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

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