Our welcome to the bonobo paradise

After all the hassles involved in getting a visa for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), our physical journey to Kinshasa was mercifully mundane.The nonstop Rwandair flight lifted off the tarmac about 20 minutes late, but the pilots made up almost all of the time. In the Kinshasa airport, it took only a few minutes for an immigration officer to stamp our passports, then we moved to the baggage-claim area. Before we could proceed to the carousel, a lady officer at the health-screening station demanded our yellow-fever injection records. I froze for a moment, trying to remember where I’d stashed them. But I found them and showed them to her, and she waved us on. Our bags showed up. (We travel with carry-ons but their weight exceeded the Rwandair limit.) Outside the front doors, Lola’s driver, Constant, was waiting with a sign. In short order, we were inching through Kinshasa traffic toward the bonobo sanctuary in a Land Cruiser.

When we signed up for this adventure, Steve and I weren’t sure exactly what would await us upon arrival at Lola Ya Bonobo, (literally Paradise for Bonobos in Lingala, the Congolese language in Kinshasa). The US-based Friends of Bonobos organization has a booklet for would-be visitors, but some things were unclear. Would there be any other guests when we were there? Would any of the staff speak English? We weren’t sure, but we didn’t care. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about the work unfolding there. We’d do our best and come away satisfied, we resolved.

When we got an email in Lake Bunyonyi informing us that after we left the airport, we would stop to pick up Claudine Andre, it felt like we had won the lottery. Claudine may well be the most extraordinary person Steve or I have ever met, anywhere. Brought to Congo as a three-year-old by her mother and father, a Belgian veterinarian, she spent her childhood in eastern and central Congo, then had to leave (with her family) in 1960, when the country achieved independence. But she hated Belgium and loved Congo, and she soon returned as the wife of an older Belgian. They had a couple of kids, and Claudine developed a career as an art dealer. Her first husband died and she remarried. She had a couple more kids, survived a war, and by 1993 she was working frantically to save the pathetic population in the city’s beleaguered zoo. In the course of that adventure, someone gave her an orphaned baby bonobo. Claudine became its surrogate mother, and her life was never the same.

She knew nothing about bonobos at first, but she learned fast. People brought orphans to her, and by 1998 she was raising eleven of them. (Around then she moved her little colony onto the grounds of the American School in Kinshasa, which had closed because of the political turbulence.)

In 2000, through an extraordinary twist of events, Claudine managed to raise more then $200,000 to buy a beautiful piece of property about 20 miles south of Kinshasa. She relocated the primates there, and ten years ago, she and her team released the first group of them into a section of the equatorial jungle about 500 miles northeast of Lola. But the sanctuary today is still home to 64 bonobos.

Claudine’s youngest daughter, Fanny Minesi, took over as executive director of the sanctuary three years ago. Fanny’s husband Raphael is the chief veterinarian. But Claudine, now 73, is still involved with every aspect of trying to save bonobos from extinction. Steve and I briefly met her in 2017, when she was visiting the bonobo colony at the San Diego Zoo and I was writing an article about the zoo group. The prospect of spending any time with Claudine at Lola thrilled both of us.

We collected her at her house in Kinshasa and quickly learned that Fanny and Raphael and their children were vacationing in Uganda. Claudine was filling in for them. She seemed unchanged from our brief earlier meeting. Crowned with a thick mane of glorious copper-colored hair, she’s got a abundant amount of energy and an extraordinary ability to talk heart to heart, even with strangers.

We chatted nonstop on the drive out to the sanctuary, arriving in mid-afternoon.

This lovely arch, studded with flowers, greeted us upon our arrival.

Up at the guest house, we discovered that a minor crisis was in progress. One of the young males, Oshwe, had escaped from the section of jungle where his bonobo family hangs out each day; he was roaming the central (public) area of the property. Several members of the Lola staff had mobilized to find and recapture him.

A cry arose — Oshwe had been spotted near the guest cottage where Steve and Claudine and I would be sleeping. Urgently, Claudine waved us off the porch and inside. She locked the door. I felt a bit surprised. Although they’re a little smaller than humans, adult bonobos are said to be five times as strong as us but also far less dangerous than chimpanzees. Outside the window of the guest cottage’s long front salon, we could see the escapee……with several individuals advancing upon him.Steve started to ask a question, but Claudine signaled for him to keep his voice down. She knew, we later learned, that if Oshwe realized strangers were close at hand, he would want to investigate. He’d be much less willing to follow the keepers and the treats with which they were trying to lure him.

We kept still, and it didn’t take long before we heard that Oshwe had re-entered an enclosure from which he could be safely directed to his sleeping quarters. Over the next few hours, the backstory behind his little drama emerged. He’d been hanging out with his group in the forested area that’s their daytime playground and had had a dust-up with one or more of the dominant females. One of the few mammal species to be matriarchal, bonobos live in social groups in which females form a powerful alliance; under natural circumstances, their sons live with them all their lives, enjoying their mothers’ protection. Oshwe, however, was an orphan, with no maternal guardian. He’d gotten scratched a bit in the altercation (and scared), and had figured out how to slip through the barriers Claudine has erected over the years (a pond too deep for the bonobos to cross and a complex system of electrified fencing.)

Once out, Oshwe had done a bit of exploring and tried to enter the jungle sector occupied by another family group. But he couldn’t get in there. He’d considered crossing the pond to re-enter his own group’s area, but the depth of the water he’d tried to wade through foiled him. “He’s a little lost,” Claudine told us. She sounded both calm and compassionate.

This all happened within the first hour of our arrival. Since then Steve and I have hiked the three-mile perimeter of Lola’s three jungle sectors several times with Claudine and/or one of Lola’s top administrators, Suzy Kwetuenda. We’ve hung out in the nursery, where seven bonobo babies are being cared for at the moment. We’ve watched two of the sanctuary’s three family groups interact at various times. We’ve visited the infirmary and the visitor center and the place where workers prepare about 15 pounds of food per bonobo per day (about 900 pounds of food daily overall). We’ve spent hours talking to Suzy and Claudine.

We’ve done all this in two and a quarter days, trying to gulp in the flood of sights and sounds and information. We have two more full days before we have to leave. I’ll try to write about a few more chunks of it, but whatever I write won’t come close to what we’re seeing and feeling.

2 thoughts on “Our welcome to the bonobo paradise

  1. czatkin January 20, 2020 / 8:38 pm

    What fantastic luck to be there when Claudine is! I had a surge of Africa nostalgia reading this even through my Africa experiences are nothing like yours.

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