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.
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.
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.
Raphael 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.
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?
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.
The 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.