Save Endangered Bonobos in the Congo Rainforest

by Bonobo Conservation Initiative
Vetted
Martin Surbeck and Leonard Nkanga Lolima
Martin Surbeck and Leonard Nkanga Lolima

BCI President Sally Jewell Coxe has just returned from a trip to Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. The main objective of this trip was to establish a new research project in partnership with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Under the guidance of Dr. Martin Surbeck—a primatologist who has previously studied bonobos at Lui Kotale near Salonga National Park—the project aims to gain greater insight into how individual bonobos and their groups interact.

In early March, Sally and Martin, along with the rest of our team made a two week journey up the Maringa River, from BCI’s regional office in Mbandaka to Kokolopori. Along the way, they were treated by the sight of hippos in the river! Once the team was settled in Yetee, headquarters for our conservation programs at the reserve, they began process of setting up a forest research camp and orienting local tracking teams (led by longtime supervisor Leonard Nkanga Lolima) for the project.

The Yetee forest is home to two habituated bonobo groups (Ekalakala and Nkokoalongo), offering a rare opportunity to observe bonobo groups interacting in the wild. The team was fortunate to witness the two groups meeting and interacting while the camp was being constructed. This bodes well for the kinds of data and insights that the Max Planck research team will be able to collect.

This project would not be possible without the years of investment in the communities of Kokolopori and the research projects that have come before. Through the generosity of our donors, we have been able to train, equip, and employ local trackers to monitor bonobos in their forests. This foundation of local knowledge has been instrumental in attracting the interest of researchers, like Dr. Deborah Moore, who conducted a pilot study at the reserve two years ago.

Martin is enthusiastic about working with local people, and is keenly aware of the importance of local involvement in conservation within communities. He plans to collaborate with Congolese students in his research, to train a new generation of conservation advocates and ensure that the knowledge gained from his research benefits the Congolese people.

Ultimately, the more we can learn about bonobos, the more we can learn about how to protect them. We continue to look forward to the promise of this project and its benefits for both bonobos and our community partners. As always, thank you for standing with us!

P.S. If you were wondering about the orphaned bonobo that was rescued over Christmas…Sally also paid a visit to him at the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary. Bikoro is thriving and has become quite a playful bonobo! He is in the capable hands of the “mamans,” who care for infants until they are ready to be integrated with the other bonobos at the sanctuary.

Bonobo relaxing at Kokolopori, spring 2016
Bonobo relaxing at Kokolopori, spring 2016
Bikoro with his "maman" and new friends
Bikoro with his "maman" and new friends
Bikoro in Mbandaka with a new friend, Sally
Bikoro in Mbandaka with a new friend, Sally

While most of us were winding down 2015 and spending time with friends and family, our team in the Congo was reminded that poaching doesn’t take time off. Our longtime colleague, Dr. Mwanza Ndunda (also known as Mpaka Bonobo, or "Grandpa Bonobo"), received a tip that a man was selling a baby bonobo in Bikoro, near our Lac Tumba site. Richard Eonga, bureau chief of BCI's Mbandaka office, and Dr. Norbert Mbangi, a Congolese primatologist who has worked on the frontlines for two decades, raced to Bikoro to rescue the baby. They encountered several difficulties on the path, including unpassable roads and floods, but they pressed on and confiscated the bonobo with help from the local police force. Our dedicated employees gave up much of the Christmas holiday with their families in order to stay in the office and care for our new friend.

Malnourished, stressed, and injured, the orphan quickly bonded with our staff. He was named Bikoro after the town where he was rescued, and affectionately nicknamed Noël in honor of the holiday. Bikoro took a particular liking to our dedicated team member Dieudonne Bahati Mwanza. Over the next week, Bikoro recuperated at our office while arrangements were made to transport him to the safety of the Lola Ya Bonobo orphanage near Kinshasa. He ate well and gained strength in his new surroundings—and even began climbing trees in the yard.

On New Year’s Eve, Bikoro was flown from Mbandaka to Kinshasa via Air Kasai. BCI’s Kinshasa team met him and he was transferred to the care of our friends at the sanctuary. A veterinarian assessed the orphan, estimating that he is approximately 4 months old and in otherwise good health. As a precaution, he has been placed in temporary quarantine, in order to assure the health of the other orphans at Lola. Soon, our new friend will have a chance at a happy and safe life with new bonobo companions at the sanctuary.

This story reminds us that, more than anything, we need to put an end to the hunting and selling of bonobos. For every orphan rescued, others have been killed, including the baby's mother. It is urgent that we provide greater support for our field teams near Lac Tumba, and throughout the Bonobo Peace Forest. This bonobo was rescued thanks to a tip from a community member and thanks to our network on the ground. It goes to show how crucial our work is, and how it requires participation and support from so many people. It takes a village—and then some!

As always, thank you for your support. Let’s make 2016 the best year ever for bonobos!

Bikoro and some much-needed nourishment
Bikoro and some much-needed nourishment
BCI
BCI's Dieudonne Bahati Mwanza with Bikoro
Strong enough to climb a tree
Strong enough to climb a tree
Baby bonobo expressing himself
Baby bonobo expressing himself

The results of a recent study of wild bonobos indicate that they use sounds to communicate in a way previously only thought to occur in humans. Zanna Clay and her research team recorded bonobos and their signature “peeps” across a range of behaviors (feeding, grooming, greeting, alarm responses, and many others). Analysis of the acoustical structure of the peeps showed that the same sounds were made in a variety of contexts. This phenomenon—known as functional flexibility—is not unlike the babbling sounds that human babies make before they learn language. It also differs from other primates who use specific calls in specific situations. This discovery, Clay proposes, provides insight into the evolution of human speech.

Communication is the cornerstone of BCI’s work with our Congolese partners. We take the time to talk with and listen to the people whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by our programs. In true partnership, we work together to develop solutions to both protect bonobos and to benefit the communities who are on the frontline of conservation efforts.

This approach recently paid off at the Lilungu site, where we are in the process of helping our indigenous partners to legally protect their forest. News of the success of our programs has spread by word of mouth—and now, neighboring communities have requested to join in. This will double the area of the bonobo habitat protected to nearly 5,500 square km!

But, we need your help to achieve these goals. Your donation supports vital, on the ground efforts to protect bonobos every day—and to secure their rainforest home for future generations.

Thank you for standing with us and please help to spread the word by sharing this update!

One of our dedicated bonobo tracking teams
One of our dedicated bonobo tracking teams

Links:

HF Radio in use at Kokolopori
HF Radio in use at Kokolopori

We all know the importance of having the right tools to complete a task. It seems the same holds true with bonobos. A new study reports that our great ape cousins will use tools like branches, antlers, and stones to find and extract buried or otherwise hidden food. The bonobos’ complex foraging behaviors observed in the study, led by Itai Roffman, resembled those of human ancestors and could indicate that tool use by great apes dates back to the common ancestor to bonobos, chimps and humans.

Our partners at Lilungu are undertaking a significant task themselves: initiating the process of gaining legal protection for the forests where they live. Lilungu was a significant bonobo research site in the late 1980s and continues to have a thriving bonobo population today. Under recent changes to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s forestry laws, communities may request concessions to create and manage what are known as “Community Forests”. In order to ensure that the communities involved are actively and fairly engaged, the process involves intensive coordination amongst local communities, communication with regional authorities, and delimitation of the forest boundaries.

Over the past several months, the community NGO at Lilungu—Economie de l’Environnement et de la Nature (ENE)—has secured initial agreements to request the forest concessions. This is a great first step but, there is a need for tools to help our partners complete the process. Forest delimitation (in addition to on-going monitoring of the bonobos at Lilungu) requires field equipment and salaries for trackers. The Lilungu site is also in need of a new HF radio for more efficient communications during the establishment of this forest and for continued protection of the area, once formally established.

We are proud of the progress that the Lilungu communities, under the leadership of ENE, have made with limited resources and we hope that you will stand with us and help us provide the tools to help them complete the job!

P.S. If you would like to read more about our work and its impact, author Deni Bechard’s book “Of Bonobos and Men” will be released in paperback format on September 1.

Lilungu community members
Lilungu community members

Links:

Bonobos at Kokolopori, April 2015
Bonobos at Kokolopori, April 2015

The last few months have been very busy at the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve! Just as spring has sprung in the northern hemisphere, new activity and life has emerged at the reserve.

In April, the BCI team visited the reserve and brought some special guests, including:

  • a scientist from a prominent research institution, who is interested in establishing a long-term bonobo research program at Kokolopori, and
  • representatives from Wildlife Protection Solutions, an organization which integrates technology systems with anti-poaching and habitat protection programs

We look forward to developing partnerships with both institutions, as they will better enable us to protect and understand bonobos while bringing support to our hard-working monitoring teams. Stay tuned for more developments on this front!

While at Kokolopori, the BCI team also kept busy with our local partners: delivering much needed equipment to our tracking teams, planning for an animal husbandry program for reserve residents with our agronomist Marcel Falay, and meeting with regional partners to plan for further development of the Bonobo Peace Forest—our network of community-managed reserves in the bonobo habitat.

Finally, saving the best for last, we are happy to report that our bonobos continue to thrive. A baby bonobo was born into one of our habituated bonobo groups while the team was at the reserve!

We are hopeful as we look forward to the promise of new life, new livelihood programs, and new partnerships at Kokolopori. Thank you for standing with us and helping us to carry this momentum forward!

Marcel Falay, agronomist for BCI
Marcel Falay, agronomist for BCI
 

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Organization Information

Bonobo Conservation Initiative

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.bonobo.org
Project Leader:
Sally Coxe
Washington, DC United States

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