence the design of the new ape facility and continues that line of research today in his applied behavioral research with chimpanzees, gorillas and Japanese macaques.

Steve served as Chair of the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan® (SSP) from 2002-2017. In this role, he led the multi-institutional effort to manage the population of chimpanzees living in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Steve has been instrumental in promoting the SSP as a global leader in the promotion of progressive chimpanzee management that optimizes chimpanzee welfare, both within and outside AZA zoos. He continues to serve on the elected management group of the SSP and as studbook keeper for this species.

Though Steve has published papers on species as diverse as polar bears, otters, gorillas and zoo visitors, his primary focus is improving the welfare of chimpanzees in a wide scope of conditions. His research on how the inappropriate portrayal of chimpanzees in the popular media affects public conservation attitudes of this species is a unique contribution to these efforts. These interests culminated with the initiation of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Project ChimpCARE in 2009. This innovative program seeks to assess the housing and management of chimpanzees living as pets, performers and in other private situations with the goal of facilitating policy change that will benefit this often-unseen population of chimpanzees in the United States.

With over 20 years of experience studying animal behavior, Steve is enthusiastically supportive of Lincoln Park Zoo’s approach to scientific-based decision-making. Utilizing the unique research resources available at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes and the Regenstein Macaque Forest, he focuses on using science to influence policy that will have positive effects for animal welfare. Studying ape behavior and cognition allows him a unique insight into how these fascinating animals interact with their environments and how to best transform these areas to support their complex needs.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo inspires communities to create environments where wildlife will thrive in our urbanizing world. The zoo is a leader in local and global conservation, animal care and welfare, learning, and science. A historic Chicago landmark founded in 1868, the not-for-profit Lincoln Park Zoo is a privately-managed, member-supported organization and is free and open 365 days a year. Visit us at