At the age of seven, Jo Thompson precociously identified a bonobo, incorrectly labelled as a chimpanzee, in the Dr Seuss book, I Was Kissed By A Seal At The Zoo. She was fascinated by this beguiling animal with its "bewitching" ebony-coloured eyes and gentle nature.
The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is considered the rarest of the great apes and the one whose behaviour most closely resembles that of humans. Though they are genetically no more closely related to humans than chimpanzees are, their human-like traits include a predisposition for walking upright and for communication including facial expression. According to some experts, bonobos are the most important species in terms of what they can reveal about human nature from an evolutionary and psychological perspective.
Estimates suggest about 30,000 bonobos live in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the only country where they live in the wild — but the threat of extinction is imminent, with bonobo numbers falling by half in the past 20 years.
Jo Thompson, now aged 47, received a degree in psychology and sociology from Wittenberg University in Ohio in 1978. After working and saving for 13 years, she went back to school, taking her master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1992, and her Ph.D in biological anthropology and primatology from the University of Oxford in 1997.
For the past 13 years, Thompson has dedicated herself to helping the bonobo, its environment and the local human inhabitants — conducting biological field research, community-based conservation and wildlife education in the DRC. She has returned there frequently, despite a war led by rebel groups in the late 1990s, during which her research station base camp was "looted to the ground". Now that the unrest is, for the most part, over, she intends to rebuild this station and consolidate her conservation efforts. For her commitment to this impressive project, Jo Thompson has been selected as an Associate Laureate.
She first visited the DRC — then called Zaire — in 1991 to carry out fieldwork for her doctorate. The following year she established the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project (LWRP), a territory of almost 24,000 square kilometres in the middle of this vast country. In 1998, she bought 34 square kilometres of virgin terrain in the southern half of the LWRP and created the Bososandja Faunal Reserve.
War in the DRC
Describing herself as a guest in the DRC, Thompson immediately handed over management of the reserve, now home to about 600 bonobos, to the local civil authority. But also in 1998 — six months after Thompson dissuaded a Malaysian forestry group from establishing a logging concession in the LWRP — war broke out in the DRC.
While the unrest forced her to leave the country, she managed to visit the project site twice and, between 1999 and 2002, collected US$135,000 in relief for the DRC and produced 1,600 uniforms for the country’s park guards. The uniforms were manufactured in the capital, Kinshasa, creating much-needed employment and demonstrating, Thompson says, "the ideal union between conservation and economic development".
A Varied Habitat
The bonobos’ natural home in the DRC comprises about 500,000 square kilometres of moist lowland and swamp forest fringed by dry forest and savannah. On the southern edge is the LWRP, whose irregular dry forest and grasslands boast a rich biodiversity with many endangered and little-known species.
Until the early 1990s, bonobos were thought to inhabit only low-lying tropical forest. Between 1992 and 1998, however, Thompson observed them living in a more open habitat of forest and savannah. This fact is of great interest to researchers studying evolution from the life of apes in forests to the emergence of hominids on the plains.
A Crucial Partnership
A major threat to the bonobos’ survival is human population growth and the habitat destruction this brings. Humans themselves are, in fact, a major focus of Thompson’s work as she tries to ensure that people and apes live in harmony. "It’s the bonobos that took me to the DRC, but they’re not the only thing that keeps me going back," she says. "The people, their communities, now generally exert a far greater pull because I am in fact concerned for the whole environment." Thompson helped many people in the DRC to understand the value of bonobos. She puts the project’s success down to her frequent presence in the region over the past 13 years, and the fact that she "goes in alone", without other foreigners. Working closely with her team of 20 local co-workers in the field, Thompson "lives like they live, eating what they eat".
During the war, the LWRP was on the front line of hostilities. Though the base station was looted by warring groups, local people protected the forest and its wildlife, despite enduring malnutrition and the trauma of war. "They did not want others to take it," Thompson says. "They knew it was their forest and that I was just supporting it, and they cared enough to protect it."
Home for the Bonobos
Thompson is eager to resume her research, conservation and educational activities. She wants also to expand the Bososandja Faunal Reserve to 300 square kilometres, and ensure its status is elevated to a nationally recognised community forest.
Her Associate Laureate Award will help build and equip a new research base station, pay necessary administrative fees for permits, cover travel expenses to and from the DRC and pay co-workers’ salaries.
Jo Thompson’s expertise on bonobos has won her academic respect, and her DRC project is bringing plaudits for her commitment, imagination and energy. Vernon Reynolds, professor emeritus at Oxford and head of the Budongo Forest Project in Uganda, says Thompson "is truly an exceptional person. Her wide network of contacts which enable her to work in the Congo, together with the dedication she brings to her work, are worthy of support, now and in the longer term."
Published in 2004