Hanging out with the bonobo families

Steve and I climbed into a rowboat a couple of times with Suzy Kwetuenda and Stanis, the manager of Lola’s “Enclosure 1.”

The Congolese bonobo sanctuary has three enclosures, a word that to me evokes the image of a cage. But nothing could be more misleading. Lola’s enclosures are wild jungle, ranging in area from 15 to 38 acres. A canopy of trees tower over undergrowth so dense you can’t see more than a few feet into it. The bonobos disappear into this bush every day. Those who have tracked them report that they nap, play, snack on leaves and fruit. But a couple of times daily, the humans appear bearing supplemental rations: starchy balls made fresh every day from corn, flour, and other nutrients, as well as fruit, vegetables, tubers, and sugar cane chunks (a natural toothbrush). At those times, the troupe ambles down to the shore to enjoy the goodies.

Can you spot the bonobos?

On our second day at Lola, Stanis had loaded a plastic bin that held sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and a few bananas. He quietly pulled on the oars and lobbed the food chunks onto the shore.

Nineteen individuals make up the Enclosure 1 family, and all of them (except for Oshwe the previous day’s escapee and another male who was recovering from an accidental injury) had assembled to catch the morsels, then sit and savor them. We saw little to nothing that looked like competition. It felt more like a lazy picnic in the steamy morning heat.

Suzy knows each individual at a glance, just as the bonobos all know and respond to their names. She regaled us with great stories about various individuals. The dominant female Semendwa, for example, can shoot her hand out, through two layers of fencing (one electrified and one chain-link) to snatch a watch or sunglasses. Once she pinched a visitor’s brand-new iPhone and began holding it up to her face, as she’d seen the humans do. Then she somehow hit the music app on it and disappeared into the jungle to the strains of Wagner.

Over the course of our four-day stay, I fell in love with Suzy as much as I did with the bonobos. She was born in the eastern Congo, but her family eventually fled to Kinshasa to escape the grisly warfare in the east. Suzy pursued a biology degree, and as she neared the end of her studies, her father mentioned he’d heard about a recently opened bonobo sanctuary not far outside town. He suggested she look into it. She did. She reenacts her reaction at her first sight of a bonobo: Her eyes bug out; her mouth falls open. A hunger to work with these amazing creatures seized her.

Suzy works mainly at Lola ya Bonobo but has spent a lot of time at the Ekola ya Bonobo release site.

She found Claudine that day and shyly asked if she might do some volunteer work at the sanctuary and write about it for a school report. Claudine welcomed her, and in the months that followed, Suzy’s gutsy character impressed people. Some time later, when an American researcher was coming to Lola and asked if Claudine could help him find a local assistant, Suzy got the job. She’s worked for Lola more or less ever since. In 2009, when the sanctuary released its first bonobos into the remote section of jungle that’s now known as Ekolo ya Bonobo (“The Country of Bonobos”). Suzy spent more than two years there, tracking the primates through the chest-high swamp water; recording their interactions; working with the local villagers. “It’s a patriarchy there,” Claudine says. But the men yielded to Suzy’s steeliness. “I tell them, ‘Don’t look at my breasts! Look at my BRAIN!’” Suzy bellows. If James Earl Jones were smaller and more compact (and had breasts), he could play her in a movie.

I found myself alternately struck by how human the bonobos look, at times.

As when they’re walking upright.

Or cradling a baby.

…and how alien, at others.

How can females in their prime look so much like wrinkly old men?
And those crazy bonobo genitals! The wildly oversized and swollen vulvas…
I don’t know this guy’s name, but I can tell he’s a boy (if not a particularly excited one.)

We heard loud shrieking that first morning. Suzy scanned the trees and declared the cause of the noise to be “fun.” It took us a few seconds, but then I spotted a couple maybe 50 feet up in the branches of a nearby tree, having sex in the missionary position, shaking the branches with the vigor of their movements. I couldn’t tell if the pair was heterosexual or a couple of females. Bonobos are pretty indiscriminate. Also quick. The couplings we saw rarely lasted more than 15 seconds.

Definitely a couple of ladies engaged in “negotiation” (Suzy’s wry term).
Not sure about this pair, except that they clearly seem to be enjoying themselves.

I have great respect for the field scientists who study animal behavior . It takes such patience, and with bonobos, there are so many complex interactions. Suzy and Claudine filled in some of the blanks for us. But one of my favorite memories of our time in the sanctuary came late on our final afternoon, when Steve and I were on our own.

It was Sunday. Claudine had returned to her home in Kinshasa that morning, and Suzy had taken the day off, spending the time with her husband and four young boys. Steve and I strolled to the spot near the night quarters of the troupe from Enclosure 1. Earlier in the week, we’d been amazed to learn that after hanging out all day in the jungle, the bonobos routinely make their way on their own to their concrete dormitories, where they climb into their plastic hammocks. “They’re bourgeois,” Claudine had told us, with a shrug. In the wild, they build nests every night, high in the trees. But it’s easier (and drier) to climb into a hammock, so they choose that, if it’s an option.

We hoped to witness some of this, but at first we found only a solitary male. He was sitting on the grass picking out fruit from a branch of a palm oil tree.After a while, some movement in one of the nearby trees caught my eye: it was two young males playing high in the branches. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then gradually, other individuals appeared, strolling down the path leading from the jungle. They lay on the grass, some grooming each other.Some scrounged for leftover fruit or palm nut seeds. A few waded into the water and lolled in it like an evening bath.

We saw a little bit of sex, but not much. It seemed like everyone was too relaxed to need it. Bonobos groomed some of the big females. They sprawled out and stretched.

Finally, a man appeared in a little enclosure, and he filled a big bottle of water. The dominant females stood up and walked to the fence and drank deeply from the bottle. One after another of the bigger animals got their drinks, then the biggest females led the way up the hill to the dormitory.I didn’t understand everything I’d just seen, but I got the big picture. Maybe I was projecting my feelings on them, but it looked like the end of another beautiful day in a very special place.



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