Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Zoo Veterinarian Blogs from Uganda Part 2

by | February 20th, 2015

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

February 17 (afternoon)

Back to a different reality…

Our next stop is one of the enclaves (villages) within the park. When QENP was created in 1952, multiple villages existed. Instead of relocating the residents, the government allowed these enclaves to remain, and traditional fishing or pastoral cattle herding continues today. These enclaves contain 30,000 people. Add the 70,000 in villages bordering the park, and human-wildlife conflict is inevitable.

Corral-lights_webDr. Siefert explains that the people in this enclave have made some positive changes to mitigate the problems caused by predators. We visit with Eliphaz, a community leader who has lost chickens and cattle to a leopard. Working with UCP, Eliphaz has constructed a better corral for the cattle, complete with solar powered flashing lights to detract predators. We deliver more lights for him and others in the community. He thanks us graciously, especially mentioning Oakland Zoo and its support for UCP’s community projects.

Hen-house_webUnfortunately, Dr. Siefert points out the henhouse behind Eliphaz’s house, shaking his head. The door is falling off the hinges, and there are holes in the walls. “Why hasn’t he fixed it? This is not the poorest village…he can afford to make those changes.” Apparently work ethic is a little different in the enclaves than in some other parts of the world. Yet another challenge to overcome…

We make plans to meet again with Eliphaz and representatives of the community to discuss conflict mitigation, but our next appointment awaits, and Dr. Siefert insists on promptness.

The UWA headquarters is located outside of QENP. It is a simple concrete structure with a main reception area and several offices. We are greeted warmly and sit down to wait for the Conservation Area Manager…and we wait. There is a slight breeze through the open window, and a little flycatcher bird sits on the ledge, apparently interested in joining the conservation negotiations. We keep waiting. Multiple office workers and wardens come in and out of the office…and we wait. An hour later, the Area Manager appears, ushering us into his office, not in any apparent hurry. There is a saying here that comes to mind. TIA – “This is Africa!”

Village-visit_webAttending the meeting are the Conservation Area Manager, the UWA veterinarian, and a UWA tourism representative. For the next 30 minutes, Dr. Siefert presents his ideas for improved human-wildlife coexistence in QENP, then the Area Manager reviews them, slowly, point-by-point. A discussion ensues, with general agreement that these are good ideas and should be implemented; however, written proposals are needed and must then be reviewed. We leave the meeting feeling neutral and unsatisfied – was this simply politics or will changes really occur? Tomorrow is the next step…proposals to write…

 

 

Wed/Thurs Feb 18/19

Down time and prep time…

Traditional-hut_webWednesday morning, James takes a tourist group on a lion tracking adventure. Alas, there are not enough seats in the vehicle, so we are left behind. We spend a relaxing day at the Mywea Lodge, discussing and writing about the events of the last several days.

In the evening, we accompany James on another venture to try to find a male lion. As we drive through a different section of the park, James warns, “take care, watch yourself!” to avoid the thorny bushes overtaking the road. He explains that these plants are extremely invasive, offer minimal food for prey, and prevent people from seeing the animals. This situation is yet another example of how the park’s natural ecosystem is collapsing. There is no lion sighting this evening and we head back to our room as a thunderstorm rolls in.

Sample-processing_webThursday dawns brighter as the overnight rain has largely cleared the air. For the first time since arriving, we see the towering Rwenzori mountain range north of the park. After breakfast, we enter Dr. Siefert’s lab to experiment with our sample preparation technique. We will be testing the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in fecal samples from lions. Unfortunately, this hormone degrades very quickly, so we must preserve the feces in order to bring the samples to the laboratory in the US.

Our hope is to determine the relative stress levels of the lions in QENP, especially as related to human activity. With this information, Dr. Siefert and the UWA may be able to make better management recommendations. A few hours later, we settle on our preliminary fecal preservation method, which includes a spaetzle press “borrowed” from Dr. Siefert’s kitchen! (Funnily enough, he doesn’t want it back!)

Crafts_webWe take a break from our scientific endeavors this afternoon to visit a local women’s group located in the shadow of the Rwenzori chain. The women welcome us warmly and show us their traditional huts. We learn how make and store cheese, and how the rennet (leftovers from cheese making) is used as a skin lotion. Supported by UCP, the women also make and sell crafts, many of which we purchase!

The day draws to a close with errands in the nearest large town, Kasese. There is constant motion in town – people walking, on bicycles, or on motorcycles – women carrying brightly colored market bags and children with their school books. It is hot and dusty today, just as I have always imagined Africa. We marvel at the sights, and fall into bed in the evening exhausted yet exhilarated.

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight travels to Uganda to help lions!

by | February 20th, 2015

IMG_6012Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

 Days 1-2

 Getting There…

Dubai

Dubai

We left SFO on Thursday Feb 12 at 4pm, to arrive 15 hours later in Dubai on Friday Feb 13 at 7pm. The astute among you may wonder about my math…nope, it’s not wrong – we’re just time traveling! During the long layover we learned some history while viewing the highlights of Dubai: the Al-Faruk mosque, Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world at 1820 feet), lavish hotels (rooms from $500 – $35,000 per night), and finally stopped to dip our fingers in the Arabian Sea at Jumeirah Beach! Dubai is a city of lights – strings of lights engulf entire buildings, drip from palm trees, and dance on top of towers, leaving us to wonder if Dubai’s residents ever experience stars twinkling in the night sky…and how different Uganda’s nights are likely to be…

Days 3-4

Still Getting There…

Back to the enormous, ultramodern Dubai International Airport for the second leg of the journey. Six hours later we arrive in a different world, complete with only one small paved airstrip, a simple airport terminal, and friendly Ugandan faces and voices. “You are most welcome!” we hear as we make our way through immigration. It is too late in the afternoon to drive to QENP, so we stay in Entebbe, a modern African city, for the night. Our guesthouse is comfortable and

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

welcoming, the back garden a mecca for multitudes of songbirds, geckos, and mosquitos!

Village children who climbed into the driver's seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Village children who climbed into the driver’s seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Day 4 begins before sunrise, as we meet our driver, Peter, to begin the 8-hour journey through the Ugandan countryside to QENP. Today is Sunday, and people are headed to church services, walking along the side of the road, the women wearing their finest dresses – the brightly colored fabrics are a sharp contrast to the general tan haze that hangs in the air. We pass villages with names such as Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ruburizi, each consisting of dusty red dirt streets, homes, shops, and lots of people on motorbikes. I feel a long way from home…

Typical Ugandan village

Typical Ugandan village

We make a final stop in a village just outside the park gates where Dr. Siefert will meet us. As if they have specialized radar detection, the village children appear out of nowhere, tapping at the windows, holding our hands, and asking for sweets. They are infatuated with our pale skin, earrings, Dr. Gottfried’s tattoos, and my toenail polish! Lucky for us, Dr. Siefert soon arrives, the driver shoos the children away, and we are ready for a conservation adventure.

 

(Still) Day 4

Work begins…

After a quick check-in to our simple hostel accommodations, we sit down with Dr. Seifert and his research assistant, James, for a briefing about the current situation in the park: these are the real African conservation dilemmas.

QENP is located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, covering an area of approximately 764 square miles of the Rift Valley Floor, including Lakes George and Edward. Most of the parkland is grassland savannah, with stunning views of the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains (on clear days). Featuring one of the highest biodiversity ratings of the world’s national parks, QENP is home to approximately 100 mammal species and over 500 bird species. Sounds like paradise, right?Ele dust bathMongoose in lodge

Unfortunately, this biodiversity is in severe distress. There is currently a drought in the park, huge sections of the park are burned, the lakes are overfished, and many of the apex predators have been poisoned by people in the surrounding villages.

We head out to track one specific lioness that needs her radio collar replaced. The changes in the park since I first saw it almost 4 years ago are shocking. The land is black underneath dry remains of grasses, with minimal new vegetation. A heavy gray haze hangs in the air – smoke from nearby fires. A few Uganda kob and gazelle stand amidst the charred area, quickly darting away when our research vehicle nears. Dr. Siefert remarks, “They never used to run away like that. They are more worried about us since the fires.”

We continue through the park, James, Dr. Gottfried and I on the top of the truck, antenna in hand, hoping to hear the lionesses’ signal. Ultimately this evening, we don’t find her, but we do see a few promising signs that not all is lost. A group of at least 20 elephants stops our progress down one section of road! Apparently, the elephant population has not been as affected as others by the changes in the park.

This first evening is a sobering reminder of why we are here. There is much work to be accomplished: change human actions, reverse the damage, and repopulate the park. As we debrief after tracking, Dr. Siefert reveals that these changes may be almost impossible to make in time to prevent complete extinction of many of the parks’ animals; however, he will continue the mission tomorrow – as long as tomorrows keep coming.

Tuesday Feb 17 (morning)

It’s another tomorrow…

Unfortunately, there’s very bad news this morning. A young male lion crossed the border from Tanzania yesterday afternoon and entered a village. The residents surrounded the lion and pelted it with stones. The lion retaliated and a villager was killed. At that point, the wildlife ranger had no choice but to euthanize the lion. Dr. Siefert had been called, but we simply could not get to the village in time to intervene and relocate the lion.Papa

In a somber mood, Dr. Siefert, James, Dr. Gottfried and I must take some tourists on a morning game drive to track lions. We drive deep into the northeastern corner of the park. On the way, our mood lifts a little…I spot a creature with a distinctive loping gait far across the savannah. It’s a hyena, returning to its daytime resting spot after a night of hunting! Hyenas are so critically endangered in QENP that Dr. Siefert knows of only 1 female and 2 males left. Maybe this sighting is a good omen?

For the next several hours, we partially forget the conservation challenges and enjoy the natural beauty of the parklands and the animals. We visit 3 groups of lions. Sharon’s group usually consists of 10 animals, both females and cubs. Today we see 3 females, lounging in the grass. The Uganda kob call out alarms while we observe, clearly nervous about the lion presence. The second group contains the three large males: Papa, Omukama, and Rudi. While Rudi keeps out of sight in the brush, the others lay in the sun, bellies bulging from the kill they must have made overnight. Finally, we move into a wetland area and find another group of 8 females and cubs, hiding from the midday sun in the brush, waiting to ambush any stray kob that ventures too close. Lions on the savannah can be difficult to see: Dr. Seifert points out another cub in the tree that even James missed while radiotracking!

Omukama

Omukama

It’s midday and the sun is beating down, heating up the savannah. We must leave this amazing place for a while, but today there is more positive energy. Despite all the challenges, some animals are thriving. Now we must press on to our next engagement…convincing the locals that this mission is worthwhile.

Next installment: village visit and meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority!

 

 

 

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!

by | February 18th, 2015

Madagascar

Madagascar.

When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home

by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!

11

A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: www.friendsofbonobos.org.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 2

by | January 16th, 2015

“Lola ya Bonobo” means Paradise of the Bonobos and this sanctuary for orphaned bonobos truly lives up to its name. The only country in the world that bonobos exist in is the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC is also the poorest country in the world. Bonobos are hunted for bushmeat, traditional medicinal practices and the babies are taken into the pet trade. One traditional belief is if you bathe a human newborn in water with a piece of bonobo bone, they will grow-up strong and healthy. Many of the infants that have found their way to Lola are missing digits because of this belief.

Oakland ZooKeeper Natasha Tworoski with infant bonobos

Oakland ZooKeeper Natasha Tworoski with infant bonobo

The objective of Lola ya Bonobo is to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release. Confiscated infants caught in transit on the black market pet trade are brought to the sanctuary and placed with a human substitute mother, called a Mama. Each infant has to be handled in a different manner, depending on the infant’s experiences. Some infants are healthy and have been living with humans for a while, so they are trusting. Others are sick and traumatized, once bonded to a Mama, they do not want to be with anyone else. The more severe cases require someone to be with the infant 24/7.

Group 2 bonobos.A young Group 2 bonobo.

 

The Mama will come in every day and at night, the infant stays with the veterinarian who lives on ground, until the infant has the confidence to be separated and with other Mamas. Besides psychological health, the physical health of the infant must also be taken into consideration. A new infant will be quarantined for one month and blood tests will be run to check for rabies, tuberculosis, papillomavirus and SIV (the bonobo equivalent of HIV). Once this has been accomplished, the infant is introduced to the “petit nursery.” Here, the Mamas spend the entire day observing and caring for the infants as they gain confidence and independence, interacting with everyone, not just their Mama. Once they reach a certain level of independence, they are moved to the juvenile nursery. They still are under close supervision, but now only by one Mama or zookeeper. They begin to depend more on their fellow bonobos for social interaction. Finally, the adolescents will be integrated into one of the three adult group enclosures.

My first morning at the sanctuary, I walked the 1.5 mile path around the perimeter with Gaspard. Gaspard is a young Belgian man who is en route to a school in South Africa for wildlife management. At 19, he is one of the most well-traveled people I’ve met, as well as easy-going and passionate about animals. He is also fluent in English and very willing to translate questions I have to the French-speaking staff. As you walk the path, you pass the enclosure for Group 1, then Group 3 and finally Group 2. We arrived at Group 2 just in time to see the morning feeding. Papa Jean-Claude is the head zookeeper for Group 2 and one of the happiest men I’ve ever met, he has worked for other zoos throughout the Congo, but had a very strong desire to be a bonobo keeper. He explains the first feeding is primarily vegetables, the second feeding is mostly fruit and the last feeding of the day is sugar cane. This is the same for all the adult groups.

Jean-Claude and Gaspard.

This past year, the sanctuary had to deal with a growing problem. Local farmers knew just how dependent Lola was on produce, they needed to buy it no matter what. So the price was continually growing at exponential rates. Fanny, the manager, came up with a great idea. Now Lola gives out the seeds of the produce they need to local farmers for free, including lessons on how to grow each type. They then ask the farmers to sell back the produce and have a contract to an agreed upon price that is fair. The program has been successful for the most part, although some of the farmers have discovered they can get a better price in Kinshasa and are opting to do that. The sanctuary is still receiving enough produce from the farmers who are interested and it is likely others will return since they are not guaranteed to sell all their produce in town and the cost of transporting it there is very high as well.

 

Jean-Claude feeding the Group 2 bonobos.

As I eagerly try to photograph every moment of the feeding, I zoom in on two bonobos having sex. Jean-Claude, who speaks a little English, says, “Sex. Make love, not war,” and bursts into laughter. He’s right, this the phrase the media loves to use when talking about bonobos. While they look nearly identical to chimpanzees, their behavior could not be more different. Bonobos are a female-dominated society and while aggression does exist, it does not escalate anywhere near the levels seen in chimpanzees and most other primates. There is no record of a bonobo, wild or captive, killing another bonobo. Their secret? Sex. It is used to strengthen bonds, build new alliances and resolve conflict. Whom a bonobo has sex with is independent of age and sex, because a huge majority of the time, it has nothing to do with procreation. This has not been seen in another species in the animal kingdom…except for humans, of course.

Donations to Lola ya Bonobo.

We finish our looparound the perimeter and head back to the veranda of the main house, where the offices and kitchen are also located. Fanny is there, working hard to get in touch with a media organization running a story on Lola ya Bonobo. When she is done, I ask to show her the donations I brought from Oakland. From Oakland Zoo, this includes 11 brand new long-sleeved shirts, 5 pairs of boots, suture materials and flea treatment for the dogs and cats the sanctuary has also taken in. Oakland Zoo volunteers and staff have also given sheets, small blankets and a rain jacket. I brought scented soaps and perfumes for the Mamas, vitamins for the bonobos and candy and stickers for the children visitors. All of it is received with the greatest appreciation, as these things are either very difficult to get in DRC or very expensive. I immediately regret not bringing more! My favorite story from the donations is Allain. Allain is a small man and when the sanctuary has bulk ordered boots in the past, even the smallest size has been too big for him. One of the pairs of boots that Oakland Zoo donated was quite small and so they were offered to him. When he put them on, Fanny asked if they fit and he said, “Yes. I can run in these.”

We soon sit to have lunch and I can feel the jet lag sitting in. I feel like a little kid who missed her nap, that I might soon be asleep with my face in my meal, but I am fighting it with everything ounce of strength I have. I don’t want to miss a thing. Next, I am going to go meet the infant bonobos in the nursery- now is not the time to fall asleep.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper

by | January 15th, 2015

A common approach to see in many modern movies is the protagonist country-hopping. It’s so exciting, so romantic. One moment our hero is in Japan, following a corrupt business man about to complete a huge transaction. The next, she is in the Colombian jungle looking for a rare artifact. A quick caption at the bottom is our only hint that we have now shifted location thousands of miles. As I boarded my first of three flights to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, it was this globe-trotting theme that was surging through me.

My first flight from San Francisco to Toronto was delayed by over four hours, due to*two* planes having mechanical issues and each having to be switched out. I had a 5.5 hour layover in Canada, so it wasn’t that big of a deal- I spent the time in SFO instead of YZZ. Additional boarding delays did make me have to run to my next flight to Addis Ababa, but there was a problem with most passengers’ tickets and so we were delayed boarding as they went through each ticket, one-by-one. Then the plane had to be de-iced. Our 12.5 hour flight was delayed by 2 hours and it left me 10 minutes to get from one gate to the second in a non-Western airport. Three African business men and I were lead very quickly through the crowded airport. When we reached the gate, could see our smaller plane still waiting…and were told the flight was closed. The businessmen exploded with anger, the airline staff snidely told us they had called our names, but we hadn’t answered. While I wasn’t feeling sleepy at this point, my body was so exhausted and the thought of spending 24 hours in the crowded airport until the next flight to Kinshasa made me want to push past the attendants and run onto the plane in a hysterical manner. If this were a movie, surely the villain would have fed my love interest to a pit of crocodiles by this point, tired of waiting for me to show-up.

Hotel Room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

View from my hotel room in Addis Ababa. The city is developing quickly, so huge buildings are going up right next to slums like this one.

After another two hours standing in a customer service line (with the dozens of people who had also missed Ethiopian Airlines’ flights), one of the businessmen was next in line to be helped. He told us to give him our passports and tickets, then went up to the counter. A young seminary student traveling to Kinshasa to visit her sister had also had a delayed flight to Addis Ababa, so she got in on our group approach as well. Thirty more minutes passed. Finally, he returned with a voucher for a hotel room, meals, transport and one free 3-minute phone call. Everyone in our groupseemed much calmer at this point, but I was more than that. I was completely elated. I had forgotten I had any other purpose in life other than to be alone in a quiet room where I could sleep in a bed, so I was feeling quite accomplished.

 

My Christmas meal in Ethiopia. Orange liquid is an Ethiopian honey wine that is very sweet and tasty.

Following a 3 minute phone call to Kinshasa which consisted of, “Stuck in Addis Ababa, be there tomorrow, sorry, bye!” I slept for several hours and then the missionary student, Miriana, and I decided to go out on the town. We asked the front desk for recommendations and they sent a woman with us to a restaurant with live performers. Ethiopia is a very old Christian country and they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, which just happened to be that day! Everyone was out in beautiful garb, the restaurant was packed and full of life.

Ethiopian dancing consists of a lot of short, small movements. A series of different dance groups came out, each with a different style and some with singers. Our hostess helped us to order food and explained the history of different dances and songs. There was so much color and beauty, I really fell in love with Ethiopia that night.

After a restless sleep (my body had no idea what time it was or what it was supposed to be doing), I packed up the few things from my carry-on (luggage was unaccounted for at this point) and went to breakfast. I had begun to suspect the reason they hadn’t  let us on the flight the day before was because there were too many people booked for it. Well over 20 people were staying at our hotel, all of them missed connecting Ethiopian Airlines flights due to the fault of the company. If this happened daily, they were bound to get backed up. Also, now knowing it had been a national holiday explained why it was just so crowded in Addis Ababa’s airport.

This realization made me very nervous that morning, as all of us delayed flyers needed to get to the airport, preferably long before boarding time so we were assured a seat. At breakfast, people were talking and in no hurry. But I’m an American: I’m antsy, nervous and overzealous about being on time. I decided I was just going to go sit on the van, a couple of the businessmen I had befriended the day before had the same idea. My fears were realized when the van left several flyers behind, assuring them that another van would be along soon. Our van raced along, swerving precariously between other vehicles (including oncoming traffic). I was in the back along with two Congolese men who worked for a wildlife conservation organization in Kinshasa. We had to move our seat forward to fit luggage behind us, but the seat was not secure on the track now. When we stopped quickly, our seat would squish us forward. When the driver gunned it to cut someone off, we should quickly slam backwards. One of the men proclaimed, “Our seat is not serious. We will soon be in the street.”

We made our flight and the plane was huge, not the typical two-and-two-seat rows for most flights between African countries. This plane was the type used to fly across continents and oceans, so I again suspected they had overbooked yesterday’s flight and were trying to get back on track today.

Welcome banner and sign made for me by Pasha, the head groundskeeper. Also, one of the lucky dogs taken in by the sanctuary.

The four-hour flight was uneventful. When leaving the plane and getting on the tarmac, I was greeted by a man with a sign, “TWOROSKI, NATASHA-MARIE BONOBOS,” who had been hired by the sanctuary to get me. He took my baggage-claim tickets and I went through customs. After a nightmare of trying to locate my bags, I was on my way!

French is the main language of DRC and I had attempted to listen to “Learn French in Your Car” CDs before I left. This has turned out to have been well worth the effort and I regret not investing more time into it. My driver drove me through traffic for an hour through very crowded Kinshasa to get to a point where I would be passed along to a driver who worked directly for Lola ya Bonobo. It was not that far, but the traffic made it a nightmare. This is the fourth major African city I have seen (including Kigali, Kampala and Addis Ababa), but the poverty level is clearly the highest in Kinshasa. So many buildings that were probably once hotels or businesses are now rubble, with collapsed walls and no roof, homes to those who have none. The other big cities I have been to have varied in their approach to cleaning-up roads (Kigali was spotless), but Kinshasa is different than all of those. Trash upon trash builds up on the roads, with homeless children, feral dogs and general poverty everywhere.

At this point, the traveling and lack of any solid sleep was catching up to me. I didn’t have any water, I had a headache, I was almost in a fatal car accident approximately a dozen times. It was one of the moments where you start to think, “Why? Why did I want this so badly?” The driver and an escort from Lola ya Bonobo were in the car and speaking very fast French, mostly like gossiping from the few words I caught. Then the escort leaned forward and said, “Madame Natasha, Welcome to Lola!”

Instant change of emotions. I cannot properly describe how quickly the habitat changed from traditional rural African roads to entering a jungle oasis. Lola ya Bonobo truly lives up to its name, http://www.lolayabonobo.org/ “Paradise of the Bonobos.” The center of the sanctuary, which hosts the offices and living quarters, is built on a large, green hill that is beautifully maintained by the staff. A large archway made of vines and decorated with flowers had been constructed for my arrival, it included a welcome sign in English (which I was later to learn required some effort by Pasha, the head groundskeeper).

My home during my stay at Lola ya Bonobo.

I was brought to my room, which was considerably nicer than any place I’ve stayed at in Africa, and given a quick lunch. The rooms are spacious, well-decorated and each even has a wall air-conditioning unit for when there is electricity (although mine has yet to work).

Soon, I was greeted by the manager of the sanctuary, Fanny. Fanny’s mom is Claudine Andre, the brave woman who started the sanctuary in 1994 in the midst of a violent civil war. Like her mother, Fanny is kind, beautiful and gracious. As I spoke with Fanny, every frustration and annoyance I had felt left me. It was finally time for me to meet the bonobos.

Check back here tomorrow for another journal entry on my adventures in Africa!

-Natasha