By most standards, 2008 was not a banner year for wildlife conservation—unless you talk to Emma Stokes. In August, she dropped the equivalent of a neutron bomb on the scientific community: the existence of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a nearly untouched region of northern Congo. In one bold stroke, Stokes, 34, doubled the known population of the critically endangered apes.
A biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Stokes has worked in the Republic of Congo since 1999. In that time, she has dodged forest elephants, sung ABBA songs to fend off silverback charges, and carried her tracker out of deep jungle after he fell unconscious froman infected machete wound (inflicted by his angry wife). But she had never really explored the "green abyss," an almost impassable 7,000-square-mile patchwork of uninhabited jungles and tree-filled swamps at the country's northern tip. "We knew the swamps were important for gorillas," she says, "but had no idea how important."
Or how hard they would be to survey. "Our guys would slog through waist-deep water for days at a time, hanging their hammocks above the swamps," she says. But after three years of counting gorilla nests, Stokes and her team got the results. There was fanfare, of course, and just as much caution. The green abyss is prime gorilla habitat because of its impenetrability. However, Stokes says, loggers are encroaching on the area, and recent Ebola outbreaks have devastated nearby primate populations. The Congolese government has already announced plans for a new national park, Ntokou-Pikounda, which will cover part of her survey area. Meanwhile, WCS has tasked Stokes with a new mission: to protect Asian tigers. They, too, are on the verge of disappearing—unless, that is, she discovers a few thousand more of them.
- Nat Geo Expeditions