Bonobos: The Coolest Animal You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

I was in the DRC filming a documentary about the ivory trade in late July this year. Getting to Republic of Congo was hard enough, but crossing the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo was on a whole other level (blog post coming soon…). I had no idea when or if I would ever be back in the DRC, so I decided to get away for the weekend and spend a few nights at Lola Ya Bonobo, the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos. Lola Ya Bonobo, meaning “Paradise for Bonobos” in the local language, takes in bonobos whose mothers have been killed for their meat or for the pet trade, as well as “pet” bonobos confiscated by the government.

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The bonobos are placed in large tracts of land enclosed within fences so they are able to live freely and in a natural environment. Here, they learn to live within a bonobo society as well as how to survive in a forest without human help. The ultimate goal is to reintroduce these bonobos in to the wild, although it is not possible for all of the animals.

LLC_1649 - Version 2Bonobos can sometimes come off as a little silly. 

Bonobos are a great ape, along with chimpanzees and gorillas, and are found only in the DRC. When they were first discovered, they were thought to be “pygmy” chimpanzees but they were soon designated to being their own species . Unlike their close cousin the chimpanzee, which have pink faces, bonobos have black faces. They are also slightly smaller. Perhaps the biggest differences however is that unlike the war-mongering chimps, bonobos are known as the hippies of the ape world. Chimps are known to kill, cannibalize and engage in warfare to gain access to territories. Bonobos on the other hand, have a matriarchal society in which sex is extremely important. Sex–including acts between members of the same sex, and between the old and the young–is used to reinforce social bonds, to resolve conflict or simply to say “hi”.

Female-female sexFemale-male genital rubbing LLC_1111 - Version 2Young bonobo simulating sexual behavior with an adult 

Even after having spent several months following western lowland gorillas around (read more about my time with gorillas here), I was still struck by how incredibly human-like the bonobos were; they were playful, lazy and social and had real relationships with one another. Us humans share about 98.7% of our DNA with both bonobos and chimpanzees.

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Also staying at the Lola Ya Bonobo guesthouse was a film crew working on Bounce, a documentary about the origin of ball sports. Bonobos’ playful nature made them the perfect candidates to test the idea whether playing with balls was an instinctive behavior coded in our DNA.

LLC_1639 - Version 2The Bounce film crew threw a ball over the fence to see how the bonobos would react to it.

The other bonobos watched as a more intrepid member of their group ventured into the water to retrieve the ball. 

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, bonobos are an endangered species. No one knows exactly how many there are out there, but it is certain that their numbers have been declining over the last 30 years and will continue to do so for at least the next 45 years (WWF). They are threatened by the bushmeat trade (as hard as it is to believe that people want to eat these beautiful creatures) and deforestation, both of which are in turn spurred by poverty and political instability.

More blog posts coming soon about Lola Ya Bonobo! There will be close-ups of bonobo babies…

Visit Lola Ya Bonobo’s website here. Raising bonobos ain’t cheap–they would gladly welcome your donation!

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (6/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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6/26:  This little buddy looks like she is wearing a wig, but it’s actually her mom’s tail! I love the muddy water squirting out of her trunk. On May 7th, 17 poachers entered the clearing and killed 26 elephants for their tusks.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

Related links:

  • (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*) This Huffington Post article was one of the few I saw that actually posted the photos of the carnage.
  • I made a video about Dzanga Bai before any of this happened
  • I also wrote a blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (5/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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5/26:  Dzanga Bai in black and white looks like a long-lost, prehistoric world. But it exists and will exist as long as we preserve it. Up until March 23rd, tourists were still visiting this awe-inspiring place. On May 7th, 17 poachers entered the clearing and killed 26 elephants for their tusks.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (4/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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4/264/26: Elephants are attracted to Dzanga Bai for its mineral-rich soil. This picture was taken from the same viewing platform from which 17 poachers shot at and killed 26 elephants for their tusks on May 7th.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (3/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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3/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers on May 7th at Dzanga Bai.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (2/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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2/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers on May 7th at Dzanga Bai. This is not simply an attack on elephants—Dzanga Bai was a sacred, safe place where the elephants could could gather in peace. There is no other place like this on Earth. This photo was taken on March 23rd.  

Please, please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1

URGENT: Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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1/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers in the last week at Dzanga Bai, a unique, natural elephant sanctuary in the C.A.R. This photo was taken just recently on March 23rd, the day that all WWF staff including myself were evacuated and the day that Andrea Turkalo—a researcher who has dedicated her life to the elephants of Dzanga Bai for the past 30 years—called her last normal day there in a Wildlife Conservation Society interview

Turkalo does not know when she will be able to get back to Dzanga Bai. But she recalled her last ordinary day there, on March 23, 2013.  “The weather was perfect. There was a slight breeze. The light was magnificent. In the late afternoon, you get these long rays and a golden aura. I think there were about 80 elephants, and there was a new calf that day with a female I’d known for 20 years, named Delta.  If I had to have a last day anywhere, that was the day I would have chosen.

The baby on the left in the photo above is the very baby to which she is referring. 

If you can stomach the very graphic photos depicting what is happening at Dzanga Bai right now, please see it for yourself here (photos taken and provided by WWF). 

Please, please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information, refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read an earlier related post I wrote.

Video: Dzanga Bai

A short movie I made about Dzanga Bai, a place I consider one of the most beautiful in the world (best viewed in full screen!). I highly doubt there is any other place that can offer a comparable elephant-watching experience; on any given day, one can see up to 120 elephants at a time. 

A very recent study concluded that over the last ten years, two-thirds of all forest elephants were killed for their ivory. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society separately found that Minkebe Park, in neighboring Gabon, has lost 11,100 elephants since 2004. Most of these killings were likely to have occurred in the last 5 years. Meanwhile in another bordering country, the DRC, the Okapi Faunal Reserve is reported to have lost over 5000 elephants since 1998.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global illegal ivory trade has doubled since 2007In general, most ivory is smuggled to China but Japan is the only country with a preference for the softer ivory of forest elephants.

Here’s an excellent article by the Washington Post about the growing illegal ivory trade.

Check out my last post about Dzanga Bai and consider donating to the Wildlife Conservation Society or the World Wildlife Fund

Some Gorilla Highlights While I’m Stuck in DC

On the 10th of December, rebels took over three towns in the north of the country. At the time, no one really knew whether this was cause for serious concern. In what turned out to be quite fortunate timing, I was already planning on going home for the winter holidays. On the 11th, I caught a ride from Bayanga (the village near camp) to Bangui (the capital) on a plane hired by journalists who had just left a town that rebels had entered, but not yet taken over (they eventually did). I flew home the following day. Since then, the rebels have taken over a dozen towns and are only about 45 miles from the capital. The rebels consist of a coalition (the Séléka alliance) of four existing Central African rebel groups and according to some reports, foreign mercenaries and child soldiers. The Séléka rebels claim that they are taking up their arms again because the government has not held up their end of the 2007 peace agreements. 

Several countries have sent in troops to support the government and peace talks have just started in nearby Gabon. I don’t have the slightest clue how this will play out. The most significant obstacle to peace that I see is the fact that President Bozizé refuses to step down until he finishes his current term, while the rebels are demanding that he relinquish power as a precondition for peace talks. 

News was sparse until late December and there is still disappointingly little information coming out of the country about what the situation is like on the ground. This article is the only one I’ve read that offers an actual analysis of what’s going on. I found this interesting fictional essay written by an African writer that perhaps reflects the general fed-up attitude of Africans towards delusional despots. The quote below from President Bozizé today on why he won’t step down highlights his questionable grasp on reality. Keep in mind that he seized power through a coup, that the 2011 elections were prooobably fraudulent, and that the CAR ranked 144th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

“That would be a betrayal of my country. That would betray the people who elected me. This is the defence of democracy, the defence of the constitution. To do nothing says we’re turning to the law of the jungle.”

Until it’s safe for me to return, I am stuck in DC. So… here are some pictures! 

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Sopo horsing around. 

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Some elephants whose path we crossed. 

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Kunga chewing on some kiyeye (all plant names that I know are in Ba’aka, so don’t ask me for the scientific or even English name). 

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Sopo sits in the lap of Mosoko, his half-sister, while they curiously observe the newborn. Baby Ngombo, full-brother of Mosoko, is on mother’s Malui’s stomach.

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Malui, still pregnant here, crossing a stream. This was taken immediately after this video

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Makumba hanging out near Malui and the newborn. 

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A colorful group of dung-ingesting butterflies.

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Bokata, a few feet away from me. 

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Mobangui (left) and Sopo at play.

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A bai before the morning mist cleared. 


As much as I am enjoying being back in civilization, I do miss it. Let’s hope things go back to “normal” soon! 

Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo went through a phase where he would just follow Makumba around, performing silly acrobatics which in my eyes appear to be an attempt to get Makumba’s attention.  Here’s a sweet moment in which Sopo swings from a branch, earning a mere glance over the shoulder from his apathetic father.