Wednesday 14 October 2009

Where the Wild Bonobos Are- Bonobo Trekking

Yetee, Kokolopori, Congo DRC
October 14, 2009
Martin Bendeler, Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

The morning Martin put on his jungle trousers and made mischief of one kind and another, the bonobos knew he was coming for them.* I like my anti-mosquito, anti-thorn, anti-leopard jungle trousers, but I completely ruin any chance of cutting a fashionable swathe through the Congo forest by tucking them into my socks. Very nerdy, but it keeps the fireants from getting up there and having their way with my appendages. I’m sure the bonobos won’t mind. Armed with an arsenal of cameras and defended by my jungle trousers, I wait in the pre-dawn darkness for the Vie Sauvage 4WD to pick me up and take me to where the bonobos of the Kala Kala group are waking up.

The bonobo (pan paniscus), also known as the pygmy or gracile chimpanzee, is a Great Ape and man’s closest animal relative, sharing almost 99% of our DNA. It differs from its common chimpanzee (pan troglodyte) cousin in more than its slimmer frame, darker face and center-part hairstyle. Where common chimps have been seen to systematically annihilate neighbouring chimp groups, bonobos dispel tension through orgies. Where common chimp males plot and scheme to become the alpha and violently dominate access to fertile females, bonobos have an alpha female who consolidates her position through lesbian sex with other powerful females. Bonobos have infinitely richer sex lives and, in captivity, leave common chimps in the dust in using symbol language to express themselves. Though our knowledge of bonobos is still in its infancy, and hampered by their isolation deep in the war-torn rainforests of Congo DRC, to know them even a little is to love them a lot.

It was my unrequited long-distance love affair with the bonobo that first brought me to this part of the world, back in 2005. At the time, the only people who were confident of being able to show me wild bonobos was the Washington DC- based Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), who were about to send a boat on the week-long voyage up the Congo and Maringa river to the Kokolopori region. BCI have been active in this area since 2001, working with local NGO Vie Sauvage, and their conservation model involves training and paying for local people to track and observe specific bonobo groups while providing health, education and development assistance in exchange for bonobo conservation across the entire territory over which they have control. In a broken state like the Congo, it is only the local people that truly have the capacity to implement conservation policies. Linking their welfare to the welfare of the bonobos in their midst is an extremely effective and cost-efficient method of protecting large amounts of bonobo habitat. This year, this protection received official recognition and reinforcement when almost five thousand square kilometres of rainforest here was officially gazetted by the Congolese government as the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve.

Witnessing the wonder of the bonobos in the wild at that time, I also saw first-hand the threats to their survival- logging companies were moving in, while the desperate poverty of the local people made bushmeat hunting ever more attractive. I left determined to do what I could to help. I have returned four years later, with medical supplies, a solar power generator and other equipment, to inspect the progress of the health clinics and schools here supported by donations from Indigo Foundation in Australia and the good people of Falls Church, Virginia in the US. And it would be rude of me to come all this way and not say hello to the local bonobos!

The last time I was here in Kokolopori, trackers had only just begun to protect the bonobos of the Kala Kala group in Yetee and they were still shy. Now, as I was trekking through the villagers’ cassava fields on the way into the jungle, I was told that they’d since become quite the exhibitionists…but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was being guided by Leonard, the most senior of all the trackers. Even during the dark war years he had maintained his observations, unpaid and unassisted. Since then, BCI had sent him to Congo Brazzaville and Uganda to enhance his skills through training in tracking gorillas and he was now in charge of their 11 teams of trackers across the entire bonobo habitat. He paused to show me bonobo food, various fruit and roots, some with medicinal properties (one of the trackers grabbed a root they called jungle Viagra, but with 10 kids already, I wasn't sure he needed any help). He told me of once seeing young bonobos dangling from a branch in a chain of five, like the children’s monkey game. And of watching a young bonobo walking behind an old one, impersonating its elderly gait.

We were now in the primary, untouched forest and Leonard was leading us to where the bonobos had settled down for the evening, the path marked by trackers the night before by a twisted twig here or a leaf placed on a log there.
Within an hour, we were directly beneath the nests of the bonobos, up in the canopy. They had woken up and our first sign of them was an intermittent drizzle of morning shit and piss. The tree above me shook and a shower of what I hoped was dislodged dew fell upon my head. Around me, from different angles, there was crashing in the canopy, branches bending, leaves shaking, but I couldn’t get a clear view of bonobos through the curtain of vines and branches, beyond a quick streak of black as they descended to the ground and moved off in the undergrowth.

For about 20 minutes we followed them through the foliage. While they moved through the safety of the upper canopy making as much noise and mess as they liked, on the ground they moved silently and smoothly, always about 10 metres in front of us, just out of camera shot, plucking and eating shoots and mushrooms as they went. The day was still cool, but we were being led a merry chase by the bonobos through every clinging vine and thorn. We eventually paused on a giant termite mound to catch our breath, and while I redid my bootlace I looked up….to find two bonobos had double-backed to watch/tease us before disappearing!

Some other trackers had peeled off earlier to outflank the moving bonobo group and get to where they were headed- a tree in fruit- first. We followed quite leisurely until I looked up and saw a bonobo 15ms ahead a few metres up a tree just staring at me. Sometimes he scratched his head in reflection or confusion, sometimes slapping the trunk of the tree, perhaps in warning. Around me other bonobos frolicked in the trees above, some in groups of three or four, others relaxing alone. The one that was staring at me, a male adult, was approached by a little juvenile, scaling a nearby branch. The little one also looked at me briefly before reaching up to a higher branch from which he could dangle and spin in the air while jumping with both feet on the adult’s head, who endured it stoically, even reaching around to tossle the scamp’s hair.

A mother and baby daughter were in the fork of another tree, stripping leaves and eating them. A larger male swung over rambunctiously, leaves and branches flying, and the baby clung closer to its mother’s breast, but he was just passing by. I heard a cracking sound not far behind me, near a bamboo grove, and turned around to see that a bonobo had come down closer to my level by bending down a bamboo trunk, like a pole vaulter or a Chinese circus performer or the Cheshire Cat, to get a better look at me.

We humans love our opposable thumbs, but bonobos have the most awesome big toes- long and strong enough to wrap around a branch and let a full-grown adult just dangle, upside down. They make ours look like God’s leftovers. Anything and everything in grasping range- vines, branches, trunks- can be used to propel themselves, break a fall, or bridge between trees. They are perfectly at ease with the physics of the forest. More than that. You can tell it gives them great joy, as they casually pull out of a plummeting death dive by lazily grabbing a vine, or sail by a friend on a flexed branch.

In a nearby tree, I see a cluster of three young bonobos, like the proverbial wise monkeys. A female bends right over and thrusts her rear in the air. She waggles it a little but to no avail. She even puts her hand back and points to it. With two other bonobos nearby, surely at least one would get the picture? A young one was just above her looking back at me, but not even an Australian in the Congo jungle was strange enough to distract him from the waving, blooming, blossoming treat before him. He clambered over and with minimal introduction or foreplay, went to work, a foot on separate branches. The female somehow hooked a foot back behind her to press against the rump of the little chap on her- maybe making sure he didn't fall off while there or maybe just being romantic. I filmed it, and timed it later- easily the best 23 seconds of her bonobo life. The male celebrated by grabbing a couple of branches and aeroplaning about in the air, legs spread wide, spinning round and around in jubilation. The female maintained her position, ever hopeful, and the young male eventually sat beside her and absent-mindedly stroked her. Nearby, I could have sworn the other bonobo, a female, was also stroking herself. At 30 metres in the air, it gave new definition to the “Mile High Club”.

I’m just going to say it- they have splendid genitals. They are so distinctive, you wonder how any one could have ever mistaken bonobos for regular chimpanzees, as they once did. With their dark faces and black fur, sometimes its only the bright pink that lets you find them in the shadows of the jungle. The bonobo’s penis seems almost as flexible as the rest of his appendages, sometimes rising and waving without any discernible stimulation. And the glorious full bloom of the vulva is the size of a cabbage, though I am ashamed to compare it to something so drab and banal. They seem very pleased with their own gonads, spending a lot of time simply holding them with their fingers and admiring them, cleaning them and playing with them.

My brief was to take as much footage and photos as I could. Photographing bonobos isn’t easy. The layers of twigs and branches between you and them foil any auto-focus attempts. The light in the jungle is often too weak, or so strong that the bonobos are over-exposed, black silhouettes against the sky. A decent telephoto lens is required to get detail but the weak light means you need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blur. With your lens pointed up at the canopy, condensation and dislodged rain can cloud the picture. And finally, the presence of bonobos is so exciting that you can very easily, like I did, go through 8gbs of memory cards very quickly. This was actually a relief for me, because it gave me an excuse to pull out the binoculars and just have the bonobos fill my entire vision, first as I craned my neck up, and then later as I just lay down on the jungle floor (last time we’d brought foldable picnic chairs but unfortunately, not this time).

I lost myself in them and for a short time I had travelled much further than the four-thousand miles to the Congolese jungle. The Kala Kala bonobos had been kind enough to accompany me four million years down our shared genetic bloodlines to show me a glimpse of our common essential nature. I suspended analysis and just let myself be with them, accepting the privilege. At a certain point, the morning light moved from pallid white to rich honey yellow and I’m taken aback to see what looks like quite a fierce male come into view, moving across a branch with purpose. Though it could have been the change in the light, the shadows of branches, his face was paler than normal and ripped with scars. I lose him as he enters thick foliage and leaves but almost immediately the area erupts in commotion, trees shaking and bonobos scattering. Then there is a squeal and Leonard tells me “That is the signal from the dominant male to move on. The group will start to find another feeding or resting place now.”

Was that the alpha male I had just seen, bossing about the group?
Until very recently, studying wild bonobos has been too hard- the Congo has been too unstable and dangerous and the bonobos too remote and inaccessible in the canopy. Most of our current knowledge of bonobos comes from zoos or from groups that had been lured from the jungle by sugar cane, and in this environment, the females band together to dominate the males.

But some Congolese researchers tell me that in the wild, it is the alpha male that dominates, deciding when and where to eat and sleep. Another told me that the alpha female has a veto power. Are our closest animal relatives matriarchal or patriarchal? Does it depend on the environment and the personalities that each group finds itself in? Do different bonobo groups have different “cultures”?

With peace and stability returning to this part of the Congo DRC, and with bonobo ranges like Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve under the protection of BCI, Vie Sauvage and the local community, we have an historic opportunity to closely observe our primate cousins and let them teach us about themselves and, by extension, ourselves. Primate researcher Alex Georgiev from Harvard University recently spent 3 months in Kokolopori, and it is hoped more scientists will follow.

But peace brings its own challenges, as the splendid isolation of the bonobos is threatened not only by nosey researchers and ecotourists watching them have sex, but by deadly poachers, loggers and plantation developers. Some have even tried to score political points by opposing the creation of the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, calling on people to kill the bonobos there. The vast rainforest of the Congo Basin is one of the lungs of the earth. The other is the Amazon, where local people have been dispossessed of their traditional land at gunpoint, and an area larger than France has been deforested for timber, soy beans and beef. With this lesson in mind, the bonobos, already one of the rarest primates on earth, could be extinct within our lifetime, on our watch. Now, more than ever, the gentle bonobos and the people who protect them need your help.

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address-

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address-

*Acknowledgments and Apologies to Maurice Sendak for paraphrasing the introduction to his timeless children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are”.= "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him "Wild Thing!" and Max said "I'll eat you up!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything." Best intro of all time. Can't wait to see the movie.

All photos copyright Martin Bendeler

Sunday 11 October 2009

Surgery at the Bonobo Health Clinic

11/10/09, Kokolopori, Congo. 
Martin Bendeler , Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

The rooster crowed outside my door at about 6.00am this morning and I tried to both ignore it and decide whether we should eat it before it could wake me up again tomorrow. Shortly after, there was a knock on my door. Dr Saidi had arrived to invite me to an appendectomy commencing shortly at the Bonobo Health Clinic (run by local conservation NGO Vie Sauvage and supported by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, Indigo Foundation and the Kokolopori Falls Church Sister City Program). I had appendicitis when I was 13 and have never experienced anything so painful, before or since, so I had a personal investment in seeing this. 

I threw on some clothes and made my way over in the morning cool. Already some mothers were out, their babies in jackets, making morning fires. Girls were headed towards the forest to gather, large wicker baskets slung across their foreheads. Other girls were returning to their huts with firewood or water. Men slept. 

In the sparse room, where a few days earlier I had seen a baby born, sat Bebeesh Bikoma, 28, with her worried husband, Antoine Lokonga. She was stoically enduring what I knew to be immense pain. Bebeesh and Antoine are both primary school teachers, but Bebeesh was working in her house when the pain in her abdomen became so strong that it paralysed her right leg. She searched for antibiotics but the pain would not go away, so Antoine pulled her 37kms on a bicycle across cratered jungle roads from their village of Yalokengi to the Bonobo Health Clinic of Yalokele. This was her only option. The next nearest hospital was100kms away in Djolu, and even if she could have reached there, it would have cost much more than she or her family could afford. 

The delivery chair reclined and became an operating table (the stirrups discarded to a corner), and the table from Dr Saidi’s consulting room was carried in and covered with a table cloth and the necessary drugs and surgical instruments. The honeyed orange morning light came in through two paneless windows in the mudbrick wall and the large space where the steel roof hand not been sealed (perhaps deliberately for ventilation?). Tubs of water rested on the dirt floor and had been brought by women from the source of a spring, 3 kilometres away, and then purified. A large donated cistern was waiting in the nearest river port of Bifore, 50 kilometres away, but there was not the funds or the fuel to transport it to Kokolopori. I stepped out while the medical staff scrubbed up and prepared Bebeesh for surgery. 

When I returned, she was lying on the table, a blanket of sorts covering her abdomen except for the area of operation. Around her were Dr Saidi and three nurses- Eduard Limboto Losase, Nestor Baelonganoi and Albert Alukana (visiting from Yettee, where he oversees a dispensary)- who were administering a local anaesthetetic (lidocaine?). 

Before making the first incision, Dr Saidi raised his hand and made an impassioned prayer in Lingala, and during the operation he and the nurses sang hymns in beautiful harmony. Dr Saidi later told me he was both seeking God’s blessing and administering psychotherapy for the patient. After awhile Bebeesh begin to suck in air through her teeth, in pain, and ketamine was prepared as a painkiller. One of the nurses used the strap of his stopwatch as a tourniquet and made the injection. 

Given Bebeesh’s suffering, I felt guilty for my own congenital queasiness at the sight of blood, exacerbated by my lack of breakfast and my fasting from the day before (due to my stomach’s treachery), as I sat down next to her husband Antoine for a spell. He said he was nervous but grateful that his wife’s life was being saved. 

Relatively quickly, Eduard presented me with the offending appendix- looking like a thin, sinister, raw sausage covered with mustard. A nurse with a stethoscope checked Bebeesh regularly to ensure there were no complications. While Dr Saidi sutured the incision, he spoke with me about the challenges of rural health in impoverished communities. “As you can see, we are saving lives on dirt floors, delivery chairs and with glassless windows. You are lucky- today, this is our 150th operation in the past 18 months- appendixes, Caesarian sections, hernias, ovarian cysts, tumours, prostates. We are grateful to our partners abroad- Indigo, Falls Church, BCI- who have provided the gowns, gloves, anaesthetics and other equipment for this operation. But we are still challenged by the basic conditions. In terms of medicines, our greatest needs are for anti-malarials, anti-biotics and anti-worm tablets.” 

With nine stitches and around 45 minutes, Bebeesh’s life was saved. Such a simple thing as appendicitis, as common here as it is in the West, kills horribly and almost certainly if not surgically treated. I would have died 20 years ago had I been born here and there was no clinic. Imagine walking into your suburban shopping mall, cocking your finger and thumb into an imaginary gun, and symbolically shooting dead every third or fourth person you see. Such is life and loss here in the absence of medical care. 

Four men carried Bebeesh from the operating theatre to the basic internment building, chickens scattering before them, where Bebeesh’s mother, brother and children waited. They would stay there and look after her for the next 5-7 days while she recovered. Bebeesh’s younger brother, Fidel, is a member of Vie Sauvage’s tracking/anti-poaching team in Yetee, monitoring and guarding a group of bonobos and their range. Saving his sister’s life is probably the most powerful example of the spirit behind Vie Sauvage and BCI’s motto- “Salisa bonobo , mpe bonobo akosalisa yo.” Help the bonobo and the bonobo will help you. 

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address- 

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address- 

Thursday 8 October 2009

Bonobo Health Clinic- Saving Lives, New Life

KokoloporiCongo DRC, 8/10/09
Martin Bendeler, Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

I have returned to Kokolopori, Congo, after four years. The last time, I came as an ecotourist wanting to see wild bonobos before I turned 30. Now I come as a Director of Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia (BCIA) and as a representative of Indigo Foundation (IF) and Kokolopori Falls Church Sister City Program (KFCSCP) to evaluate the health program they have established since I was last here, and to get a better idea of the needs, challenges and priorities of the communities who protect the bonobo habitat. Publish Post

This region, deep in the green heart of the Congo Basin and peopled by some of the world’s poorest, is rich in bonobos. BCI found that the most effective and efficient means of conserving bonobos was to work in cooperation with the forest people who shared and controlled their habitat. Medical assistance had been part of this approach, but on a relatively small and ad-hoc scale until my fellow directors of BCIA- Philip Strickland, Dr Luke Bennett and Angus Gemmell made their own long voyage to Kokolopori with BCI to establish a medicine dispensary and anti-malarial program, generously funded by Indigo Foundation.

The momentum generated by the program engaged the substantial hearts and minds of the people of Falls Church, Virginia, who established the KFCSCP and significantly expanded the scope and capacity of the bonobo clinic. Three years on, from nothing, I find there is now a doctor, four nurses, 10 midwives and a pharmacy, saving lives and winning hearts and making a tangible connection between the welfare of the community and the welfare of the bonobos and their forests. All this in perhaps the most isolated place in the world, far from electricity, running water, mobile phones (or even beer and Coca Cola!), where the roads out have been destroyed by years of war and criminal neglect and where the river journey to urban markets can take weeks.

My arrival has been made possible by Aviation Sans Frontieres France, who have recently recommenced heavily subsidized flights for NGOs between Kisangani and a basic airfield in Djolu (70kms by 4WD from Kokolopori). I have flown in with Albert Lotana Lokasola, the President of Vie Sauvage, the NGO managing the conservation and community development program here, and with nearly 600kgs of medical supplies, mosquito nets, educational materials, a large solar generator and a satellite phone/modem, generously donated by IF and KFCSCP and coordinated by BCI and Vie Sauvage.

After a delicious breakfast of Kokolopori coffee, freshly squeezed pineapple juice, an omelette and avocado (all local), I stroll over from the Vie Sauvage guest house to the Bonobo Clinic. What I remembered as an empty field now has three large buildings- one containing consulting rooms and a delivery ward, another for longer-term patients and their families, and an extension of this still under construction.

I sit in the consulting room with Dr Saidi and find we have arrived just in time. 18 year old Nadine Bawambo has walked here from the nearby village of Yaliseko because her 8 month old son, Ntoto, has malaria, bronchitis and anemia. The pharmacy had run out of quinine, antibiotics and iron pills but we had brought fresh supplies on our flight. And a mosquito net for the bubba. In the Delivery Room stood Marie Bochi Bolamba, 32 years old, mother of six, leaning against the wall with contractions and working hard on her seventh. There was also a delivery table with stirrups, four midwives gossiping with each other, and not much else.

The hospital was an 8-roomed building with a thatched roof and a central corridor. On one side were the patients and on the other were their families, with their cooking fires and utensils. In the first room was little 6 year old Alexandra Eyan Mbula with severe diarrhea.

Next was 77 year old Papa Otto Bokongi, who’d had a huge cyst removed from his prostate. Unable to urinate for five days, he had searched desperately for help, including from local shamans, before walking the 35 kilometers along jungle tracks to the Bonobo Clinic. Dr Saidi had operated to drain the cyst and old Papa Otto’s relief was palpable.

Another who’s excruciating pain had been relieved was Jolie Ngochuka Mbongi, 22, who’d had her appendix removed and had been there for a week, recuperating with her baby and grandmother by her side. Everyone’s recovery was slowed by malaria and malnutrition.

In the last room was sad 18 year old Ruine Bayamba, who had walked 15 kilometeres (7 hours) from her village of Lopori with labour complications, had had a caesarean section, but her baby had died. She sat quiet and sad, comforted by her mother.

As we walked out of the dark hut into the tropical glare, Nurse Nestor rushed over with news that Marie’s baby was peeking out from behind the stage curtains. We arrived in the Delivery Room to find the midwives, aged between Brigitte Bombolo Bolimo’s 32 and old Mama Gertrude Kolobaka’s “about 50 to you, young whippersnapper!”, had sprung into choregraphed action.

Dr Saidi explained that it had been a difficult birth because Marie was malnourished but her baby girl was healthy and beautiful and named Martine in my honour. He said, “I have been a doctor for 31 years and worked here for the past 2, far from my children, because I love my country and the people need me here. People would definitely die if we weren’t here. We do great things with the little we have, but we need your continued support.”

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address-

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address-