Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary: saving the last of the 'gentle apes'

Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary - Kinshasa (DRC)

The bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, is one of the most threatened ape species in the world today. Discovered as recently as 1928, the bonobo could be the first great ape to become extinct. It is estimated that bonobo numbers fell from 100,000 in 1980 to just 10,000 in 1990. This was due largely to the hunting for bushmeat of bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the only country where these animals exist. With the bonobos' dwindling territory affected by civil wars and military occupations, it has not been possible to carry out more recent population surveys - but the situation today is almost certainly even more critical.

To help save this gentle great ape, many organizations including TWWF, support the critical work of the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary near Kinshasa, home to the largest group of bonobos in semi-liberty in the world.

Fighting to Live
The gorillas have their champion in Diane Fossey, the chimpanzees have theirs in Jane Goodall and the guardian angel of the bonobos is Claudine André, founder of the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary. With some 50 baby or juvenile bonobos, the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary rescues the lucky ones: those found for sale on the streets of the capital.

Baby bonobos are considered too small to be worth much as meat and so are often sold as 'pets'. Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos are very delicate creatures, and there are few cases of these 'pets' surviving into adulthood.

In the wild, bonobos spend their first five years clinging to, or very close to, their mother. This makes their first few weeks in the sanctuary crucial. Terrified and isolated, each orphan needs a huge amount of love and care from its substitute mother or it will simply give up the will to fight for life.

Protecting and Educating
The sanctuary, set up in 1994, is now divided into sections - the nursery, where the smallest and newly-arrived bonobos are cared for by human substitute mothers, a large forest enclosure where juvenile and adult bonobos move with minimal human interference in a forested environment similar to their natural habitat,and a quarantine section.

Furthermore a natural reserve is being planned for the release of adult bonobos into an environment similar to their natural habitat. As well as caring for the young bonobos, another major part of the sanctuary's work is education through regular, free visits and talks for local schools, universities and other groups.

Sanctuary founder Claudine André points out that the biggest demand for bushmeat comes from the cities - and hopes that educating the city populations about their natural heritage will help save the bonobo.

"A large part of the population living in the cities of the DRC will probably never have the financial means to visit the protected areas and national parks of the country's immense territory," André said. "Without access to a sanctuary, many Congolese will never have the opportunity to see the animals of their very own country."

"These orphaned bonobos are, basically, condemned to the sanctuary since they have been taken away from their mothers and cannot be introduced into an organised group in the wild. However they help - through our educational program - to save the last bonobos remaining in the forests of the Congo."

Bonobo Facts

The name 'bonobo' seems to come from 'Bolobo', the name of a village on the Congo River where the first scientifically observed specimens came from.

Bonobos are similar to chimpanzees and humans in many aspects of their development. For example, they lose their milk teeth at between five and seven years and go through puberty between the ages of nine and 11.

They are often called the 'gentle ape', as they live in a society dominated by the females and resolve problems through sex. Unlike other species which only mate at specific times during the female's cycle for reproductive purposes, bonobos - like humans - also do so for fun.