“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.