DR Congo - Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary
I stood there, staring at his face. He was the elder of the group, commanding a prescence of his position, as the master. He stared into my eyes, as if to say "you don't belong here". I could see beads of sweat forming along the creases in his forehead. He looked his age, with receding hair, slightly greyed at the edges. As with many older males, he had those curly hairs coming out of his ears. His hands look dry and cracked, as he held onto his walking stick. I wondered how long he'd had the stick, what journeys he'd taken, and what sorrows he'd faced. He looked tired and sullen as he stared back at me, behind the barbed wire in his prison.
Around us many others were making a racket. On my side, some immature men were dancing around like monkeys, making obscene noises, searching to get a rise from those across the fence. On his side, it seemed to work, with the young males gesturing wildly back at us, picking up handfuls of feces on the ground and lobbing it over towards us. You could hear excited children running along the fences, their parents yelling "don't put your hand out, you can't trust them!" You could see the females across, guarding their own babies who were just as curious as to what all the fuss was about.
Yet he, the elder, just sat, watching. He looked at me, I looked at him. He took in a deep breath, his pink lips parted and he sighed, as if to say "this is daily life, what can we do?" I crouched down, to meet his gaze, and smiled. And then, he smiled. We stood, looking at each other, with warmth, two strangers. I felt connected to him, like I could somehow feel that he knew this was it, until the end of time. It left a chill down my spine - how could I communicate with someone when we were so different? When he isn't even human?
Bonobos - our closest living relative
You see, these 'others' are our distant cousins - the Bonobos. They are a type of chimpanzee only officially discovered in 1928. They are also found only in the Congo river basin, the world's deepest and second largest river. If you look at a map of DR Congo, you'll see that the rivers really create a circle around the middle of the country, the basin. This is a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders, due to its lush jungles and lack of roads. And you see, the Bonobos once thrived here. Why did they not travel, like their cousins, other chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and humans? Well, Bonobos can't swim, and are afraid of the water, so it seems! Therefore, they've remained in this river basin (a 500,000 km squared area). They are in fact our closest living relatives, which explains why I could see so many human traits.
Did you know that humans are classified as great apes? Yep! We all know humans evolved from apes, yet many people don't realise that the great ape (also called Hominidae) is group of four types: Pan (chimpanzees), Gorilla, Pongo (orangutans) and Homo (humans). The bonobos live up to 40 years old, spend some of their time walking upright, and when standing, look so humanlike. They are long and lean, with their arm and leg muscles looking so much like ours. Their features, their mannerisms, it's uncanny how you can immediately feel the relation. They pass the mirror-recognition test for self-awareness, meaning that they can recognise themselves and understand their distinct presence. They communicate vocally, and use many of the same hand gestures that humans would.
"Two bonobos at the Great Ape Trust, Kanzi and Panbanisha, have been taught how to communicate using a keyboard labeled with lexigrams (geometric symbols) and they can respond to spoken sentences. Kanzi's vocabulary consists of more than 500 English words, and he has comprehension of around 3,000 spoken English words." (source here)
Bonobos - Endangered Species
Bonobos are endangered and may become extinct in the next 75 years. Only between 50,000 and 75,000 remain in the wild today. Why? DR Congo is one of the world's poorest countries, with a weak governance structure, and most of the country living in poverty. These conditions do not work to protect bonobos, who fall prey to poachers, are killed by local villagers, and whose habitat is often destroyed by the natural resources sector (mining, for example). Bonobos are also killed and eaten (bush meat).
Lola Ya Bonobo - "Paradise for Bonobos"
Founded by Claudine Andre in 1994, Lola ya Bonobo is the bonobo sanctuary of the NGO, Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC). Since 2002, the sanctuary has been located at Les Petites Chutes de la Lukaya, just outside of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is easily accessible from Kinshasa, and it an incredible organisation, fully of compassionate and committed individuals. When you arrive you can watch a short video which explains the history of bonobos, and why they are endangered. Then you walk out to visit the bonobos, as we did. Our favourite part was meeting the babies.
Many of the bonobos have been rescued and rehabilitated. They've experienced horrific 'human rights abuses', from being captured, to watching their relatives be brutally murdered, to being tortured and forced to 'perform'. Those who have survived are often traumatised, and the centre works to provide love and support to these beautiful creatures. Sadly, international visitors I witnessed had a deeper respect for the bonobos than some of the locals, who viewed the centre as more of a "zoo for entertainment". This is why the centre and the NGO is also working hard to promote behaviour change among the Congolese. Many deeply respect their country and its animals, but others may have never considered the idea of treating Bonobos with respect, like we would our brothers and sisters.
If you have the chance in your life to visit, please go to the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary. If you are reading this post and are an animal lover - please consider donating. The sanctuary is grossly underfunded and is doing amazing, amazing work.
I'll never forget meeting the Elder, and my connection. While they may be behind a fence, it protects him from the dangerous jungle outside those walls. Maybe one day, they'll be able to roam free. For now, he'll be there, waiting, until the end of time.