Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Hippie apes' battle for survival in the Congo

By Errol Barnett and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
updated 10:36 AM EST, Fri January 4, 2013
The bonobo is an endangered ape found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bonobo is an endangered ape found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
HIDE CAPTION
Lola Ya Bonobo
Lola Ya Bonobo
Lola Ya Bonobo
Surviving the hunt
Surviving the hunt
Lola Ya Bonobo
Lola Ya Bonobo
Lola Ya Bonobo
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The endangered bonobo is only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • War, deforestation and bushmeat trade are all threatening bonobos
  • Lola Ya Bonobo is the world's first and only sanctuary for the peaceful apes
  • It is currently home to more than 60 bonobos

(CNN) -- They are known as the hippies of the ape kingdom, a peaceful and affectionate species that is more interested in making love than killing each other.

One of the world's rarest apes, bonobos are close cousins of chimpanzees and share 98.7% of human DNA. But unlike their ape relatives -- and humans -- bonobos shy away from engaging in vicious conflicts. Instead, they share food, groom each other and use a variety of sexual activities to build relationships, promote social bonding and strengthen alliances.

It is, then, an ironic twist that the very existence of this affable species has come under threat by decades of war and deforestation in one of Africa's most troubled parts.

Found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the bonobos inhabit the country's lowland rainforests along the south bank of the Congo River.

See also: School boy's website helps tourists spot big beasts

Click map to expand  Click map to expand
Click map to expandClick map to expand

In recent months, tensions erupted once again in the vast country as rebels launched a major attack in the violence-riddled eastern part of the DRC. Although the bonobo habitat is located several hundred miles away from the epicenter of the crisis, conservationists say that the country's instability over the years has made it almost impossible to study bonobos and find out where they are or determine how many are left.

At the same time, the expansion of the commercial bushmeat trade -- the selling of wild animal meat, such as that of the endangered bonobo -- threatens the survival of the apes even further.

Conservationist saves endangered apes
Are bonobos our closest relative?
Bonobos: A second chance at life

"The decade of war in the late 1990s resulted in extensive population displacement, military/rebel movements and a greater availability of firearms and ammunition, which contributed to increased hunting of wildlife, including bonobos," says Dominique Morel, of Friends of Bonobos, a group supporting Lola Ya Bonobo, the world's first and only sanctuary for the endangered species.

Born of necessity from the increasing threat of the bushmeat trade, Lola Ya Bonobo was founded in the mid-1990s by Claudine Andre, a Belgian-born conservationist who was working at the time as a volunteer in Kinshasa's zoo.

It was there that Andre, who moved with her veterinarian father to Congo at the age of three, saw a bonobo for the first time -- an encounter that was destined to change her life forever.

See also: Beethoven in the Congo

Andre, a mother of five, fell in love with the bonobos and started to rescue them one by one by taking them home with her. But soon she found herself needing a bigger space as the number of bonobos she took under her wing started to grow. The Congolese government eventually stepped in to help set up a more permanent home that would become Lola Ya Bonobo.

Advocating for wildlife conservation is always a battle in a country as poor as the DRC.
Dominique Morel, Friends of Bonobos

The sanctuary, which is located just outside Kinshasa in some 30 hectares of primary forest, is today home to at least 65 bonobos, many of which are young orphans that have been either rescued from the wild or brought in after hunters killed their parents.

"Bushmeat never stops," says Andre. "We have no solution and we receive more and more orphans every year."

An important part of the sanctuary's work is rehabilitating injured bonobos from the forest and, hopefully, one day returning them to the wild.

"Conservation asks us to make a test for reintroduction in the wild," says Andre. "So we make this experience two times already since 2009, a group of bonobos from here, returned to the wild. And for them it was a success because after two-three months, they are home."

See also: Will elephants still roam earth in 20 years?

The sanctuary also aims to educate the public about bonobos. Staff at Lola Ya Bonobo say that some 40,000 people come through its doors each year, including tourists and local schoolchildren, as well as graduate students conducting research on everything from bonobo behaviour to the evolution of the human brain.

Conservationists say stability in the DRC is essential to ensure that bonobo conservation programs are not jeopardized.

"Advocating for wildlife conservation is always a battle in a country as poor as the DRC," says Morel. "In times of crisis, when the security and basic needs of civilian populations are often not assured, it becomes even more challenging. If eco-guards and staff have to be evacuated from certain areas for their own safety, equipment, infrastructure and sometimes animals suffer.

"Only with peace and stability can long-term investments in wildlife conservation -- research, conservation education, community-based habitat protection and eco-tourism -- be successfully implemented."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
Known as the 'warm heart of Africa', Malawi has friendly locals, good weather, and a new-found safari industry (minus the crowds).
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu April 3, 2014
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
updated 6:17 AM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
The ruined town of Great Zimbabwe is part of a kingdom that flourished almost 1,000 years ago, and a bridge to the past.
updated 6:20 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
updated 5:27 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Unhappy with Liberia's image on the Internet, a photographer decided to present his own view, using GIFs.
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
IBM asked Africans to photograph the continent's greatest innovations and challenges. The results are breathtaking.
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.
ADVERTISEMENT