At present time, there are five infant bonobos in the nursery. They range from 2 years to just over 4 years. During the night, they are kept together in an indoor enclosure. In the morning, the Mamas come and let them into their outdoor enclosure, where they will supervise them the entire day. Before this can happen, each bonobo receives a bath from a Mama. Sometimes, the babies get colds (just like us) and receive some vapor rub after their baths to help with the symptoms. They additionally get an oil rubbed all over them to help keep their skin healthy.
After each bonobo receives a post-bath bottle of milk, they are brought outside. The enclosure has a very nice set-up, with a jungle gym, a small pool and many tire swings. There is also a trampoline and this is where the bonobos are given three feedings a day, the same food the adults are receiving. The reasoning behind the feeding location is to help (somewhat) contain the food mess, so it can be cleaned up very thoroughly each night and rodents are not attracted to the area. This is a pretty common concern for keepers worldwide, but it is especially important at Lola ya Bonobo. Rats here carry a virus called Encephalomyocarditis virus, more commonly referred to as EMCV. This dreadful virus is found worldwide, although it comes in different strains which have different symptoms and levels of severity. When apes in sanctuaries contract this virus, it is fatal and there is no known cure. Here at Lola alone, two bonobos have died from EMCV. From the first sign of symptoms (off-balance, unable to walk straight), it takes only two hours until an individual dies. It is constantly on the mind of the staff here.
Surrounding this play area is an electric fence, but the trees on both sides of the fence are plentiful and tall. The bonobos can easily climb up and onto other trees outside the fence. For the past few days, this has been very common, as there is a mango tree just on the other side of the fence and they are in season now. The first time I saw the babies going on one of these adventures, I urgently tried to tell the Mamas. They reassured me it wasn’t a problem. At this age, the young bonobos are still very dependent on the Mamas and may venture for a bit, but always return. This is proven any time a loud, unexpected noise occurs. The babies will rush to the nearest Mama and into her arms.
The babies’ energy often seems endless, but there are slower times when things quiet down and the babies rest by the Mamas. Like any species of infant, they are curious about the world around them and sit and observe bugs crawling, make a game with a stick or just sometimes randomly break into somersaulting.
Being here reminds me of the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is absolutely true of bonobos as well. I spoke with Susie, the ethologist (animal behavior researcher) on staff, about why it is so important for many people to interact with bonobos during this young stage. She explains that the bonobos are so social, that they need constant interaction during these crucial first years. Is it as good as having a real bonobo mother and community to interact with? No, of course not. In this awful situation so many orphaned bonobos find themselves in, it is the best replacement possible. Around the age of 3-4 years, the bonobos are slowly introduced into the juvenile group and weaned off the Mamas. They learn to shift into night houses (where they will now have visual access to adult bonobos) and become more dependent on each other. By the time they are ready to enter the adult groups, they are well-adjusted adolescents. Each of these steps is a very important piece of fulfilling Lola’s ultimate goal: Returning bonobos to the wild.
Of course, not all of these bonobos will be brought to Ekolo ya Bonobo, the release site in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of Susie’s job is to have a strict list of requirements a bonobo must fulfill, such as does not seek interaction with humans over bonobos, socially confident in their community, can form alliances well with others. While the vet, the sanctuary manager and the keepers will have an input, ultimately Susie is the one to make the call if a release will be attempted for an individual. At this time, 15 bonobos have been released at Ekolo and three infants have been born to females in this group. The Ekolo community is followed daily by rangers to guard them, similar to what is done with the famous mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. When Ekolo was originally chosen as the release site, not only had the bonobos been wiped out, but most of the wildlife as well. It was an empty forest. Now, with the presence of the bonobos, other wildlife is returning to the forest.
One thing you will notice about the bonobos currently in the nursery: They have all of their fingers and toes. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, there is a common belief in DRC that giving a human infant a bath in water with a bonobo bone will help them grow-up strong and healthy. Meat is also very expensive. Congolese poachers will therefore kill an entire community of bonobos, except for the infants. Big money can be made selling the infants to rich families as pets or into zoos and circuses in Asia. However, every bit of bone you can get is also worth a lot of money, so infants have come in missing fingers. Lola ya Bonobo and Ekolo ya Bonobo has worked very hard to educate the public and it is clearly paying-off, as less and less bonobo infants are coming in with missing digits. While foreign tourists must pay money to come to the sanctuary, national Congolese are given a big discount and school groups pay nothing. This is Claudine Andre’s philosophy, as she knows education (in particular to children) is the best thing that can be done to protect the future of the bonobo.