AR-News: The Gentlest of Beasts, Making Love, Ravaged by War
Adam Weissman, Wetlands Preserve
adam at wetlands-preserve.org
Tue May 4 16:38:03 EDT 2004
The Gentlest of Beasts, Making Love, Ravaged by War
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Published: May 3, 2004
INSHASA, Congo - Upstream from this dog-eat-dog
capital, where the Congo River spills its
tendrils into the belly of the equatorial rain
forest, lies the jungle home of one of mankind's
closest cousins and one of the most endangered
primates on earth: the bonobo.
Genetically, humans and bonobos, a species of
chimpanzee, are more than 98 percent similar.
Socially, it is another matter. Matriarchal as a
rule, bonobos eschew conflict. They do not fight
over territory. They do not kill. Any small
friction they resolve through sexual contact: a
playful rub, oral sex, full intercourse.
Peace-loving they may be, but during Congo's
latest war, the bonobos' jungle habitat fell
smack on the front line between fighting factions.
Fishing and farming all but ground to a halt
during the war, which officially ended last year.
Civilians and soldiers alike turned to the forest
to fill their bellies.
More and more, the bonobos turned up as supper.
Their smoked remains showed up at riverine
markets. Babies were orphaned, which is to say
they were more or less destined to die: the
bonobo infant, accustomed to staying on its
mother's back for the first several years of
life, has great trouble making it on its own.
So it was that the bonobo orphans of the central
African rain forest found themselves hurtling
hundreds of miles down the Congo River to this
gritty metropolis and into the arms of a
redheaded Frenchwoman called Claudine André.
Ms. André recalls it as love at first sight. More
than 10 years ago, after a famous, ruinous
pillage of Kinshasa, Ms. André, then a
businesswoman, went to the ravaged city zoo and
chanced upon a bereft infant bonobo. He looked as
though he wanted to die, she recalled. She named
him Mikano, took him home and became, in her
words, his surrogate mother.
When the war came, more orphans trickled in. She
kept them on the grounds of an elite American
school. Then, last year, when peace came, she
opened Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned
bonobos on a 75-acre patch of green on the
fringes of the capital.
Infants are paired up with surrogate mothers.
There is an endless supply of bananas and sugar
cane (bonobos have an incurable sweet tooth). An
electric fence encircles the park, so as to keep
the apes from scampering out of the woods and
into Kinshasa's traffic. The park is open to
On a Sunday afternoon not long ago, the park's 31
young charges did what young bonobos do: chewed
on blades of grass, swung from palm fronds,
kissed, frolicked and fondled.
"It's the hippies of the forest," Ms. André said,
taking their wrinkled hairy hands in hers. "When
they feel anxious, when they are afraid, they
have sex. And they calm down."
As if on cue, a big bonobo mounted a small
bonobo. They rolled around on the grass, rubbed
against each other and went on their merry ways.
Bonobos are not proprietary about mates, and sex
is not always about procreation. Homosexuality is
au courant, and sexual play begins when they are
barely a year old, though intercourse must wait
until they are teenagers. Much to Ms. André's
delight, a teenage orphan, a male, arrived
recently. Hopefully, she said, mating will soon
"It's really make love, not war," Ms. André said
of the bonobo way of life. "It was so sad to see
such a pacific animal so destroyed by war."
The plight of the bonobos, a species found only
in Congo, is a window into the repercussions of
war on the ecology of the Congo River Basin, one
of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and
home to more than 400 species of mammals. Mining,
logging and a sustained trade in bush meat have
all put the squeeze on their habitats.
War having made vast swaths of the country
inaccessible to researchers, it is impossible to
know precisely how these creatures have fared.
Certain habitats may have been left untouched,
In the Virunga Highlands near the border of
Uganda and Rwanda, the mountain gorilla
population has grown, according to a census by
the Wildlife Conservation Society. By contrast,
in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the eastern
lowland gorilla's population has fallen by 70
percent to fewer than 5,000, according to
Conservation International. The elephants in the
same park may well have vanished.
As for the bonobo population, scientists have no
reliable numbers but fear the species may be
nearing extinction. Late last year, the United
Nations Environment Program reported that the
bonobo, along with the gorilla, chimpanzee and
orangutan, could disappear in 50 years.
Peace is likely to present a new challenge to
forest dwellers: Congo's rain forests have once
again opened up to logging companies, and today
the first batches of timber can be seen floating
downriver from Équateur Province to the port here
in Kinshasa. With blessings from the World Bank,
150 million acres of rain forest could be opened
up for logging.
As the World Bank sees it, timber concessions
could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into
government coffers. Environmentalists fear that
the logging could also endanger the habitat of
the Pygmy people, who have eked out a living in
the forest for centuries. The bonobos are
sometimes called Pygmy chimpanzees, because
Pygmies too are averse to conflict; they too
prefer to hunt and forage in the forest rather
than fight one another for territory. United
Nations investigators suspect that some of them
had been eaten during the war too.
Recognizing the common roots of all forms of
oppression, The Activism Center at Wetlands
Preserve fights for human, animal, and earth
liberation through protest, direct action, street
theater, political advocacy, and public
education. We always welcome people of
conscience to join us as new volunteers and
interns! For more information call (201) 968-0595
or email activism at wetlands-preserve.org
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