Monday 1 October 2007

Gazing into the Bonobo Mirror (Australian Geographic Oct 2007)

By Angus Gemmell (Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder)

"Congo". The very word, spoken as if with a drumbeat at the back of the tongue, conjures foreboding. A vast jungle, an impenetrable wilderness, where the only avenues of open space and light are the web of waterways that drain a basin the size of western Europe. This is the land vividly engrossed into the world's imagination by Joseph Conrad as the "Heart of Darkness". True it is that over the last century and a half no where else on the planet has seen more unceasing human suffering.
On top of the rapacious brutalities inflicted by the Belgian colonialists, promptly followed by the tyrannies of President Mobutu's reign, the Democratic Republic of Congo was ravaged between 1996 to 2002 by what was dubbed Africa's World War. It's one of modern times' most neglected facts that an estimated 4 million Congolese perished in those years as a result of the war waged by six African nations.
How striking then that amid what seems a black hole of tragedy there lives one of the most peaceful, gregarious, intelligent and cohesive of species. That this species, the bonobo, also happens to be the closest living relative to humanity, makes their existence in this great dark realm of human agony all the more of an improbable oasis of light.
Surprised? You may be excused for never having heard of the bonobo. Their habitat is so remote, and the Congo so savaged by successive wars, that only a few of the hardiest scientists have had the tenacity to study them at length and attempt to bring them to the world's attention. Barely a handful of film crews have ever recorded their startling behaviour in the wild.
That bonobos frequently walk bipedally -- they stand four and a half feet tall -- use an endless variety of sexual pleasure as a way of avoiding conflict, have the intelligence and language capacity of a 3yr old human child, are largely matriarchal and display a capacity for nurturing that would be the envy of any mother, should be enough to make us take notice. Along with the chimpanzee they share 98.6% of the same DNA as humanity. They provide a vastly different model however for human heritage than the more volatile and violent chimpanzee. Scientists speculate that perhaps it was from a time such as bonobos now enjoy that we acquired our sense of morality as well as capacities for love and idealism. It's high time we paid our closest and most endangered cousin the respect they deserve, lest they, and the lessons they can teach us about our own origins, disappear altogether. The bonobo identity crisis has persisted far too long.
I owe my interest in bonobos to having some 16 years ago come across the explanations of an Australian biologist, Jeremy Griffith, on the human condition. Since then, and having had a stint in Washington DC working for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) in 2001, I have harboured a longing to spend time with bonobos in the wild, and to observe and film their remarkable behaviour. At last, in the current window of peace in the Congo, the opportunity to embark on a 1,500km expedition up river has arisen, and with it with the hope of reaching the BCI's research and conservation centre in a region known as Kokolopori.
On board are two Australian friends, Dr Luke Bennett and Phil Strickland SC, as well as the American Executive Director of BCI, Michael Hurley. The native Congolese contingent consists of the BCI's extremely capable director in the Congo, Bianco, as well as the BCI's trusty river guide, Le Blanc -- "the white" -- so named for his piercing green eyes set in an African face. His eyes would frequently aflame an even greater colour when fuming with his pet disdain for the vagaries of the many bureaucrats we encounter along the way, each wanting their own wedge of cash for our "safe passage".

We also have on board a couple of cooks, two assistant helmsmen, and a young stow away who leaps into the baggage area just as we push off. When confronted and pressed to leave he audaciously produces a tattered student card as incontrovertible proof of his entitlement to join our journey. Suitably taken aback by this youthful brazenness, we agree to let him stay on. After all, we decide, we'd each of us in younger times flashed a student card for all sorts of dubious purposes.
We set off at dusk from the bustling river port of Mbandaka. Our three pirogues, better described as hollowed-out logs, are lashed together and bound with vine and frayed rope. We are punting against the flow of the mighty Congo River -- the most voluminous river in the world after the Amazon -- and known locally as "the river that swallows all rivers". In places the river is so wide that one bank is not visible from the other. The outboards drone like a swarm of wild bees as they strain against the current, and start propelling our foray slowly but persistently into the oceanic depths. Their humming envelopes our movement and cocoons us -- as if in a sound capsule -- from the immensity of the forest that wades and plunges an escarpment of foliage along the river's edge. As we motor continuously for 7 days and nights I feel a notion of piercing into the heart of nature. Our pace, no faster than a light jog, seems entirely appropriate for such a journey -- any faster would be too much of a rude incursion into the timelessness of this wild expanse.
The movement of the boat through the haze of heat and draping humidity creates some cool relief. We have visitors to our vessel, some welcome, some not so. Drifts of butterflies, in a kaleidoscope of electric blues and greens, or flutters of butter gold, pay haphazard visits to our unlikely presence. I wonder whether the ubiquitous sand flies have enough stamina to keep up with our patient probing up river. I spot some of the little blighters coasting on the cushion of air in front of the pirogues, like dolphins in the bow wave of a tanker, and coat my legs and arms in a sheen of RID. Horse flies the size of cicadas buzz and dive-bomb us like messerschmitts. We each have a sleeping mat under the tarpaulin rig, and keeping our respective spaces free of biting or stinging critters takes vigilance. I notice that Phil has acquired an accomplice in his quest for a bug free zone. A large praying mantis has taken lodgings in the exterior folds of his mozzie net, and has already chomped a few march flies.
We are the first westerners in a long time to journey this stretch of river, and we must seem an apparition to many of the fishing villagers. We receive a mixture of responses, most friendly and some baffled, as well as a few angry gesticulations clearly telling us to get the hell away. From notches at the foot of the tumbling crags of dense jungle -- almost imperceptible nooks and crannies in the great walls that flank our every day -- we see a sporadic gleam of smiling teeth and a palm raised in friendly wave with a welcoming cry of "Mboti". Luke has taken to giving a military salute to these friendly faces, and chuckles heartily at the mimicked salutes he receives in reply. It gives our little bustle upstream an air of bumbling mercenaries on a not so covert mission.

Small floating islands formed by a mass of long grass are making their journey downstream. Some of these "grass bergs" are replete with a small tree or two and birdlife, no doubt attracted by the plethora of insects taking refuge on their flight across the wide river. Avoiding their stealthy descent at night is a minefield, and at times we slice headlong into them with a hefty brush of the long grass along the flanks of the pirogues. Le Blanc curses loudly in his native Lingala as he reverses us out and clears the propellers of any weed. Our meals are cooked on coals placed upon sand towards the bow. Along with our stores of rice and the local staple -- cassava -- we purchase large fish along the way. Goats and chickens from villages also find their way into our cooking pot.
Toiletry matters in such tight confines are not for the prudish. We try to synchronise our bowel movements so that "dropping the kids off at the pool" doesn't involve too many stops. We plunge into the river and take turns, pants dropped, clinging to the stern of the pirogues. Fish here obviously have a ravenous appetite, for I notice my efforts are vigorously devoured -- in thrashing piranha style -- only 5 metres down stream. I just hope they're not the same swimmers that will end up on our dinner plate later that afternoon. The cycle of life should enjoy a more tranquil pace!
Each evening, as the equatorial sun falls perpendicular to the horizon and the last of twilight rapidly fades, the forest yields bursts of fragrances, pockets of sheer olfactory delight. If green had a smell this would be it. We savour the lush foliage in our nostrils, the evening sigh from the verdant depths exhaling after the heat of day. Onward we punt, into the darkness, ever outflanked by the omnipresent cliffs that at times in a side channel allow only a narrowed vault of starry sky. The walls of forest make us feel as if we're journeying down a time tunnel, further and further away from the superficial preoccupations of human affairs to what is primal, magnetic and fresh from the blueprint of life. The cresting wave of trees to our left and right gradually narrows, as if funnelling us back through the ages, drawing us nearer down the eons of time to the bonobos in their rainforest haven -- to a metaphorical dawn of humanity -- and aiming for our disembarking point where the river becomes a 10m wide stream. Wafts of cooking smoke from tiny clearings at times drift over us. We see a few thatched huts, and imagine the family gathered close around their humble fire that flickers like a lantern on the shore. The thought of them in a tight fraternity against the immensity of the jungle pressing from all sides is heart warming.
On the fifth night the moon is surrounded by volcanic eruptions of thundercloud, distant atomic mushrooms sheering into the night and detonating flashes 270 degrees around our vessel. They loom and boom nearer then shy away to do battle on another front.
The constellation of Orion, the great celestial hunter, strides each night above us. As the river meanders tightly back on itself Orion appears to lurch in leaping circling bounds, stalking the left bank one minute, and the right only minutes later. Under his gaze our helmsmen alternate shifts on the bow with hand torches wielded into the darkness like lighthouse spokes, searching for the odd mid-river snag upon which we are in danger of marooning ourselves. At times the presence of a snag is detected by a change in ripples on the river surface, faintly illuminated by the silver dressing of half moonlight.

The river is narrowing now and the current hastening, and the tiers of every green conceivable, relieved now and then by a splash of purple flowers in the crown of a tree, verge closer against us. Night navigation is increasingly difficult. We are awoken regularly by an abrupt crash and the sound of branches snapping as our vessel slams into riverside jungle. From each such mishap we collect a host of new insect life, awakening the next morning to also see spiders of all shapes and colours spinning webs across our quarters.
At last, and after narrowly avoiding a series of treacherous log-jams in the final stretches, we receive a rapturous welcome from the Kokolopori villagers. They'd made the trek through jungle to our disembarking point, and perhaps had been waiting for days for our arrival. Somehow word had been transmitted up river by "bush telegraph" -- villages still relay messages in this region through the beating of drums. The crowd of about 70 men, women and children, are each allocated a load of varying size. The heaviest (including partly full 44-gallon drums) are allocated to the older women who bear the burden like Nepalese porters with a strap over their foreheads.
We make an hour's march through lightly undulating rain forest, pleasantly free of dense undergrowth, and another few kilometres along a track to the village of Yalokole. The BCI, with the assistance of a grant I'd applied for from the Australian Great Ape Survival Project in 2003, have built a centre which forms the node for bonobo education and community development here. Glad to have made our destination, and full of keen anticipation to finally be in the land of bonobos, we turn in for an early night's rest in readiness for a 4am start with the trackers.
It's first light, and there -- high on the limbs of one of the emergent giants that fan like an umbrella over the canopy -- we see them. The bonobos -- part of a clan of 20 -- are rousing themselves from slumber in one of their favourite fruit trees. Phil, Luke and I, each covered in a sheen of sweat from our forest march on the heels of fleet footed trackers, can barely suppress our excitement. We talk in hushed tones and gaze through binoculars as the bonobos languidly munch on their forest treats no more than an arm's length away.
Their food rich habitat is one of the primary reasons bonobos enjoy an existence largely free of angst and competition. With such an abundance of fruits, nuts and edible plants the bonobos have all the more time and peace of mind to devote to socialising, grooming, play, or just rest and relaxation. The bonobos' diet is supplemented by invertebrates such as large insects, and occasionally small vertebrates they chance upon, such as the tiny forest duiker -- a miniature antelope. Unlike chimpanzees, which are known to hunt as a pack to kill monkeys and even other chimpanzees from neighbouring clans, the bonobos share their forest harmoniously with both other primates and adjacent bonobo groups. Scientists have even observed a bonobo female grooming a young red colobus monkey.
As the sun climbs higher and the morning mist dissipates, the bonobos start moving on, but not before we witness two females embrace face to face and acrobatically rub their vulvas together. Their sexual contact is brief, lasting no more than 10 seconds, and seems almost as perfunctory as a kiss on the cheek hello. One of the females then turns and presents to a nearby male and they mate missionary style for an equally short period. Having thus paid their reassuring morning greetings the bonobos move off swiftly through the canopy, and we fall in step behind our trackers trying to follow underneath them.

The bonobos have a remarkable penchant for indulging in sexual pleasures in nearly every conceivable combination, position and situation. You name it, and chances are the bonobos both enjoy it, and what's more make use of that enjoyment for their social cohesion. Solo masturbation, female on female genital rubbing, male to male rump rubbing, group orgies, upside down sex, aqua sex ... the variety is as rich as the bonobos own evident capacity for imagination. The only sex that is taboo is mother and son, and as an additional buffer against incest females leave for a neighbouring group upon reaching fertility.
No doubt the evidence of such hyper-sexuality in our closest relative is confronting to the more religiously dogmatic and institutionalised views of sex that our own species has variously constrained itself with. But before anyone suggests that we all nude up, get down and do "the bonobo way", consideration should be given to the fact that bonobo and human sexuality, while related, do have certain distinct differences. For instance, juveniles innocently engage in every aspect of bonobo sexuality. Paedophiles however are motivated by a corruptive and predatory intention completely absent in bonobos. Yet some paedophiles have attempted pointing to bonobos as justification for their own behaviour. In this example there lies at least one difference, and danger, in completely and blindly equating bonobo sex life with our own.
A lot of bonobo sexuality may also be described as "make up sex before you need to make up". Instead of fighting over a favourite fruit tree, as chimpanzees would, bonobos may prefer to have an orgy first to settle any tension in the ranks, before sharing the fruit in peace. In early 2000 I spent a couple of weeks with Japanese bonobo researchers at Kyoto University, including the founding pioneer of bonobo study in the wild, Dr Takoyoshi Kano. The Japanese showed me some unforgettable and rare footage of two bonobo groups chancing upon each other in a clearing. Each group initially, and warily, faced each other off from a distance of about 20 metres. There was then some bluster from some of the males in each group, who rushed forward dragging branches in bluff charges before retreating. The lead 3 or 4 females in each group then slowly made their way to the centre of the clearing. They met briefly, wrapped arms around each other and rubbed vulvas together. The males soon after joined their fray and the two groups blended in an orgy before each going its separate way again in peace. As we follow our trackers under the bonobos I speculate with Phil and Luke what it would be like trying to get Al Qaeda and the Bush Administration to engage in such sexual dispute resolution. Interesting thought, but obviously not quite that simple!
Our trackers' salaries are paid by the BCI through a local environmental organisation Vie Sauvage -- a marvellous example of grass roots community conservation in action. A total of 36 trackers are currently employed - six trackers for each of the six groups of bonobos presently under observation in the Kokolopori region. The BCI -- unlike a lot of the large powerhouse conservation entities run more like multi-national corporations where funds are soaked up in office salaries -- is all about empowering the local people to take an interest in preserving the bonobos and their habitat.

Through developing initiatives such as health clinics and food and education programmes, the BCI -- for a small organisation -- punches well above its weight. Through the tireless efforts of its founder and President, Sally Coxe, together with Michael´s natural flair for making things happen in Africa's trying conditions, the BCI is striving to ensure the survival of bonobos in the Kokolopori forest and elsewhere. There may be as few as 5,000 to 15,000 bonobos left, and the greatest concentration of these remaining populations appears to be in Kokolopori.
While we witness first hand the results of the BCI's work to be positive and tangible, there is much still to be accomplished. At the village Luke, Phil, Michael and I take turns speaking through an interpreter to a packed public meeting with eight chiefs and around 200 villagers. We try to address their concerns that they should continue to benefit from any help coming to the area, not just bonobos. We realise that more vital work and funds are needed to build on the community participation in bonobo conservation already so admirably set in motion by the BCI.
We spend a full week with the trackers. We observe, absorb and film the bonobos, at times only a dozen or so metres away. Each of us are moved, not from just our own watching, but the feeling also of being watched curiously by another conscious being. When a bonobo, from short range, looks you in the eye it is like holding up a mirror to humanity's own collective past. You are pervaded with the notion of not just knowing, but of somehow being known ... a connection, a commune however tenuous, with our own heritage -- a common ancestor 7 million years old -- and a sacred contract of trust once known between humans and the natural world that now largely lies breached and barely remembered.
One day, the bonobos having proved too fast to keep up with, Phil startles me with a tap on the shoulder while we're resting for lunch. I turn to see him pointing excitedly to a movement in the undergrowth no more than 15 metres away. We'd stopped tracking for 10 minutes or so, and an adult bonobo had returned as if to check on us. What makes Phil's sighting all the more striking was that the bonobo was walking past on two legs in waist high undergrowth, looking over his shoulder directly at Phil. So stunned and incredulous was he that initially Phil couldn't speak. He explains later that his first thought was that the bonobo was one of our trackers walking off into the forest to take a leak.
The frequent preference of bonobos for upright locomotion is yet another of their amazing attributes. It used to be thought that humans only began to walk upright when we left the forests for the savannah. Increased knowledge of bonobos extinguished that theory. The angle and alignment of the bonobo hip structure matches almost exactly that of our own two million year old ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis.
Perhaps of even greater significance to the essence of bonobo society than their sexual proclivities and bipedal capacity is the tenderness with which they nurture their young. Juveniles, even once weaned, will sometimes continue suckling until the age of six. Bonobo males remain deferential to their mothers for life, and derive their rank from where mum sits in the hierarchy.

On the second day tracking we see the bonobos halt for a midday rest and feed in a nut tree. Luke, Phil and I, necks aching from straining upwards all day, lie down on the spongy forest floor 20 metres directly and unobscured beneath a group of 17 bonobos. Periodically we have to dodge as the bonobos rain down small branches, half-chewed nuts, or the occasional and well aimed piss from their lofty perch. For a whole two hours we lie there, transfixed by their tranquillity. Three mothers are in a tight bundle together, quietly and intimately grooming their infants, regardless of which infant belongs to which mother. What must be in the mind of those infants, in such a press of maternalism and being tended to by not just one mother but effectively all of them? The feelings of togetherness, warmth and security, and -- dare I say it -- love, those infants feel must be immense. No wonder bonobo society, soaked in such nurturing, is matriarchal.
Sadly the day arrives when we must leave our bonobo haven. We wave farewell to the gathering of villagers on the riverside. Once more we are afloat in our trusty pirogues, this time going with the flow of water, back down the river of man -- out of the time tunnel -- to resume once again our modern day lives.
We have a full moon now to guide our night-time stretches. By its light on the third night I am sitting on the bow, head brimming like the water around me with the wonder of the experiences of the past few weeks. A poem comes to mind and I recite it out loud, though not so loud that those back in the mozzie nets hear me and think I've lost my marbles.
It's from T. S. Eliot's "4 Quartets":
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
is that which was the beginning.
At the source of the longest river
the voice of the hidden water fall
and the children in the apple-tree
not known, because not looked for
but heard, half heard, in the stillness
between two waves of the sea.
The bonobo. The children in the apple tree indeed. And the river that swallows all rivers, the mighty Congo, is bearing us onwards ... onwards from what feels to us a source of light rather than a heart of darkness.
And ahead on the river the rapids, swamps, cataracts and whirlpools, all metaphorically being borne with hope by humanity for that potential destination -- one day -- of an oceanic maturity.