Archive for the ‘Volunteering’ Category

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 5

by | February 27th, 2015

Wednesday Feb 25

Communication challenges…

 

This Wednesday morning we accompany a young American couple on their lion tracking adventure. Dr. Siefert is not available for this trek, so while Dr. Gottfried and I narrate and answer questions, James looks for the lions. Obviously we have learned much about the lions and the park ecology – maybe we have a future in eco-tourism?Cub and yawn

 

We return to the sight of the water buffalo kill, where we have again picked up Sharon’s signal. The buffalo carcass is reduced to mere bones with tiny bits of flesh, and no fewer than 15 white-backed vultures are scavenging the remains…there is no waste here in the park. Sharon and the cubs have moved up the hill and are out of sight in the thick tangle of thorns and low brush. It has become too treacherous for navigation by 4-wheel drive and we must turn back.Vultures

 

Though the morning has yielded no samples for our study, we have successfully located several more lions. More importantly, we have conveyed a wealth of information to some very receptive park tourists. Hopefully this morning has had an impact on them – now they can not only say they have seen lions, but they understand a little more about complex conservation issues.

 

This afternoon’s communication challenge seems more daunting. We return to the community visited a few days ago, where we paid part compensation for a calf killed by a leopard. Today, Dr. Siefert will present his ideas to move the community forward, and solicit a letter of support from them to apply for grant funding for these improvement projects.

 

The community meeting takes place on a few rickety wooden benches placed on the dusty ground underneath a tree. The chairman of the community, Eliphaz, and 10 other high-ranking community members are present. Several other men wander in and out, standing quietly behind the benches as Dr. Seifert talks. He attempts to establish himself as “not the police, not the UWA,” but someone who has the interests of wildlife and the community in mind. He describes how his own family in Germany re-established their financial stability following the “misery” of WWII using a combination of agriculture, animal products, and forest eco-tourism, including a pub and restaurant. His point is that this community can also be more successful financially by utilizing similar ideas.

 

The most pressing need is for construction of proper corrals for the livestock – made 9 meters tall, with wire fence material and weather-resistant poles, surrounded by a second bio-fencing barrier made of the invasive thorny bushes so prevalent throughout the park. Dr. Siefert introduces the concept of “zero grazing” by which livestock are fed on smaller fenced pastures with grasses cultivated by the community, leaving the park grasses available for wild prey species. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he proposes creating sport-fishing eco-tours for the fishermen in the community, and describes accommodations necessary for that industry.

 

Finally, one man breaks his silence, and Eliphaz translates for us. The community members would like to comment and are becoming impatient! I have the impression that Dr. Siefert’s ideas are a bit overwhelming. They agree that proper livestock pens are essential, but balk at the idea of shared community pens. They argue that people need to be able to check their livestock throughout the day while at home, there is too much potential for disease transmission, and someone would have to be paid to maintain the outside perimeter wire and bio-fence. Dr. Siefert nods, as if understanding, but reminds the group that community pens are more reasonable given UCP’s limited funds.Tail

 

After a lively discussion, the community decides that they will only agree to support construction of a separate pen for each family, even if that means waiting indefinitely until the funding is available. Dr. Siefert reluctantly consents, requesting cost estimates to be available tomorrow when we return with a letter of support for them to sign. We close the meeting with my statement as a representative of Oakland Zoo, and shake hands again. A woman who has been silent throughout the meeting speaks up, saying that she is happy for the help, unless we are the ones who brought the leopard to the village.

 

We drive away with mixed emotions. Dr. Siefert’s ideas have been received and discussed honestly, yet in the end, there is always suspicion. He is baffled by the accusation that he (or we!) moves leopards around the park. I try to understand the resistance to change and improvements in the community, and wonder how best to resolve this communication challenge…

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 4

by | February 24th, 2015

 

Monday / Tuesday Feb 23 /24

Research routine…

 

Our final sample processing experiment over the weekend is successful (no more melting plastic!) and we have now settled into a daily schedule. Early in the morning we track lions, then return to the lab for sample processing, recording data and writing. Late in the afternoon, we are again in the field to track the felines. These are long, satisfying days – and hardly what can be considered routine!Cub on back

 

On Monday morning, we spend several hours tracking Lena’s group, which consists of 9 adolescents, Lena (the lioness), and her 3 very young cubs. We are privileged to observe lion group dynamics – play, head butting, rubbing, marking, running, and vocalizing! One of the mature males, Rudi, appears interested in the group, following and occasionally vocalizing to them, but keeping his distance.Cub posing

 

Suddenly, as we follow Rudi near a herd of water buffalo, we hear a human scream in the distance. James exclaims, “Lena’s killing someone!” and Dr. Siefert rushes our vehicle toward the scream, with James shouting directions. Luckily, when we arrive on the road, at the origin of the scream, three men are standing by their motorcycles, very shaken but unhurt. Apparently, Lena chased them when they drove around the corner – she was hiding in a thicket with her cubs, trying to find food for them. We advise the men not to attempt to pass Lena again and contact the UWA to inform them of the incident in hopes they will close the road to motorcycles until Lena moves away.

 

Feeling a bit more somber at the reminder of the ever-present potential for lion-human conflict, we continue to watch Rudi and the group of lions until we receive our “black gold” fecal reward! With the morning’s samples safe inside plastic bags, we drive back toward the lab. We have yet to find the other two big males, Papa and Omukama, so Dr. Siefert continues to track. Just as we re-enter the park, we hear a steady beep – Papa is nearby. Buried deep in the thickets and thorns, he is resting, but looks thin, as if he has not made a kill in several days. We drive away and are again rewarded for our tracking diligence – in the fork of a tree sits a solitary, shy leopard!

 

Tuesday dawns with similar goals: to find some lions, obtain some fecal samples, and process them. We first find Papa near the same spot as yesterday afternoon. No fecal sample nearby, but as we drive out of the park, we find a lion deposit on the side of the road…our luck continues! James pulls out the antenna for tracking and soon we have Sharon’s signal. She has moved to a far corner of the park, in very difficult, hilly, thorny terrain. James feels that this behavior is highly unusual. As her signal becomes stronger, her reasoning becomes clear. The trees ahead of us are full of vultures, obviously hoping for some scraps from a lion’s dinner.

 

Sharon on killWe drive cautiously, windows shut completely, as an eviscerated water buffalo comes into view. Sharon the lioness is hiding in a large thicket just behind the kill, staring at us warily. Her cubs are several hundred yards away, stomachs bulging, relaxing in the warm sun. Unfortunately, it seems that we are too early in the digestive process to obtain samples, so we make a plan to return later in the evening.

 

It has cooled off significantly this evening, and I must pull out my lucky long-sleeved purple field shirt. James tests our navigation skills as we drive towards Sharon’s group. Using an old tree and a mountain peak, we are able to accurately choose the turn off the road, and follow our path from the morning through the savannah, with a bit of help from James. As the sun begins to set, several of the cubs emerge from their afternoon naps and present us with two more samples. We find Sharon at the kill site, consuming her evening meal, expertly butchering the remaining meat with her razor sharp teeth. My lucky shirt seems to be working…or it’s just another routine day of research!

 

 

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 3

by | February 23rd, 2015

Weekend Feb 21/22

No rest in research…

Well, a little rest this Saturday morning. We meet James at 7am instead of the usual 6:30am for the next sample collection endeavor. We need samples from prey species (kob and waterbuck) that live very close to human settlements, in order to compare their stress levels with those in more remote sections of the park. James takes us to multiple places near the hostel, and we spend several hours deciding which piles of feces are fresh or old (yes, I really went to vet school in order to do this)!

A few hours into sample collection, James receives another disturbing call from Dr. Siefert regarding a local pastoralist. Early this morning, the man’s dogs alerted him to a predator in the area. Unfortunately, a leopard was attacking and consuming one of the man’s calves. We arrive at the village to inspect the dead calf. The left hind limb has been skinned as if with the sharpest of butcher knives and much of the meat has been removed. James confirms that this is the typical pattern of a leopard kill. The resident is kind, saying that he believes that all animals belong in the park, but is visibly troubled that his expensive asset is now gone.

 

Providing compensation to the owner of the calf that was killed by the leopard

Providing compensation to the owner of the calf that was killed by the leopard

One mitigation technique UCP uses in situations such as these is partial monetary compensation, in hopes that villagers will not retaliate and kill the predator. From donations given to UCP, we offer this resident 250,000 shillings ($90), which is approximately half of what the calf is worth. The man is grateful for this money, and plans to sell the remaining carcass to another village to help recoup his loss. (As pastoralists, these villagers will not eat meat.)

 

As we drive away, luck strikes again…on the road in front of us is a distinctive pile – a predator fecal sample. The green glove goes on, and I pick up the little present that the leopard left behind. On the way back to the hostel, James pulls out the antenna in case there are any lions nearby. The luck continues! We find Sharon’s group of females and cubs lying near a thicket, one cub still gnawing on the fresh remains of a kob. We observe for a while, and notice another prized fecal sample. When Sharon walks away, we slowly close in, cubs no more than 5 yards from the truck. James leans out of the door, scoops up the sample as we keep eyes on the lions, and we escape with our smelly reward!Cub with kob

 

OvenBack in the lab, yesterday’s sample dehydration challenge awaits. Dr. Seifert has procured the hot plate, but problems persist. We spend the afternoon creating a hot plate oven; re-wiring the European plug to a Ugandan plug, buying a pot from the lodge, locating non-melting plastic cups in which to place our sample cups, and finally finding a working outlet in which to plug our creation. With a test sample in place, we break for a late dinner, planning to check on it in a couple of hours. By 9pm, our efforts seem to be paying off. The test sample is 2/3 evaporated with no sign of melting plastic. We place the real samples in the oven and call it a night.

 

After our usual breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast, Sunday morning we walk to the lab to check the samples. Thankfully, they dried overnight, so we load the last samples, including the precious lion feces, into the oven to dry for the day, weigh the recently dried ones, and make preliminary calculations. Later in the afternoon, we return to check the last samples. Another setback. Our small Eppendorf tubes have melted into the plastic holder, ruining several samples. Feeling a little disheartened, we set up some more experimental tubes and decrease the oven’s heat. Hopefully tomorrow will be more successful. Thus are the trials of science and conservation.

 

 

 

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.