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An Unlikely Refuge for Hippie Apes

10 minute read
Alex Perry/Kokolopori

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.

The money for such development came once again from donors, and since local workers and materials were used, even a little revenue could go a long way. What’s more, the old top-down method of letting the government distribute the funds was done away with. Instead, conservation groups would ask the villagers what they wanted, deliver it themselves and make conservation a condition of that delivery. BCI’s ultimate aim is the creation of a Bonobo Peace Forest, a series of linked preserves covering a great swath of central Congo.

Closer to Utopia

If that goal sounds utopian, it nonetheless came closer to being realized last fall. Even as Kokolopori sought the government’s formal designation as a protected nature reserve (a move that may come as soon as June), Tusumba was leading the charge to apply the new conservation techniques more aggressively still to a third place: the Sankuru area. So convincing was he that President Joseph Kabila allowed the nearly 12,000-sq.-mi. (31,080 sq km) region to jump the queue and earn the reserve designation first. Adding that to the 95,000 sq. mi. (214,000 sq km) the country has already declared reserve land means 10.5% of the D.R.C. is now under protection, more than two-thirds of the way to the government’s long-stated goal of 15%. When I join Coxe, Mehlman and Tusumba, they are touring the Congo Basin, spreading their conservation message in the hope of adding that final third.

If the new model of conservation is so smart, why did it take bonobos to push us there? There’s no denying that human beings are powerfully drawn to other high primates–and to bonobos perhaps most of all. Depending on which lab report you use, bonobos vie with chimpanzees for the title of man’s closest relative, with a 98.4%-to-98.6% DNA match. As a result, says Coxe, understanding the bonobo is “fundamental to our understanding of ourselves.”

Still, it was an understanding we came to late. Bonobos were recognized as a separate species only in 1933, less because of their subtle physical distinctions than because of their peaceable, highly sexual ways. The bonobos’ best-known champion is Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University. De Waal argues that bonobos overturn established, bloody notions of the origins of man. So popular has this idea become that for humans, bonobos are now cultural–and commercial–darlings. A raw vegetarian restaurant in New York City calls itself Bonobo’s. California sex therapist Susan Block has developed a conflict-resolution protocol dubbed the Bonobo Way. (Sample dictum: “You can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) But do bonobos deserve their gentle rep?

In a July 2007 article in the New Yorker, writer Ian Parker reported a bonobo pack aggressively pursuing a baby duiker–a kind of small antelope. Coxe admits that her Kokolopori researchers reported troubling behavior in one bonobo group after a female gave birth to a stillborn baby. “The other adults let her keep the dead baby for a day,” she says. “Then they ate it.” These reports have given rise to a prickly cultural debate, with the unknowing bonobos being recruited into America’s political wars. bonobos’ genteel qualities may be overstated, said a headline in the Wall Street Journal after Parker’s piece appeared. De Waal shot back in eSkeptic magazine, accusing Parker of being a “revisionist.” Says Coxe: “The right wing doesn’t like bonobos, but open-minded liberals love them.”

On my second day in the forest, a group of 21 bonobos, oblivious to the political silliness an ocean away, oblige the liberals by showing us their gentler side. A baby kisses its mother. A group of females shoo an unpopular male away with matriarchal authority. A bonobo couple, apparently enjoying a kind of ape honeymoon, share figs, nuts and shoots and hang out in the trees with moonfaced expressions before copulating twice high up in the canopy.

The truth is, of course, that 1.4% to 1.6% of DNA and millions of years of evolution equals an evolutionary ocean. Even the most liberated humans would hesitate to have sex in front of complete strangers. And bonobos aren’t likely to harness fire or invent the wheel or the Internet soon. Still, for too long the study of nature has been the study of zero-sum savagery–a universal bloodlust that allows us to shrug at our own brutality, reckoning that mere animals like us can hardly be expected to do better. Discovering such close genetic cousins who behave themselves so well–even sometimes–ought to give us pause. There are already plenty of reasons to save the Congo Basin, but teaching the highest species on the planet the value of a little peace and love is one more very good one.

ENDANGERED SPECIES For more photos of the bonobos, go to time.com/bonobos

The original version of this story omitted primatologist Patrick Mehlman current position and title. He is the senior director for Central Africa programs at Conservation International.

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