Bonobos torn from the wild make their return, with a helping hand

April 23, 2022
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This March, the NGO Friends of Bonobos released 14 bonobos into the wild — only the second time ever a bonobo group has been reintroduced to their natural habitat. Their new home, Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve, is situated deep in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“Maya’s place is in the forest,” Fanny Minesi, who heads the nonprofit, said in a statement referring to the group’s matriarch. “This is the day we worked for — for decades — to put bonobos back in the wild where they are protected.”

These great apes, along with chimpanzees, are the closest relatives of Homo sapiens; humans and bonobos share 99% of their DNA. But unlike chimpanzees and most human societies, bonobos live in tight-knit matriarchal groups.

Maya was orphaned as a baby when poachers killed the adults in her family. She was rescued by Claudine André, the founder of Friends of Bonobos, also known by its French acronym ABC, 25 years ago. After spending more than two decades at a bonobo sanctuary founded by André, she is now returning to her forest home with three children of her own.

Every bonobo birth is a cause for celebration. There are less than 50,000 bonobos left in the wild, and that number could be as low as 15,000. They are found only in the DRC in Central Africa. Population estimates are uncertain because researchers have only surveyed about a third of their thickly forested range. Some experts fear that bonobos (Pan paniscus) could disappear within a human lifetime (70 years).

Like with other primates, hunting has hacked away at bonobo populations. Poverty and a reliance on traditional modes of subsistence among communities that live near bonobo habitats drive illegal hunting. Adults are killed for their meat and body parts, and baby bonobos are often illegally sold off as pets.

Infant bonobos are deeply attached to their mothers, who hold familial groups together. These apes are famous for using sexual interactions to maintain peace in their tribe. Their general easygoing nature is well-documented, yet they continue to surprise researchers interested in altruistic behavior. Last year, a team studying bonobos reported the first known cases in great apes of females adopting infants from outside their social groups.

Not all orphans are as lucky to be taken under the wing of adoptive bonobo parents. However, some do find shelter with surrogate human mothers when they land up at the Lola ya Bonobo center run by ABC on the outskirts of the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa.

André established ABC and the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in 1994. The center’s name means Bonobo Paradise in the local Lingala language, and in keeping with its name, it is a kind of haven for orphaned bonobos. Here, they are nursed and cared for by a team of veterinarians, nutritionists, caretakers and employees trained to act as surrogate mothers. Some bonobos stay at the center until the end of their days. With the reintroduction program, rehabilitated animals can now take the leap back to their ancestral jungle homes.

ABC selects individuals who are at least 8 years old; however, all babies go with their moms. They shouldn’t have severe handicaps nor be a threat to the group. Those who are very attached to their human friends are not considered. The potential candidates are then cajoled into spending time together to see how they get along.

The first batch of bonobos was released in Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve in Équateur province in 2009. The second edition of the rewilding effort was held back by an Ebola outbreak that gripped pockets of Équateur in 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic striking that same year, the already complex operation became even more difficult.

The 14 bonobos travelled by plane, in the back of a truck, and atop makeshift rafts to get to their new home. And, they had to quarantine, too — for almost four years — on Totaka Island near the reserve. The quarantine was prolonged thanks to the multiple delays. On the island, they had the chance to acclimatize to their new surroundings, while still receiving food and care from the ABC team.

Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve, spread across 120,000 acres (47,500 hectares), was designated a protected area in 2019. Most of Équateur province is cloaked in dense woodland. But the region has lost 3% of its primary rainforests in the past 20 years, according to Global Forest Watch, a platform run by the World Resources Institute. The DRC lost 5% of its old-growth humid forests in the same period.

“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,” John Hart, a primatologist, told Mongabay in 2019. However, Hart, who is not associated with ABC, said that preserving natural habitats and their resident bonobos should still be the top priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just warp travel plans and the reintroduction schedule; it also brought greater attention to zoonotic diseases. With so much shared genetic heritage, great apes are often susceptible to the same or similar diseases that attack humans. One of the concerns surrounding reintroduction is the risk of bonobos raised among people carrying pathogens from humans to wild populations.

According to guidelines from global conservation authority the IUCN, areas earmarked for reintroductions should be carefully selected so the boost to wildlife populations doesn’t exacerbate friction with nearby communities.

Ekolo ya Bonobo is managed jointly by the NGO and residents in adjoining villages. Villagers are recruited as forest guards who perform patrols and also help monitor the apes. ABC is working on curbing forest destruction and strengthening awareness among communities. The reserve itself is on tribal land leased from four villages. There are plans to expand the reserve by 80,000 acres (32,400 hectares) a move that ABC says will require negotiations with local communities and national authorities.

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