Back Into the Wild
Can a pioneering bonobo rehabilitation project serve as a blueprint for community-driven conservation in Central Africa?
As the dugout canoe cuts its path through the early morning mist that covers the surface of the Lopori River, Victor Likofata recounts the day in August, 2011 when he was mauled and left for dead by a troop of bonobos, a species of great ape endemic to the Congo Basin.
Likofata was part of a small team of trackers with Amis des Bonobo du Congo (ABC), a community-driven conservation project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He and the other trackers had been tasked with monitoring a troop of 12 formerly captive bonobos who, in an ambitious and unprecedented move, had been reintroduced into the dense riparian forests of Équateur Province in the far northwest of the country.
As the bonobos gradually got used to their newfound freedom, they became increasingly confused by the persisting presence of the trackers. “On the day of the attack, we were following them along the riverbank when one of the males got separated from the group and began to feel threatened by us. He called the others back to help protect him,” Likofata remembers. “When they all began to approach us, one of the other trackers panicked and threw a big stick at the bonobos to try to disperse them. Then they all came for us. We couldn’t escape.”
In the ensuing melee, Likofata was quickly rendered unconscious. When he came to about a quarter of an hour later, he instinctively put his hand to his face and found a gaping hole. There was so much blood in his eyes that he thought he was blind. “When I wiped the blood away, I saw that the bonobos were still not far from me. They realized I was alive and quickly encircled me again, but this time they were holding out their hands to beg for forgiveness.”
The other trackers, two of whom had sustained less serious injuries, had fled. Likofata was alone in the forest. He turned and stumbled away from the bonobos towards the river in search of help. When he reached the water’s edge, he called out to a passing fisherman who came to his aid. Likofata collapsed into the fisherman’s boat and fell unconscious again. When he next awoke, he’d been admitted to the crumbling central hospital in the nearby town of Basankusu. He’d lost his nose, an ear, and a finger.
Though Likofata subsequently went through six months of extensive reconstructive surgery in Paris, his handsome face is still heavily scarred, and he slurs slightly when he speaks. But as we continue our passage along the river, passing occasional fishermen using thin hand lines to reel in plump catfish, he is quick to assure me that the bonobos are not to blame for his injuries: “It was an accident, some kind of misunderstanding. But it was our fault,” he says. “This was the first time anyone had ever tried to take bonobos out of captivity and put them back into the wild, so none of us really knew what we were doing. Anything could have happened.”
Nevertheless, Likofata’s horrifying ordeal serves as a grim reminder of the fragile relationship between bonobos and their human cohabitants in a region ravaged by decades of conflict and resource exploitation.
I’ve come to the drc to see whether organizations like Amis des Bonobo du Congo can help create a more harmonious co-existence between people and endangered bonobos in this long-contested corner of Central Africa. Wild bonobos (Pan paniscus) are found only here in the humid forests south of the Congo River. Sometimes known as “pygmy chimpanzees,” bonobos weren’t recognized as a separate species until 1929. Like chimpanzees, they share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans and are our closest living relatives. It is thought that the formation of the Congo River 1.5 to 2 million years ago separated bonobos’ ancestors from the common chimpanzees (which live north of the river) and led to their distinct speciation.
Bonobos typically live in so-called fission-fusion communities made up of 30 to 80 individuals, just as chimpanzees do. Members of each community usually move alone or in small parties of a few individuals at a time. A single community occupies a home range of 20 to 60 square kilometers and there is extensive overlap between the ranges of different communities. Unlike chimpanzees, however, bonobo society is female-centered and egalitarian. Bonobo groups tend to be more peaceful and, rather exceptionally, they prefer to maintain relationships and settle conflicts through sex.
The exact size of the bonobo population is unknown – only 30 percent of its historic range has been surveyed. But using data from the four known bonobo strongholds, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that wild bonobo populations currently number between 20,000 and 50,000, which marks a “significant reduction” within the last 15 to 20 years. Researchers say the decline will likely continue for the next 60 years due to the bonobo’s low reproductive rate and growing threats from poaching and deforestation. Much, however, remains unknown about bonobos, given the remote nature of their habitat, the patchiness of their distribution, and years of civil unrest within the DRC.
According to primatologist John Hart, who has been working in conservation in the DRC since the 1970s, any successful attempts to reintroduce or translocate bonobos into the DRC’s forests are “of major importance” in “a world of declining ape habitat and growing numbers of ape orphans.” In this regard, Amis des Bonobo’s pioneering reintroduction project could come to set a crucial precedent.
Amis des Bonobo was founded by charismatic Belgian conservationist Claudine André, who originally came to the then Belgian Congo with her veterinarian father as a baby in the 1940s, and was first exposed to bonobos as a volunteer at Kinshasa Zoo in the ‘90s. In 2002, in the uncertain aftermath of the brutal Congolese Civil War, André opened the world’s first bonobo sanctuary, which she called Lola ya Bonobo, meaning “Paradise of Bonobos” in the local language, Lingala.
The war had left the Congo in tatters, claiming an estimated 5.4 million lives and decimating its spectacular wildlife, including its great ape populations. In biodiversity hotspots like the province of Équateur, many animal species were poached to the point of extinction by roving militias, who used bushmeat as both a source of sustenance and income. But Amis des Bonobo’s sanctuary endured through more than 15 years of sporadic conflict and frequent political and economic upheaval. The sanctuary’s relative isolation just beyond Kinshasa, the DRC’s sprawling capital, has perhaps afforded it a certain level of protection. But André’s tenacity and the strong relationships she has cultivated with both government officials and local communities have likely been more pivotal to the sanctuary’s steadfast success. It continues to serve as a rare symbol of hope in this perpetually volatile landscape, and as a uniquely precious safe haven for orphaned bonobos.
In June 2009, Amis des Bonobo stepped up its conservation efforts by releasing the first group of nine captive bonobos from the sanctuary into the protected forests of Équateur. Three more bonobos were added to the troop in October of that same year. The protected area, called Ekolo ya Bonobo, meaning “Land of the Bonobos” in Lingala, is approximately 200 square kilometers, twice the size of Manhattan. It’s located near the bustling river port town of Basankusu close to the DRC’s border with Central African Republic and just to the west of what the IUCN calls the “northern block” of its four officially recognized bonobo strongholds.
In 2006 Amis des Bonobo reached an agreement with the customary authorities of Ilonga Po, an impoverished forest-dwelling community comprising four villages, to lease this swampy section of their tribal land for the creation of a “community reserve.” In return, Amis des Bonobos promised to implement a range of community development projects. They also vowed to create jobs and curtail the steady encroachment of poachers and illegal loggers by employing “eco guards” to patrol the area and protect the reintroduced bonobos.
This morning, almost exactly six years after the attack on Likofata, we’re skirting the edge of Ekolo ya Bonobo in search of the bonobos. Most of the 12 that have been reintroduced here were rescued from Congo’s rampant ape trafficking trade.
Before being rescued by Amis des Bonobo with authorization from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the government agency responsible for managing the DRC’s protected areas and species, some of these bonobos had been intended for sale to private exotic animal collectors or unscrupulous zoos as far away as Southeast Asia. Each of them would have fetched tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others had been captured and kept as pets after the adults in their troop were killed for bushmeat, a booming Congolese industry driven by the abject poverty that afflicts the country’s rural communities.
A 2013 United Nations report estimated that globally more than 22,000 apes had been trafficked or killed over the preceding 7 years; many originated in the Congo Basin. An estimated 9 tons of bushmeat are extracted daily from a 50,000-square-kilometer landscape within the bonobos’ range. IUCN, which lists the bonobo as endangered, says the commercial bushmeat trade is currently “by far the greatest threat to the bonobo’s survival.”
Fanny Minesi, Claudine André’s daughter and the current director of Amis des Bonobo, says it’s important to bear all of these contextual factors in mind when considering the uncharacteristically violent attack on Likofata by these famously peace-loving, intelligent, and empathetic apes: “You have to try to imagine the kind of trauma these animals had suffered. There was a lot of stress in the group because of all that they had been through in the past.”
However, Minesi admits the attack almost ruined Amis des Bonobo’s reintroduction project: “First there was the financial cost of the flights to Paris, the surgery, and everything. We are talking hundreds of thousands of euros. And then you have a team that is traumatized and beginning to question the objective of the project, whether what we are doing is a good thing. I think [the attack] was devastating for us in many different ways. Up to today, I think we are still trying to justify ourselves,” Minesi says. For her, as for Likofata, the incident seems to have left an indelible mark, a lingering fear that the delicate rehabilitation process could ultimately end in tragedy.
Despite these existential and financial concerns, the bonobos’ progress since the attack has been resoundingly encouraging and almost entirely without further incident. The bonobos’ numbers have swelled from 12 to 17, thanks to five successful wild births. “They are all happy; they are all healthy. You can’t even recognize them from when they arrived here from the sanctuary,” says Ibrahim Walelo, another tracker riding in the boat with us.
Right on cue, we round a bend in the river and find seven bonobos from the reintroduced troop relaxing on an open patch of grass near the water’s edge. A few infants chase each other around in circles; one of the adults lounges lackadaisically on his back looking skyward with an arm behind his head and his legs crossed. He seems uncannily human. Likofata cuts the engine and we drift slowly past. The bonobos are entirely unfazed by our presence.
“The first time I came back here after my surgery, I was so nervous,” Likofata tells me as I snap a few pictures. “I pulled my cap down to cover my face so the bonobos wouldn’t know it was me. Then when I was close enough, I took off my hat. Even with all the damage, the bonobos recognized me straight away and began to rejoice; they all rushed over to me to touch me and hold me and laugh with me. It was a very emotional moment. I had tears in my eyes. I realized then how special these animals are.”
Looking to build on the promising foundation that’s been laid by the first troop, Amis des Bonobo has now obtained permits to reintroduce a second troop of 14 bonobos from Lola ya Bonobo in July this year. They’ll be rehabilitated in a newly expanded section of Ekolo ya Bonobo. The new section will more than double the reserve’s total area. His eyes widening in excitement, Walelo tells me that the organization’s trackers recently discovered evidence of rare forest-dwelling elephants and two wild troops of bonobos in the new section of forest, dramatically increasing the conservation significance of the reserve.
As we continue to observe the bonobos, a few of whom have now ascended into the trees to forage, a couple of young boys pull up alongside us in their own dugout canoe and crane their necks upwards. Walelo takes a moment to explain to the boys that bonobos are humans’ closest relative and are unique to the DRC, so they should always be protected. “Conservation begins with education,” he says with a smile when the boys eventually move on.
This philosophy has been at the core of Amis des Bonobo’s community-driven conservation efforts since its inception. A few days before we set out upriver in search of the bonobos, Ekolo ya Bonobo’s project director in Basankusu, Moise Lofinda, had taken me through town to visit one of the 14 primary schools that the organization supports in the region. Lofinda told me that the nonprofit provides these terribly underequipped schools with wooden desks and textbooks, while a small team of Amis des Bonobo teachers holds weekly classes that inform the children about the importance of protecting the forests and the bonobos.
When we arrived at one of the schools, the children, numbering around 150, had been assembled in the main courtyard and after a few nervous giggles and a little prompting from one of the teachers, they chanted in unison: “No to deforestation and killing of bonobos! Yes to protecting the forest and the bonobos!” Lofinda told me that these children could go on to become key informants, reporting any instances of bonobos being sold at markets or kept in captivity: “Many of the bonobos we confiscate and send to Lola have been reported by children.”
A half day’s trip upriver from Basankusu, a narrow, rutted dirt track leads us away from the riverbank and weaves its way inland through a tapestry of ferns and vines towards the village of Kodoro. On the back of one of Amis des Bonobo’s motorbikes, I duck and weave to avoid low-hanging branches. Our route is punctuated by patches of muddy puddles and soft sand that slow our progress as the oppressively hot midday sun splinters through the foliage.
The commercial bushmeat trade is currently the greatest threat to the endangered bonobo’s survival.
I’ve been brought to Kodoro to get a sense of how Amis des Bonobo is empowering the communities around the fringes of its reserve. Kodoro is one of four communities that Amis des Bonobo is currently working with, in addition to the town of Basankusu. The organization’s main focus areas are agriculture, education, and healthcare, but it is also looking to expand the reach of solar energy in a region almost entirely without electricity.
“It should be obvious that people, communities, need to be at the center of the conservation process,” Lofinda tells me over his shoulder as he expertly navigates our motorbike. “Ultimately, they are the primary guardians of the bonobos and the forest.”
Unfortunately, the DRC, like most African countries, has a long history of what environmental author and academic Dan Brockington has called “fortress conservation.” This model, inherited from the former colonial powers that carved up the African continent, is driven by persisting Eurocentric beliefs that the protection of flora and fauna is best achieved by isolating them from human populations. Across Africa, fortress conservation has translated into Indigenous populations being routinely and often violently pushed off their ancestral lands and into impoverished squatter camps on roadsides and urban peripheries.
The problem persists to this day. A September 2017 report by Survival International, an organization that advocates for Indigenous rights, details the “destruction of Congo Basin tribes in the name of conservation.” The report claims that since 1989, the expansion of what it calls “green colonialism” in the DRC has led to the widespread eviction of Indigenous Baka and Bayaka groups from their homelands, the criminalization of their traditional hunting practices, and brutal attacks on them by park rangers. It says that major international wildlife organizations including the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society have leveled accusations of poaching at forest-dwelling communities to justify their exclusionary approach to conservation.
Renowned conservationist Ian Redmond, best known for his extensive work on the DRC’s mountain gorillas, says it doesn’t have to be this way. The poaching problem could be dramatically reduced by curbing the local population’s growing dependency on bushmeat to survive, rather than trying to prevent people from entering porous protected areas. “As you hunt out the areas around your village, you need to walk further and further to find animals. So if people are taught how to farm fish or keep goats as an alternative source of protein, then they’ll probably prefer that,” Redmond told me over the phone from London.
Lofinda echoes Redmond’s belief: “I think that people are beginning to realize that after all the years of hunting for bushmeat, their lives have not improved, they are still poor, they are still hungry, and the animals are fewer and fewer. Even if you’re hunting bushmeat to sell, it provides only a short term burst of cash, and then you’re back to having nothing.”
But in a country with more than 45 percent unemployment and an average annual income of $400, there are often few alternatives. With this in mind, Amis des Bonobo has been piloting a number of sustainable fishing and farming programs in Kodoro; the fishing programs are also intended to reduce the strain on the region’s increasingly overfished river ecosystems. The organization has also been training women in basic marketing techniques to help them sell their surplus fish stocks and crops at local markets.
“We can’t do everything, but I believe we can at least make the communities understand we are giving them a start.”
But for all of Amis des Bonobo’s efforts, as we drive around Kodoro meeting with local residents, it’s quickly apparent that the organization is struggling to meet the full extent of the community’s needs. Local schools are in a state of disrepair and have been closed for weeks due to a nationwide teachers strike. Kodoro’s only health center is a small, dilapidated mud-brick structure with a scruffy thatched roof, no electricity, and almost no equipment.
“We have asked for help with medicine, with treating malnutrition and so on. We know ABC is trying to assist us, but we need more,” Jose Bwakalona, president of the so-called Committee for Village Development tells me, with deep concern etched into his broad, kind face. The committee was created by Amis des Bonobo to act as a bridge between the organization and the Kodoro community.
A number of other committee members and village elders sit in a semicircle on either side of Bwakalona. All of their clothes are threadbare. They nod solemnly as Bwakalona voices the community’s concerns. When he has said his piece, Lofinda looks at him in silence for a few moments, then finally responds: “We are doing our best, but unfortunately, there will always be criticisms, there will always be things that are lacking.”
For most people in this region, it’s clear that the organization is their first and only hope. Such hope is not entirely unfounded. In Lelonda, another riverside village which serves as the main entry point to Ekolo ya Bonobo and the base for many of Amis des Bonobo’s research activities, living standards have dramatically improved in recent years, according to Mathieu Ndjoni, a long-term resident of the village and one of the organization’s community coordinators.
“At the beginning, it was hard to make some people understand why they should protect the bonobos, but now they are seeing the benefits,” Ndjoni says, leaning on a well that was built by Amis des Bonobo. “Now, everyone in Lelonda is proud to say: ‘This is our reserve.’” Ndjoni adds that 15 of the 23 Amis des Bonobo employees in Lelonda live in the village itself, where previously there was a severe dearth of employment opportunities. The organization also covers healthcare and education costs for immediate family members of all its employees.
Still, Amis des Bonobo’s efforts to help local communities are hampered by the DRC’s current political crisis, which was prompted by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his two-term limit in December 2016. The ongoing political impasse and its effect on an already creaking Congolese economy have sparked sporadic protests in a number of the country’s towns and cities. Rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east, and a bloody conflict in central Kasai has claimed more than 3 000 lives and uprooted more than 1.5 million people.
Just before departing the DRC, I meet with Fanny Minesi in a brightly lit and overly air-conditioned café in downtown Kinshasa. As I arrive, she is frantically trying to negotiate with Congolese wildlife authorities for the transfer of an orphaned bonobo to Amis des Bonobo’s sanctuary on the outskirts of the city. “If the state was doing its job properly in terms of wildlife protection, I wouldn’t even be here,” she tells me exasperatedly.
Minesi, a former lawyer, took over the project from her mother in January 2014. “I feel very blessed every day waking up and having this job. It’s very rewarding, because you do everything. But sometimes you really do everything, and this is just too much.” She reels off the various logistical, political, financial, and cultural challenges. “When you think about it all, it’s crazy,” she says. “We are supposed to be a conservation project, but I can’t come here and say to people, ‘Listen, we’re just going to focus on bonobos.’ We have a responsibility – the state is doing nothing for these people. We can’t do everything, but I believe we can at least make the communities understand that we are giving them a start.”
It’s not clear yet if Amis des Bonobo’s work will serve as a community conservation success story that’s worth being replicated. Redmond cautions that bonobos’ greatest protection hitherto has been their remoteness. “But as the forest continues to open up for extraction of timber or minerals, we’re seeing that previously low-level subsistence hunting is changing into the growing potential for commercial hunting with almost endless demand in booming urban areas,” he says.
However, John Hart remains hopeful that if rural Congolese communities are sufficiently involved in every aspect of the conservation process, they will come to see the importance of protecting their natural heritage for future generations. “They know they have major political, social, and economic problems, but they also recognize that unhindered destruction of nature, especially in protected areas, or for protected species, like bonobos, will not provide them with any lasting benefits, and often not even any short-term benefits,” he says.
Minesi, however, is confident that things are heading in the right direction. “Give me three years, then this project will be sustainable,” she says after draining the last sip of coffee from her cup. “We’re a small project now, but we’re growing fast. There’s still a lot to do, but we are prepared to run a marathon.”
Christopher Clark is a British freelance journalist based in South Africa. He reported from the DRC on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.