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.

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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.

 

 

A barrel of baby bonobos

On this trip, I have learned it’s more fun to watch baby bonobos play than it is to watch many movies. The action is almost nonstop. They sock each other; pounce. One chases another, catches up, and smashes into him. They tickle each other and make a noise that sounds like panting, but it’s not; it’s the sound of bonobo laughter. Sometimes they go too far and someone gets hurt. Ear-piercing shrieks erupt. Others may beat up the bully in retaliation. The smallest ones never stray far from their surrogate mothers. Older ones sometimes mimic copulation. They’re far too young to actually have sex. It’s just instinctive, practice with the tool they will use soon use daily to diffuse social tensions.

Here’s a glimpse:

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I don’t think there’s anywhere else on earth where you can watch a whole pack of young bonobos play, by themselves. Seven little ones were living in Lola’s nursery during Steve’s and my stay. They ranged in age from two to five, and they all had shiny black fur and boundless energy. Most (if not all) had arrived malnourished, ill, and so traumatized they were close to death.

Over the years, Claudine and her team have developed a detailed protocol for caring for the tiny victims, many of whom have seen poachers shoot their mother before their eyes, then hack her into pieces to be sold as meat. After a thorough medical screening and treatment for any critical health problems, the orphan must be quarantined for six weeks to ensure it’s not carrying any disease that could decimate Lola’s entire bonobo population. But you can’t confine a young bonobo to a cage, all alone. It would die from the absence of love and physical contact. Instead at Lola, each newly arrived youngster is assigned a human surrogate mother who rocks and cuddles it, feeding and caring for the little one in a way that’s looks even more challenging than caring for a human toddler.

The Lola team says love is just as important as food.

I can’t imagine what the surrogate moms go through during this quarantine period. Claudine says usually it takes about two weeks before the newcomer begins to accept and trust the human female. The mom has to try everything she can think of to get the orphan to eat. The poacher/trafficker may have fed it beer or tainted water or scraps of offal or handfuls of rice. The Lola staff says Coke is often the thing that will entice a baby into taking its first sips before transitioning to a more nutritious formula. During a quarantine, the mom returns to her own home at night, but then she got back to work each day without any break until the baby at last can be integrated into the larger group.

Being a surrogate mom to one or more bonobos may get easier after that, but it’s still hard work. The youngsters cling to the women. They climb (or pounce) on their backs and arms. They tug at their pant legs. It’s intensely physical and also essential to the youngsters’ survival.

If you don’t like being alone, a job as a bonobo surrogate mother might be just the thing for you!

Day visitors to the sanctuary must view the youngsters through this glass. As resident visitors, Steve and I got to go a bit closer. But to lessen the chances of the youngsters catching some germ, only the surrogate mothers get to hold them.

Steve and I visited the nursery several times. We went early one morning to observe the morning ritual: a daily bath.

Fresh from his bath, this little one hangs on effortlessly, as do all the babies to their human or bonobo moms.

Twice we also returned late in the afternoon to watch the bedtime preparations. (The residents sleep in hammocks in a couple of large cages.)

We heard all their names, but we only memorized one: Balangala, that of a 5-year-old male, the most confident member of the gang. One morning we watched him climb a large bamboo stalk that was growing into the enclosure. His weight bent it over, and he jumped from it onto a trampoline. After a while he lured most of the younger ones up onto it with him. Eventually the stalk broke, and the moms had to call for a staff member to cut and haul it away.

Balangala came right up to the fence where we were observing. He threw dust at us, demanding our attention. He reached through the the bars to grab Steve’s ear. He bullied the little guys.

But when everyone was annoyed with him, he needed a cuddle.

At the end of the day, he swung through the tunnel that leads to the nursery’s night enclosure, then stopped when he reached the place where we were standing. Penis erect, he thrust his hand through the grating: the classic bonobo handshake (the title of Vanessa Woods’ entrancing book).

Balangala was clearly excited to see Claudine.
A gentle smile also signals pleasure.

Staff members say Balangala is probably ready to join one of the troupes outside the nursery. But he’ll do better if he can go with another youngster, and none of the others was quite ready yet. Bonobo societies are complicated. Before we arrived at Lola, Steve and I already knew that. But our time observing the older primates underscored that.

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.

Don’t try to get to Africa this way

It’s not the easiest thing to get from San Diego to anywhere in Africa. But this time Steve and I appear to be doing it the hard way. The irony is, it seemed to start so well.

We had scored inexpensive tickets traveling on Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Boston, and then continuing on Qatar Airways to Doha, the capital of Qatar. These tickets would enable us to stay in Doha (a place we’ve never visited before) for three nights before continuing on to Entebbe in Uganda.

The first flight was at 9:50 am and we were inside the terminal by 7:44. We had our boarding passes by 8, and the signs all said we’d be on time. Outside, the sun gleamed off the plane parked at our gate. We went for coffee and doughnuts and returned around boarding time, when the first creepy thing happened: a tug began pushing “our” plane away from the gate. “Wait, stop!” I wanted to shout. “We’re not aboard yet!”

But no one was, and a minute later, the sign changed to Delayed — first to 10:20, then 10:30, then 10:40 am. Our spirits dipped, but when we returned to the gate around 10 and saw another plane parked next to “our” jetway, they rose again. Boarding started soon after, and by 10:40, everyone was seated, ready for take-off.

The captain’s voice over the loudspeaker smashed everyone’s good mood. He sounded annoyed, not with us, but with whichever imbecilic manager had decreed that our plane was needed to fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai, a route on which Alaska is aggressively competing. Everyone and their luggage would have to get off this plane and onto some other one.

The infants on the plane (and there were a bunch of them) all began screaming, an apoplectic chorus, and many of the grownups looked almost as unhappy. I was aghast, but I wasn’t panicking. Our flight from Boston wouldn’t depart until 10:15 pm. We had been facing a long wait at Logan, so this would shorten it a bit, but not catastrophically. Then the ground crew announced that a replacement place wouldn’t arrive until after 1 pm; it wouldn’t reach Boston until around 10:30 pm.

Here’s the Alaska plane we all had to get off, to free it for a lucky Hawaii-borne group. Aloha!

Poof! went our visions of a swift easy transit to the Middle East. We could barely see the Alaska gate staff, the line of querulous customers trying to reach them was so long. I jumped on my cell phone; called Qatar’s customer service. The guy I talked with made what sounded like a intense effort to find some other path to Doha for us. But the flight from LA was leaving in three and a half hours. There were no flights, so we’d have to cover the distance on the ground in two and a half — not something we felt like gambling could be done. Other Qatar flights from other cities all were leaving earlier than the one from Boston. The guy on the phone finally told me Alaska would have to fix the problem.

It took some gal on Alaska’s International desk in Iowa almost an hour to figure something out for us. She said she could get us on a nonstop flight from San Diego to London that was leaving San Diego at 2:50 pm. Once in London, we could connect to a nonstop Qatar flight. It wouldn’t arrive in Doha until after midnight Saturday night (versus the 5:30 pm we had originally been scheduled for). But in our beggarly positions, we didn’t feel we could be picky. We searched for the British Airways check-in counters, where we would have to go to get our boarding passes.

Somehow the young lady in Iowa had gotten the time of the flight wrong. It turned out to be 6:35 pm, not 2:50. Waiting for the check-in counters to open, we considered getting Lyfted home and back, since home was the only place we could think of to nap in. (We couldn’t get into the secure part of the airport until we got our boarding passes. But we couldn’t get our passes until the BA counters opened. I’m here to tell you, the NON-secure part of San Diego’s Terminal Two has no place where any normal person would consider napping.) Reluctantly, we decided against trying to go home and then return. The likelihood of meeting up with some other problem that would keep us from catching our flight (a traffic accident? a Lyft strike?) seemed all too real. The hours dragged by. We finally got those boarding passes; moved to another gate area. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. More than eleven and a half hours after we’d entered the airport, our 747 lifted off from the tarmac.

I’m writing this onboard now, with about 17 hours left to go. Our connection in London is short. That might get screwed up too. But if it doesn’t, and we reach Doha, I’ll post this, maybe in the morning.

With any kind of GOOD luck, we could even still have a day and a half to see Doha’s sights. Then we’ll move on to Africa, where bigger adventures loom.

More than once, we were thankful we travel with carry-ons. (Here are our four, plus our lunch bag. Checked luggage would have significantly complicated the nightmare.