Greatest hope for ape conservation

Deep inside the Democratic Republic of Congo lies Salonga National Park, the largest rain forest national park in all of Africa. Inside the park lives an astonishing array of creatures including the famed “make love not war” bonobos.

Together with their cousins, the more excitable chimpanzees, these female-empowered, relatively peaceful apes are humans’ closest living relatives. A source of fascination for anthropologists (not to mention feminists and pacifists), bonobos live only within the DRC — and even there they face increasing threats to survival.

Scientists flock to the DRC to study the bonobos and to save them from twin perils: poachers who kill these exquisitely intelligent apes for meat, and habitat loss in the forest owing to the intensive extractive industries (like logging) that have been made a priority by the DRC government. Conservation projects led by outsiders often embrace a logic familiar to national-park enthusiasts in Europe and North America: dedicate a patch of forest (or mountain or savannah) to wildlife; exclude people from the land; watch as endangered animals’ population numbers slowly rise.

But Salonga is no pristine park. People called the Iyaelima grow crops, hunt and raise livestock inside its very borders. This co-habitation by human hunters and endangered animals may sound like a recipe for disaster, but, after nearly two decades’ work in the DRC, biological anthropologist Jo Thompson has reached a conclusion stunning enough to shake up the world of ape conservation: far from being their greatest threat, the Iyaelima may be the single greatest hope for saving these apes.

Thompson, now 53, has lived and worked in the DRC on and off since her initial visit in 1991. In that year, she began field research for her doctorate in biological anthropology and primatology, a degree she earned from the University of Oxford six years later. In 1992, she established the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project on a vast swath of land in the DRC’s interior. Within that large area, she has focused her attention on bonobos — and people — who live in the Lukuru area, including Salonga National Park.

With Japanese primatologist Takeshi Furuichi, Thompson has edited a book called The Bonobos: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation (published by Springer Publishing, New York) that features 14 data-stuffed chapters about recent bonobo research. This 2008 volume includes a contribution from Thompson and her Congolese colleagues Lubuta Mbokoso Nestor and Richard Bovundja Kabanda, who focus on Iyaelima traditional land-use practices. For anyone schooled in “pristine park” conservation models, this work is a revelation.

Bonobos live in communities that primatologists refer to as “fission fusion” in organization. Throughout the day, the apes gather in small units called parties, and the membership of any given party shifts as apes arrive and depart. Thompson found that where the Iyaelima live and grow crops, bonobos gather in greater numbers compared to other areas. “The agricultural fields promote larger party size,” she explains. “The secondary vegetation that inhabits the perimeter of the gardens actually produces more meaty fruits than old growth forest. So, the bonobos are attracted to the fruit.” The apes may also eat some cultivated plants, such as sugar cane, pineapple or bananas.

Why then do the Iyaelima tolerate the bonobos? The Iyaelima believe that their ancestors protect a number of the forest creatures, including bonobos, which the Iyaelima neither hunt nor eat. (Duikers, however, are preferred food.) In addition, the bonobos are viewed as special: of equal intelligence with humans and capable of upright walking and even dancing.

But it’s not only the bonobos that are protected by the Iyaelima; their land-use practices are fundamentally conservative and preserve resources in the forest as a whole. For one thing, at the behest of their local chief, they may restrict hunting in certain areas of the forest for certain periods of time. In this way, hunters need not venture deeper into the forest, and, the Iyaelima believe, a hiatus encourages animals to return to that place later. Hunters also distribute their camps in such a way as to leave a corridor of forest in which animals may live, reproduce and replace those killed. Indeed, aerial photography reveals the limited impact of Iyaelima lifeways on the surrounding forest.

Thompson and her colleagues discovered a positive correlation between those human settlements with the most people (and the most hunting areas) and the highest relative abundance of bonobos. In prose calm enough to belie her excitement at this discovery, Thompson wrote: “Clearly, we can no longer universally identify human presence as a limiting factor that negatively impacts bonobo distribution and abundance.”

This discovery offers real hope, but because bushmeat poaching is on the increase, Thompson is anything but sanguine about the bonobos’ chances in the long term. The Iyaelima protect the bonobos against other Congolese who try to poach in the park – in fact, Thompson is convinced that the Iyaelima themselves are the best defenders of the forest because it is their ancestral land, representing their heritage.

When Thompson first arrived in the Lukuru, the people obviously had extensive knowledge about the bonobos. “What they didn’t know,” she remarks, “was that bonobos had become a global priority, that they were important beyond the Lukuru, beyond the Congo. It took a lot of years for them to understand that the bonobos have this value. Now, some Congolese have risked their lives to protect the bonobos.”

Crucial to the success of the work in the Lukuru region are the relationships that Thompson has built, year by year, within the whole community. She listens to the Lukuru people and negotiates with them in a continuous, dynamic dance of give-and-take. Once a year, this process culminates in a summit. Bullhorn in hand, a man is dispatched to visit all the regional villages and invite people to gather so that Thompson, her Congolese co-workers, and the local residents can talk together, bargain and come to terms with their shared — and their divergent —goals.

“VIPs come and sit at the front, everyone wants to speak, so it becomes long and drawn out,” Thompson notes. “Then you get to the nitty-gritty. ‘I want this, my family wants this, my clan wants this’.” Sometimes people ask for what Thompson cannot possibly provide — once, for example, a looming cellphone tower in the middle of the forest! In the last few years, she has enabled schoolhouses to acquire roofs and textbooks, and helped begin a water-well project. Bicycles provided by Thompson enable people to get their crops to and from market, and transport sick people to medical help.

At times, the negotiation process is exasperating — for all parties. “They get mad and frustrated, and I get mad and frustrated,” Thompson laughs. “Their communication style is so different from mine! I am anti-conflict, and these men are all posturing and yelling. When you’re right in it, it’s awful, but afterwards, it is wonderful. We hold hands and we party and we hug each other.”

To carry out this work requires a trinity of resources: finesse in working with people of another culture, fierce commitment to stay the course through war and threats to personal safety, and, of course, money. Skill and dedication, Thompson has; it’s the third item she’s continuously seeking. The 2004 Rolex Award, she says, “happened at the most crucial time for me; it was amazing, it kept the project going.” In the forest, Thompson notes, not a soul is aware of the honour, but outside it, the Award has upped her credibility: “When anyone googles me, it’s the first thing that pops up! It has a huge amount of value for me in the world outside Lukuru.”

Of all her own accomplishments in the last five years, which makes Thompson the most proud? The question results in silence, and only with coaxing is an answer forthcoming: “I have now put the Iyaelima people on the world stage,” she finally says.

These days, Thompson journeys to the DRC from her Ohio home, where she teaches, writes and raises funds for the Lukuru project, twice a year for periods of six weeks to three months. These visits, she says, are too brief, constrained in large part by the global economic crisis that makes her fund-seeking all the more challenging. Her tone of voice reveals her emotions: Jo Thompson is homesick for the forest and for her Congolese co-workers and friends. “I trust them with my life — literally,” she says. “They mean more to me than anything.”
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