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Clark writes: "A troop of 14 bonobos is on the verge of being released into the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo."

Bonobo in the Congo basin. (photo: David Beaune/MPI)
Bonobo in the Congo basin. (photo: David Beaune/MPI)

Inside an Ambitious Project to Rewild Trafficked Bonobos in the Congo Basin

By Christopher Clark, Mongabay

12 June 19

A troop of 14 bonobos is on the verge of being released into the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

n a sultry morning in the densely forested Équateur province, Victor Likofata and Ibrahim Walelo perch on the edge of a long dugout canoe as it slows down along the Lopori River.

Their eyes fix on the verdant trees that line the riverbank, where a troop of bonobos (Pan paniscus), an endangered great ape endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), calls excitedly in response to the sound of the boat’s approaching engine. The high-pitched shrieks reverberate across the surface of the water.

Likofata and Walelo both work for a local bonobo rehabilitation project called Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC), which in June 2009 made an unprecedented move to reintroduce 11 trafficked and orphaned bonobos, as well as two of their captive-born offspring, from the organization’s sanctuary in Kinshasa into a wild release site that encompasses an expansive swath of Equateur’s riparian forest. The troop’s number has since swelled to 18, thanks to five wild births, the most recent of which occurred just a few weeks ago.

“It was the first time this kind of thing had ever been attempted with bonobos, so there wasn’t a well-worn path for us to follow,” recalls Likofata of the early stages of the reintroduction process, as the boat idles about 20 meters (66 feet) away from the pioneering troop. “But if you look at their behavior now, you wouldn’t believe these were bonobos that had ever been kept in captivity.”

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.

But in contrast to their close relative, bonobo society is female-centered and egalitarian. Bonobos also tend to be less prone to violence than chimpanzees, preferring to maintain relationships and settle conflicts through sex.

The formation of the Congo River 1.5 million to 2 million years ago likely first separated bonobos’ ancestors from chimpanzees and led to their distinct speciation. However, the remoteness of bonobos’ habitat and decades of civil unrest in the DRC have ensured that much remains unknown about the species.

As a result, ABC’s first reintroduction effort was an inevitably speculative affair. But the results have been encouraging enough that in July 2018 the organization began the complex, protracted process of reintroducing a second troop of 14 bonobos into the approximately 475 square kilometers (183 square miles) that comprise the steadily expanding release site, known as Ekolo ya Bonobo, meaning “Land of the Bonobos” in Lingala, the lingua franca in much of the DRC.

The new troop is currently being kept in quarantine on an island next to the main reserve, from where it has increasingly been exchanging calls with its antecedents across the water, most of whom are old acquaintances from the sanctuary in Kinshasa.

According to Walelo, in charge of monitoring the new troop’s progress, they will be fully released into the main section of the reserve before September this year. “They’re already hunting for their own food in the forest. They’ve dealt with heavy rains and flooding. They’ve adapted very well,” he says. “In my estimation, they’re ready now.”

A population under threat

Before being rescued by ABC, many of the bonobos in both the old and new troops 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 of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Others were orphaned, captured and kept as pets after the adults in their troop were killed for bushmeat, a booming Congolese industry driven by both the abject poverty that afflicts the country’s rural communities and demand from a rapidly expanding urban population.

An estimated 5 million to 10 million tons of bushmeat are harvested in the Congo Basin each year. The IUCN, which estimates wild bonobo populations at between 20,000 and 50,000, says the commercial bushmeat trade is “by far the greatest threat to the bonobo’s survival.” The organization also says there has been a “significant reduction” in overall bonobo numbers within the past 20 years.

The threat to wild bonobo populations has been exacerbated by resource extraction, in particular poorly regulated commercial and artisanal logging, which is both destructive to bonobo habitats and can lead to further poaching activity by opening up previously inaccessible forest areas. A 2013 study found that due to human activity, as little as 28 percent of the bonobo’s natural range remains suitable. The study also stated that only 27.5 percent of suitable bonobo habitat was located within existing protected areas.

John Hart, a primatologist who has been working in conservation in the DRC since the 1970s, says he believes that ABC’s reintroduction of trafficked and orphaned bonobos from captivity is an important countermeasure.

“The bonobos that are being placed in Ekolo are pioneers for interventions that may become more visibly needed as we move into a future of growing fragmentation and depletion of Congo’s forests,” says Hart, who is not affiliated with ABC. However, he maintains that the first priority should be the protection of “natural bonobo landscapes and their wild bonobo populations.”

Other conservationists have questioned the conservation value of great ape reintroductions. Their concerns include possible transmission of diseases to wild populations, and the risk of increased human-wildlife conflict as a result of intensifying resource competition between wild troops and reintroduced ones, which might push some bonobos beyond their usual home range.

But Fanny Minesi, ABC’s director, maintains that through careful troop selection and the involvement of local communities in the conservation process, such pitfalls can be avoided. “At the beginning we didn’t really know if this was going to work, but now we have ten years of experience to show that it can,” she says.

‘People feel that they are involved’

Buy-in from the various poor communities surrounding Ekolo has been crucial to the reserve’s success thus far. Since 2006, ABC has negotiated with a number of local customary authorities to lease largely unused sections of their ancestral forest lands to form part of the reserve.

In return, ABC has set about implementing a range of community development projects, as well as creating jobs and curtailing the steady encroachment of poachers and illegal loggers by employing “eco guards” to patrol the area and protect the reintroduced bonobos.

“People feel that they are involved. They see the value. They are very enthusiastic that we are doing a second reintroduction now,” Minesi says.

In Elonda, the riverside village that serves as the main entry point to Ekolo ya Bonobo and the base for ABC’s research activities, living standards have improved dramatically in recent years, according to Mathieu Ndjoni, a long-term resident 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,” says Ndjoni, whose work for ABC involves facilitating conservation education programs at rural schools and implementing sustainable fishing and farming practices in local communities. “Now, everyone in Elonda will tell you: ‘This is our reserve.’”

But the process has not been entirely without incident. In August 2011, a group of ABC trackers was brutally attacked by the first troop of bonobos. Likofata was almost killed. After more than six months of reconstructive surgery in Paris, which Minesi says almost bankrupted the project, his face remains heavily scarred.

There has also been some contention around ABC’s efforts to demarcate communal land and restrict subsistence hunting and fishing practices that have existed for generations. “People have not been offered enough compensation or alternatives to make up for the restrictions imposed on them and their land,” says one community leader, who asked to remain anonymous.

Walelo says that while many people might publicly express support for the project and its conservation efforts, “As soon as we turn our backs, some of them will be illegally selling bonobo meat under the table at the markets.”

As the DRC lurches from one conflict or political crisis to another, the state’s absence in peripheral provinces such as Équateur has also placed a tremendous weight of expectation on ABC to fill the void. Equally, it presents a range of logistical speed bumps, from unpredictably spiking fuel prices to the late issuance of reintroduction permits from the country’s central conservation authority.

“There is so much need. We have a lot of challenges and we just can’t do everything,” Minesi says. “But I still believe that people in the communities around the reserve see that they have more to gain than to lose by us being there.”

In the next few years, Minesi plans to continue expanding the reserve and incorporating more local communities and their land into the project, though she estimates that even at its current size Ekolo could already manage more than 20 separate bonobo troops of approximately 15 individuals each. She also wants to shorten the gap between each reintroduction to around three years.

In April this year, the governor of Équateur province signed a declaration to designate Ekolo as an official state protected area, which Minesi says she hopes will provide further security for the reintroduced bonobos as both their number and the wild release site continue to grow. “We also want bonobos to be a kind of umbrella under which all the species that live in this ecosystem are also safe,” she adds.

‘It’s a better life that they are taking back’

Back on the river, the original troop gradually loses interest in the boat and in its former guardians, Walelo and Likofata. Soon, the apes have all disappeared back into the forest. It might be weeks before they are spotted again.

The monitoring team, which also includes Walelo’s wife, Veronique, moves across to the island to focus on the new troop, where they throw sticks of sugarcane onto a wooden platform in a small clearing, the sound drawing the bonobos out of the surrounding trees. This daily feeding routine will gradually be reduced as soon as the bonobos cross the river into the main reserve. After about a month, they’ll be left to fend entirely for themselves.

Maya, the new troop’s alpha female, patiently shares a few sugarcane sticks with a small, hungry infant that clings to her back, then moves to the water’s edge, where she stares intently at the pristine forest on the opposite bank.

“They will be so happy when they are over there in the main area,” says Walelo as he scribbles notes on the new troop’s progress and behavior. “They will be able to go wherever they want, eat what they want, do what they want. It’s a better life that they are taking back.”

This piece was originally published on Mongabay.

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