Bonobo Conservation

Communities Work to Save Their Forest

Imagine living in an African community that owns a piece of its own rain forest. You are selected as an important representative of your community to help protect that rain forest. A conservation group is bringing in outside experts to help study the forest and its wildlife. You will be one of the lucky ones to be trained in how to survey the forest and its population of endangered great apes called bonobos. It will be a challenging task, with long days trekking through mud, being bitten by bees and other bothersome insects, camping in the rain and carrying heavy backpacks. You are very excited.

ZSM Field Work Spring 2009

This is what 20 citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo experienced in March through May 2009. The Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) was the “outside expert” thanks to its 13 years of experience in Congo studying and protecting bonobos. The ZSM has a research station called Etate in Salonga National Park. The park is a huge federally protected reserve in Congo as well as a U.N. World Heritage Site. From Etate and the ZSM office in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, the ZSM runs a program called the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI).This was the first year that ZSM staff had ventured to a different area of the Congo. (See map and caption for locations.) 

Gay instructs group

Dr. Gay E. Reinartz (right) uses the ground as a “blackboard” as she instructs volunteers in random data-sampling techniques in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

“This was new work for us,” says Dr. Gay Reinartz, BCBI director and the Zoological Society’s conservation coordinator. “The purpose of this trip was to work with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which asked us to come to the area between the Maringa and Lomako rivers in the Maringa-Lopori-Wamba management area, where they work, and to train 20 volunteers how to do bonobo monitoring and to do a bonobo survey.” The AWF is an internationally recognized conservation group. The work was funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Fund for Great Apes, and the ZSM and AWF provided matching funds. 

How did the trainees respond?

“This training was a huge, huge deal to these community people,” says Dr. Reinartz. “That’s something I didn’t know until I got there. As representatives of their communities, they had to get something to take back to their community. They took back information, knowledge.” Not only did the trainees learn scientific methods of monitoring wildlife, but they also learned a lot about the bonobo and why there is so much international interest in this rare ape.

Murph, a bonobo at the Milwaukee County Zoo

“The bonobo represents a huge chunk of a very important rain forest in the heart of Africa,” Dr. Reinartz explained in an August 2009 interview on WUWM Radio’s “Lake Effect” show in Milwaukee, Wis. “The rain forest is a fairly intact ecosystem. It is also very important for the mitigation of global warming. If you protect the bonobo, you will be protecting this forest. … The bonobo is special to us because it is closely related to us, along with its sister species, the chimpanzee. Bonobos are incredibly intelligent. They’re funny, they have a tremendous sense of humor, and they are very childlike in their play and their manner. They have a unique social system: They tend to be female-bonded as opposed to showing dramatic male hierarchical systems. So the bonobo has been targeted by scientists as giving us an understanding of human evolution, giving us certain insights into how we might have evolved and our social systems.”

Female & male trainees

Two women were among the 20 volunteer trainees. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

The two women among the 20 trainees had never seen a bonobo or bonobo nest, Dr. Reinartz discovered. In one of her e-mails from the field, Dr. Reinartz remembers: “When Blandine, the woman on my team, saw a nest yesterday, she nearly knocked everyone down to look, she screamed and ooohed and aahhed with delight. I was so touched, but why should I think her reaction would be any different from ours?”

The volunteer trainees live in communities that inhabit the same forest as the bonobo. They depend in large part on hunting, says Dr. Reinartz, and they see that some species of animals already have decreased or disappeared. The protected forest elephant, for example, disappeared about 30 years ago from their area because of poaching. As the community people see fewer fish because of overfishing and fewer game animals because their habitat is not well-managed, they see the threats to their own lifestyle. When asked if part of her goal in talking to the local people is to change their ways, Dr. Reinartz explains: “I don’t say: ‘Don’t hunt bonobos.’ I can’t say, ‘You shouldn’t eat them because they are related to you.’ I think for anybody who does that, it’s going to backfire. I don’t lecture. This has to be a process of self-discovery. I’m there to teach and give them tools to make informed decisions. They’re going to have to be the ones to decide if they like the bonobo or not. This is their land. Moreover, conservation is not against hunting. Conservation is against extinction. If you start criticizing hunters, especially as a stranger coming into the country, you probably don’t belong in that job. You can show them that certain activities can extinguish a species and hurt the local people, too. If the animals get fewer and fewer, a hunter’s job gets harder, until he goes out of business.”

Gays gives instruction on using a GPS

In the forest Dr. Reinartz instructs trainees in how to use a GPS unit. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

In their 2 ½ months of training in March, April and May, the trainees — who ranged from professional hunters to college-educated teachers — learned how to identify bonobo nests and food remains, how to use a compass and a Global Positioning System (GPS), and how to collect scientific data. “Our goal was to train two survey teams that would be able to work independently, and the trainees exceeded our expectations,” says Dr. Reinartz. They all received certificates at the end of training, but their work didn’t stop there. They became so accomplished that they finished a portion of the survey in July and August 2009 after the ZSM team left.

Logistics of Training in Remote Areas

The trainees received seven days of formal training in a very remote camp in the forest, says Dr. Reinartz. “And then we went straight out and began the practicum in the forest. So while we were collecting data, we were still teaching. A small team stayed at the base camp and ran that.” There were three instructor-led teams, one led by Dr. Reinartz; one by Patrick Guislain, a ZSM staff member who is BCBI’s field-sites coordinator; and one led by Nathanial Reinartz, ZSM’s research assistant. They all speak French, which is the main language in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although locals speak Lingala and Kimongo, also.

Dr. Reinartz explains the logistics: “It’s three days by pirogue (a large dugout canoe) from Basankusu (a fairly big town, where AWF has an office) to our first base camp, going up the Maringa River. Once we got to the study area, the river narrowed considerably. So we shifted over to a smaller pirogue and went up the Lomako River. We took dry food and had to buy food locally. (Two bonobos at the Milwaukee County Zoo were named after these rivers: Maringa and her son Lomako, who recently died.) There were 30 people in all: two pirogue pilots, a cook, guards, a representative from a neighboring park, an AWF representative, and the three ZSM instructors. A group of 30 people was a lot to manage. That’s what made this work one of our more difficult projects. Also, we’d never been in this area. We didn’t know if we could navigate up this river. In fact, we got stuck. We couldn’t go any farther by river. We had to go on foot. The pilots would drop us off, and then we would walk into the forest and do our work and then walk back. To go farther in, we had to walk longer, then stay longer and bring more food. It was harder than our normal work in Salonga National Park (Salonga), where the logistics are easier, at least for us. The base camp moved around, at least as far as we could go up the river. Then we would camp and the three teams — seven to eight people per team — would radiate out.  We rotated the trainees. Every trainee got experience in the forest. We did 11 weeks of straight field work in March, April, and May.” (See field notes below.)

Research Goals & What the Survey Teams Found

“The African Wildlife Foundation is doing large-scale land inventories to create a land-use management plan for a whole region that will include bonobo conservation,” says Dr. Reinartz. “Our role was to determine whether bonobos are present, where they live, and their status. This area is not a protected area like the Salonga. It is community-owned forest of about 1,900 square kilometers that local communities designate as a hunting reserve — where hunting is legal, but not for protected species like the bonobo.” The area where the ZSM teams went to survey in 2009 is in the Cadjobe Corridor (which borders the Lomako Faunal Reserve, an area where early bonobo research was conducted) and is part of a conservation “landscape” called the Maringa-Lopori-Wamba area. “The AWF wanted us to come in because of our expertise. (see above),” says Dr. Reinartz.

Bonobo nest

A bonobo nest is located in the Congolese forest, high in a tree. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

“Our preliminary reaction is that their habitat is pretty similar to what we see in Salonga, but the forest is a little bit more closed. The canopy is more closed and darker and the herbaceous vegetation has changed, maybe because of the long-term absence of elephants, which tend to beat down some of the understory. But these are really generalizations that we can’t make until I analyze the data. When we found bonobos, we would find large group sizes. We found nest groups of 25 to 30 nests in one spot. They are most definitely there. The data also give us an opportunity to compare what we find in a protected park such as the Salonga to conditions outside of a protected area.”

Hunting & Conservation

The amount of hunting in the study site surprised them all. They found evidence of bonobos, in some cases large nest groups — but most of it was distant from human settlements. “In some areas in Congo where bonobos are not hunted, bonobos coexist closely with humans, but this was not the case in much of this area,” says Dr. Reinartz. “We have to complete our data analyses before a full picture emerges about the bonobos’ distribution. However, traditional taboos against hunting bonobos are breaking down throughout the country.”

The goal is to create maps of bonobo and hunting distribution so that we can see how hunting affects bonobo distribution patterns. Moving forward, hopefully the community will develop their own ways to protect the bonobo. The trainees are certainly now less likely to hunt the bonobo. Many of the people have a reverence for bonobos. After our work, they know the mondele (meaning “white person”—pronounced mon-del-ee) has come to see the bonobo. They know that there is international interest in conserving the bonobo.”

Text above by Paula Brookmire

Notes From the Field

Excerpts from e-mails made by the Zoological Society’s field-research team, spring 2009.

Feb. 28, 2009
From Stefanie McLaughlin: The ZSM research team arrived safely in Mbandaka, after a flight from Kinshasa.
March 11, 2009  
From Stefanie McLaughlin: Gay, Nathaniel and Patrick arrived safely in Basankusu yesterday after a 30-hour pirogue ride. They arrived safely, but a bit sunburnt! This trip is different from our previous trips to DRC in that we are collaborating with the African Wildlife Foundation to survey an area of the landscape in which AWF does their conservation work  – the Maringa-Lopori-Wamba landscape. Gay and her team will be working with AWF to survey a corridor of this landscape for bonobo presence and distribution. The process will involve training local Congolese in bio-monitoring and data collection – this training will also serve as a capacity-building tool so that the local Congolese can continue this work after the ZSM has finished in this area. I have attached a map (click here) which details where the ZSM normally conducts its research and conservation work in the Salonga National Park (shown in yellow), the new landscape where the team is heading this trip — the Maringa-Lopori-Wamba landscape (shown in green) and the corridor within that landscape where we will be conducting research during this mission (shown in pink). 
March 23, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz:

“All is well, but this is the first time I have had to check e-mail. Conditions here are like none we have had at Etate, where we have the permanent camp and all the conveniences of home.  We are in the woods, sleeping under tarps, and no other way to ward off the rain. It is VERY hot here. We are camped in a spot next to a little stream — clean water. This place would be in the swamp if it were the rainy season, but for now, our feet are dry. The bugs are not too bad. There are only a few bees luckily!!! We have not set up the solar panel yet because there is no real place to do that — all tarps are in use for people. 

About three days ago, the trainees began to show up — first 15, then 5 more, then 8 more —  28 applicants in all, no place to put them, and no food to give them.  Eventually we made sleeping places and interviewed all 28 so that we could weed out 8 people and keep 20.  This was an interesting but difficult process since it was hard to tell people who had walked about 50 miles to go home....  After two days of interviews, we finally got the number down to 20.  These guys (and two women) are a good bunch, however; they are very enthusiastic and patient.  Most are totally inexperienced, some are illiterate, and others have been semi-trained in an AWF workshop....  Most men are hunters, and a different breed.  I look forward to working with them. 

Today I started teaching; I gave them an overview of the transect work, as Mira translated; we went over maps, concepts of latitude and longitude, what transects were, how to cut them, what tools to use, etc.  Tomorrow we will teach them the compass.  Little by little we will begin in the forest and actually take data.  When we have completed the transects in this area, I am not sure where we will go and how much we can carry. We might have to leave all the technical/electrical stuff in the pirogue and head out to a camp way in the forest.  It is too heavy to carry the solar panel, the electrical supplies, the outpost’s batteries, etc.  So we might not be able to be in touch except by satellite phone.  We will cross this bridge when we get to it.

3 men learn GPS

Congolese practice using a GPS unit. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

Soon we will be at the half-way mark for time in Congo.  But our real work only begins now.  Overall, we are doing well, I think.  The Congolese are a pleasure and this is where it all begins to make sense for why we are here.  I also think this place might have many bonobos.  Today, the men told us great stories about their experiences observing bonobos, and it was fantastic.  I wish I had time to write them all down — you can't imagine how intense it is to keep this many people going.  We are all learning.”

March 30, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz:

Hi, Guys; still doing OK, but VERY challenging to train this many people all at once!! 

We have accomplished two transects and one recce thus far: the T-02 line and then we made a second T-03 line (that does not exist on the final transects) that we made up so we could break up into teams and practice more before heading off.  The next step will be difficult logistically... moving this many people, all half-trained, into the woods and also moving our stuff to the next base camp.  We think we will leave the base camp here (Bobo the cook and the pilots and most trunks of stuff), at camp "Bompese.”  We will take enough food and clothes and gear for about two weeks to do the more southern points below us, making a satellite base camp from which we radiate out to do the sampling — focusing on the center of this long area toward the west. 

Group using GPS

Congolese practice using a GPS unit. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.

The people are very traditional here, and many superstitions, ancestor stories, chanting, etc., but so far they love the training and anything you can give to them.  We are running into a little resistance teaching the compass to some older folks — a pride thing for sure.  Nathaniel went out  night fishing with some of the men last night: They stomped up and down the river with machetes watching the water for "sleeping fish;" then with a quick motion, they would hack at a fish, stun it, and then pick it out of the water and toss it into a sack.  They caught about 50 fish that way, came back to camp about midnight while the rest of us were sleeping and cooked up the fries!  We all ate them this morning.  Of course this would not be allowed in Salonga in the park, but this is THEIR forest and their fish and we are working with their communities to train THE PEOPLE.  There is no such thing as poaching here unless the hunting is done by an outsider to their "groupement."  All the elephants have been "poached" according to the stories — none left here.  Some of the forest is very dense; I wonder whether it is due to the absence of the elephant. We have seen very few signs of bonobos here, but they say it is because we are close to Ifomi, the village. 

Yesterday, we finally found nests; they numbered only four, at the most distant point from the village on our transect plane — consistent with the men's opinion about influence from the village.  The guys were so happy — like always. 

We have two women in the group.  Unknown to me, they had never seen a bonobo sign before, and when Blandine, the woman on my team, saw a nest yesterday, she nearly knocked everyone down to look, she screamed and ooohed and aahed with delight.  I was so touched, but why should I think her reaction would be any different from ours?  Again, it makes the work worthwhile.  I don't cherish the thought of having to walk as far as we do within this next period — my feet hurt and my new shoes don't fit quite right.

April 10, 2009  
From Stefanie McLaughlin: I just heard from Gay, and the team is safely back to base camp after a weeklong remote camping trip.  Gay reported that everything went very well – they split off into three teams for this section of the training.  Team 1 (led by Nathaniel) found ~40 bonobo nests!  Team 2 (led by Patrick) found ~ 20 bonobo nests. Team 3 (led by Gay) found ~8 nests.  Clearly, Team 3 was given the last pick for its area to survey... Gay reports that the trainees are doing really well – they are all very positive, very polite and very enthusiastic.  After resting at base camp for a few days to recharge, they plan to head upriver a little ways to continue the project.
April 21, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz: We will be going into the woods tomorrow for the longest haul ever — a seven-day tour, splitting up into three teams again. We will have to cover some miles and each do four transect planes. We are heading out to do the middle section.  Each team should be gone for about six days, and one up to seven days.
April 27, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz:

We are back after six days of covering a long distance (four transect planes) — walking and hacking through the forest for at least 10 hours per day. I have never seen so much swamp and liana in my life!! We are intact but dirty and skinnier and glad to be back in Bobo's wonderful kitchen.  I have had enough dried fish and rice to last me a lifetime. Our team did bump into a bonobo hot spot where we counted about 34 nests on one transect, but they were about as far away as one could get from major hunting activities. We encountered four hunters in six days, all carrying quivers of poison arrows en route to their camps.

Patrick got back yesterday to our base camp, and Nathaniel is still out with his team; we expect him back either this evening or tomorrow. Patrick went far south (see our maps) along the Lonkomo River and did some transects there which were very close to a series of settlements that we now know exist in that area. His team found a huge amount of hunting activity and, to no one's surprise, no bonobos.  Two hunters reported to him that they had recently killed bonobos…. This place once had to be very rich in wildlife in order to have sustained this [human] population, and I am rather surprised that we find anything considering the number of people that live here. I hope that what we are finding will greatly influence the trainees — I hope that they accept their own findings as the reality and the true picture of their forest. We'll see. In any case, bonobo distribution here is very much influenced by hunting. 

Well, I'll stop here and take a bath and see what Bobo is making for supper.

May 7, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz:

We have just come back from an eight-day tour, and the field work is finally over!! We are wiped. My feet and knees may never recover from the swamps and the roots and the twisted trails. This has been the most difficult tour of our stay here due to its length, the consistent rains, the weight of food, and the distances we had to walk just to get to the sampling area! We were three teams, each covering approximately 90 km of few trails and bushwhacking.

For this trip, each team (eight persons) had to be ferried to the forest by pirogues in order to reach the main trail head since the water is now rising — we have had rain every day. The teams separated at the trail head and went different directions in order to sample the broadest possible area. Nathaniel went west (then northwest), Patrick east, and I, south. It was worrisome to say goodbye since we knew this trip would test our strength and endurance to the extreme. For our team, we walked two days to reach the southernmost river, the Longkomo, and we sampled long transects that cover the main ridge. Patrick and Nathaniel went to what is called the Big Forest — a new area in the easternmost portion of the study area, which we hoped would have the motherload of bonobos. My team found around 50 nests in all, but Nathaniel and Patrick unfortunately found many snares, essentially no bonobos in that section.

On the eighth day, each team was to head back toward the trail head. I don’t think I have ever crossed so many swamps in all my days in Congo — mud and water hip high. My team was wonderful, and I had abundant help over fallen logs and river crossings — even when I didn’t need any! Bipole, the hunter, who is our main guide and my self-appointed protector, would nearly break my hand each time he escorted me over fallen trees, gripping it so hard to make sure that Madame did not fall. I felt like a chicken caught and carried by the wing. On the eighth day, we had to struggle to meet our pick-up goal because we got caught in some very thick understory of secondary forest — nasty stuff thick with thorns and vines. Eventually at 3:00 p.m., we reached the trail head where we found out from the locals that Patrick’s group had already come out that morning and that Nathaniel’s group had reached the point one hour before our arrival, all well and safe, no major incidences. We gratefully clambered aboard the waiting pirogue and a great cheer went up from the men — back to dry beds, food, and a well-deserved rest.

In this base camp, we have an unexpected treat, a wonderful local guitarist who bellows out folk songs and plays a homemade guitar. So at night, to celebrate our return, we bought some local whiskey, jazzed up Mr. Iruz, and threw ourselves a grand dancing party!! Drums made from water jugs and guitar: It doesn’t get much better than this.

May 8, 2009  
From Dr. Gay Reinartz:

We’re resting up today, going over the data sheets and downloading the GPS points. It appears that the bonobo here may be confined to a strip nearly equidistant between the populated areas along the major rivers. This is also where we find the loveliest forest…. So it will be hard to test our hypothesis that bonobos prefer the mixed mature forests with the Marantaceae understory. We’ll see how the numbers shake out. We look forward to the analysis. Within the next three days, we will try to wrap up things with the students. After two months of work and living so closely together, it will be an emotional departure for each of us. The men are already asking whether we will see each other again and discussing how we can stay in touch by phone/radio. I can’t bear to think about it yet.

We plan to head back to Basankusu beginning the 11th. Because we have only the small pirogue this far upriver, we will have to make several trips back and forth on the Lomako in order to move our equipment, the rest of the fuel and ourselves back down to Bombese, our original base camp. I can’t believe we are on the “homestretch.” (I tried to teach the guys one night what “homestretch” means; another one of my failed attempts to close the cultural gap! They were too polite to say, “Madame, we have NO idea what you are talking about.”)

Group with certificates

The trainees display their certificates after weeks of hard work in the dense forest. The three Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) teachers were Nathanial Reinartz, ZSM’s research assistant (far left, standing); Patrick Guislain, a ZSM staff member who is BCBI’s field-sites coordinator (fourth from left in back,with beard); Dr. Gay E. Reinartz, the ZSM’s conservation coordinator. Provided by Dr. Gay E. Reinartz.