An Unlikely Refuge for Hippie Apes

Conservationists fear for the survival of the sociable, sexual bonobos, but an answer may be found in war-torn Congo

  • Cyril Ruoso / JH Editorial / Minden Pictures

    Bonobo female with newborn a few hours old

    Clarification appended: April 15, 2008

    The hippie chimps are showing us no love. The jungle is giving us none either, with army ants, sweat bees and black gnats swarming us. But we have traveled hundreds of miles in a rickety propeller plane to reach a grass strip in the heart of the Congo Basin, nursed a wrecked jeep down 100 miles (160 km) of bicycle track and hacked all morning through vines and thorns on the promise that the peaceniks of the animal kingdom would show us what they're about. So far, there's been some rustling in the trees, a few shrieks and the occasional shadow swinging through the canopy. But there's been no hint even of romance, let alone the bonobo orgies I've read about. Patrick Mehlman, a conservationist and primatologist who has spent his life around African apes, senses my disappointment. "Just because you fly all this way," he says, "doesn't mean you're going to get any."

    True enough, but I could be forgiven for expecting more. Bonobos are an endangered African ape found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), the vast, sweltering river basin that is Africa's answer to the Amazon. Though they look like chimpanzees, they are a distinct species. They are slightly smaller, for one thing, the better to handle a life spent predominantly in trees. But it is the bonobos' social behavior that fascinates humans. While gorillas beat their chests and chimpanzees fight savage wars, bonobos appear to be largely animals of peace. They live communally, enjoy gender equality and, when disputes occur, resolve their differences through sex--straight sex, gay sex and sometimes, when different bonobo troops cross paths, group sex. "Their basic disposition is compassionate," says Sally Coxe, president and a co-founder of the Washington-based nonprofit group Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), who is guiding our trip.

    The bonobos' peaceable nature, however, has not spared them an unhappy history. Like most great apes, they are in decline, victims of poachers who kill them for bush meat, loggers and miners who destroy their habitat and healers who prize their bones as part of a potion for pregnant women. Estimates of the surviving bonobo population range from a few thousand to the low tens of thousands. But every study indicates that the figure is falling.

    And yet last November, an odd thing happened. The normally dysfunctional Congolese government set aside a vast new nature reserve in Sankuru in central Congo. Measuring 11,803 sq. mi. (30,750 sq km)--or roughly the size of Massachusetts--the area will serve as a sanctuary not only for bonobos but also for 10 other species of primates as well as elephants and the endangered okapi, a short-necked cousin of the giraffe. As remarkable as the protection the reserve will provide is the fact that such a set-aside got created at all. Trying to carve so pastoral a corner out of so violent a country is never easy, and the particular way conservationists went about establishing this one can serve as a model for all such work in the developing world--paying dividends not just to the animals and wilderness being cared for but also to the people doing the caring. "I believe if we save the bonobos," says André Tusumba, a conservationist and the leader of the effort to create Sankuru, "we save ourselves."

    It Takes a Village

    Yalokole is a town of grass-roofed huts on the edge of the Kokolopori forest, erected around a giant termite mound on which sit two wooden talking drums--still the only way to communicate long distance in central Congo. Close by, in Yalokole's mud-floor, mud-wall, tin-roof church, Tusumba is giving a speech.

    "Did the state give you a hospital?" he asks the congregation of 75 local notables.

    "No!" they reply.

    "Did the state give you a school?"




    "Conservation brought a school. Conservation brought a clinic. Conservation brings development!" he says. The church erupts in applause.

    Tusumba, 45, is a straight-backed, teetotaling former deputy governor of Kasai province who never quite fit in politics. He started to come to that conclusion in 2000, when his constituents brought him a baby bonobo as a gift. Tusumba realized the villagers had slaughtered a bonobo family to obtain the little female. Rather than raise her as a pet, he decided to make her part of his family. "I used to eat with her at my table," he says. When Tusumba's term as deputy governor ended in 2004, he started concentrating full time on conservation, knowing he was taking on a very big job.

    For as long as people have been mindful of the need to protect wildlife, there's been one way to get the job done: separate the animals from the people. To Tusumba, that always smacked of colonialism. Draw lines around any community, and you impose your will on the populations on both sides of the boundaries. "Older environmentalists wanted to preserve the people as well as the animals," says Tusumba, "like they were pickling specimens in a bottle." If this was culturally stultifying for humans, it was lethal for wildlife. Africa's national parks have been historically poorly policed, with officials herding animals together and leaving them unprotected--in effect, creating a live meat locker for poachers.

    Tusumba and others knew there might be a way to do things differently. As long ago as 1998, villagers in the east Congo community of Tayna came up with the idea of running their own reserve to protect the Grauer's gorilla. The locals determined the areas that would be set aside as wildlife zones, human communities or mixed-use areas. They decided how access would be controlled; and if there was work to be had as trackers, guards or porters, they would do it. In 2001 Mehlman, then working for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, approached his employers and other public and private groups and successfully solicited additional funding for Tayna. The project expanded, and by 2003, the community had built its own university specializing in environmental studies. "Seven hours up a dirt track, a people in the midst of a civil war realized their future depended on conservation biology," says Mehlman. "It's the most inspiring thing I've seen in my whole life."

    Tayna wasn't the only place conservation was being creatively rethought. BCI was applying similar principles in a 1,500-sq.-mi. (4,000 sq km) area in the Kokolopori forest to the west. Here too, locals drew the boundaries of the reserve, but this time there were more agreements covering the establishment of schools, roads and medical clinics, and investment in transportation, communications, power generation, microcredit and agriculture.

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