An orphanage for primates

Claudine André runs a nursery for bonobos in the Congo and warns about the vanishing presence of the most humanlike of the apes. Part 1 of two.

Claudine André shields her eyes from the Kinshasa glare, peering toward the thick jungle beyond the perimeter fence and the telltale scraps of banana leaves. "Où êtes-vous?" she calls out. Where are you?

From the canopy of trees comes excited screeching. Ms. André smiles. Her bonobos – 50 or so orphans rescued from pet cages and bush-meat markets – always respond. "On y va!" she yells. Let's go.

Seemingly unbothered by the tropical heat, André glides up one of the steep hills of the nature sanctuary here, the only one of its kind in the world. Soon, a posse of bonobos strolls alongside her on the other side of the fence, grinning and romping. André introduces them by name, and by story.

There is Manono, munching on a banana. "Bonjour!" André coos toward the fuzzy male. Manono grins and belts back an appropriately monkey "ooh-ooh-ooh-ah-ah-ah!" André gestures to the big female a few yards away: "She will try to grab your notebook. She likes writing." Then she pauses. "We found her in a research laboratory. In a cage. She never saw daylight."

André walks toward a coffee-colored lake, trimmed by birds-of-paradise and bamboo. Across the water, juvenile bonobos swing on branches and divebomb into the water.

These came from Kinshasa's bush-meat markets, André says. Baby bonobos are considered too small to eat, so poachers sell them as pets – often displayed in cages over the smoked meat of their mothers.

André is unabashed about tugging at heartstrings. A chief goal of her Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, which she started in 1994, is to raise sympathy for this peace-loving primate. If she can get others – particularly Congolese children – to care about them, she believes, then she is a step closer to saving them from extinction. "Conservation begins with education," she says. "It is important to save these 50 bonobos. They have to be ambassadors for the last bonobos in the wild."

***

It is one of nature's ironies that the bonobo – a primate whose social structure is based on peace and equality and who diffuses tension through sex rather than violence – is found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most volatile countries in Africa. For decades, fighting has plagued the DRC (formerly known as Zaire). The Congolese threw off repressive Belgian rule in 1960. Five years later dictator Mobutu Sese Seko took power. In the 1990s, ethnic and political fighting racked the country. More recently, the five-year Second Congolese War, which ended in 2003, claimed some 4 million lives through violence, hunger, and disease.

André has lived through most of this tumult. She was a young child when her father, a veterinarian, moved his family to the Belgian Congo in 1951. Like most Europeans, the family fled after independence. But five years later, André returned to her "home country," settling in the Virungas Volcano region where Dian Fossey had started her study of mountain gorillas.

André met Fossey, but it wasn't for two decades that she would begin her own odyssey with primates. For her, the genesis and catharsis came in 1991, when soldiers looted the capital city of Kinshasa, where she was working for an airplane company. After the violence, André went with a friend to the city's zoo, which had been ransacked. "I knew as soon as I pushed the door open that my life would change," she says.

The place was in disrepair – with many animals dead or starving and the pens and lairs in ruins. For the next few months, André bought food for the staff and animals and helped rebuild the zoo. Then, one day, a man arrived with a baby bonobo. "He said, 'Don't get your heart involved in this animal. They never survive,' " she recalls.

That made André all the more determined to save it. She fed and played with the primate as if it were a child. It lived. Soon, more people were giving her bonobos. André moved from the zoo to an abandoned veterinarian clinic and then to an empty school. But after a year, as the fighting slowed and the campus prepared to reopen, André needed a new home. She visited one site about 15 miles from downtown Kinshasa – a beautiful plot owned by one of Mobutu's advisers.

It was perfect, but too expensive. Then, André checked Lola Ya's bank account and was shocked to find a deposit of 135,000 euros. "We called the bank and said, 'This is a stupid joke, we only have 500 euros,' " she recalls. The bank told her that someone had made a donation and had only one stipulation: to remain anonymous. "I still don't know who it was," she says.

The gift was enough for André to start creating the current sanctuary – still unique in the world. It has two separate enclosures totaling almost 70 acres, an education center for school children, offices, and a bonobo nursery.

The nursery may be the most important part. Baby bonobos will not survive if they don't bond with a mother figure. At first, André was the surrogate mom for most of the orphans. Now staff members fill this role. Henriette Lubondo plays full-time nanny to Sake, a new arrival. She wakes up the bonobo at 8 a.m. and gives her a bottle. She sings to her during the day and puts her to bed at 4 p.m. "Some of the babies nap," Ms. Lubondo says as Sake climbs into André's lap. "Not this one. She's very active."

Many conservation groups, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, support André's work. "Claudine and the sanctuary play an important role in awareness-raising both locally and internationally," says Michael Hurley of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. "It's next to impossible and outrageously expensive to see bonobos in the field. So the opportunity to drop into the sanctuary in Kinshasa is extremely good." Still, many say the real need is to keep bonobos from being poached in the first place.

***

In the 1970s, conservation groups estimate, about 200,000 bonobos lived in the wild. Today, figures put the natural population from 10,000 to 25,000. Conservationists say the pressure on bonobos is increasing, even though there is no wide-scale fighting in the DRC today.

One reason is that without the constant warring, it's easier for timber interests to log the forests that form the bonobos' habitat. But even more threatening is the huge increase in the bush-meat trade. Across the DRC, sanctuaries and police are in far shorter supply than guns and bullets. And many former soldiers, still armed, are looking for ways to make a living. Years of war and dislocation have undermined traditional taboos against killing and eating bonobos.

André hopes that education will change this. Already, she sees some improvement in Kinshasa. Many schoolchildren who visit Lola Ya call to report illegal bonobo sales in their neighborhoods. Even some poachers will turn in babies after community members chide them.

Now the challenge is to figure out what to do when there are too many rescued bonobos for Lola Ya to handle. André is working on a plan to reintroduce some to the wild, but she'd prefer – if she had the money – to set up more sanctuaries.

She sighs. "We have gone from one crisis to another," she says. A bonobo baby slides down the hallway, and she smiles again. "[But] I think the happiness here is far more than the sorrow."

Next: teaching bonobos language in Iowa.

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