Making love, not war

02/14/2018

The bonobos of the Congo

Valentine’s Day is about much more than red roses, fancy chocolates, and heart-shaped balloons. February 14th has now also been named World Bonobo Day. The “day of love” is a particularly fitting date to celebrate these amorous apes. Bonobos belong to the same genus as chimpanzees, which means they are also among our closest living relatives. But despite the similarities in their outward appearance, common chimps and bonobos exhibit very different behaviour.

Lots of love – all year round!

Bonobos strive for harmony and avoid conflict. They resolve problems within their groups affectionately – through sex. The act of love enables the peace-loving primates to ease tensions and settle their differences. Unlike chimpanzee groups, bonobo communities are matriarchal. Females bond closely with one another and are not intimidated by the larger males, meaning that aggressive encounters are rare. What animal could be a better symbol for the day of love?

Visiting our forest cousins

Animal keeper Ruben Gralki lives at Zoo Berlin, where he is responsible for the apes. The bonobos are his particular favourite. As a long-standing member of the charity Bonobo Alive, he is also actively involved in protecting bonobos outside of his work for the Zoo. In 2015 he had the rare privilege of observing our endangered cousins in their natural habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He also got to meet the researchers working there and learn about their projects. To mark the first World Bonobo Day on 14 February 2018, he is sharing his experiences in this Zoo Berlin blog.

My journey to meet the bonobos

Thanks to Zoo Berlin’s partnership with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, I was given the rare opportunity to travel to the home of the bonobos. The apes are only found in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My destination, the LuiKotale research site, is located on the edge of Salonga National Park.

Arriving in the Congo

My journey to the research site took several days, and was memorable enough in itself. First I took a long-haul flight to Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, and spent one day in the city. Next, I travelled by a small charter plane into the interior along with a group of researchers from Switzerland, Spain, France and the United States – some of whom had been with me since Berlin. Immediately after take-off, we had amazing views of the River Congo, which at this point forms the border with the neighbouring Republic of the Congo. As the flight continued, the land down below became increasingly sparsely populated until there was nothing but rainforest, with the occasional river snaking its way through. Towards the end of the trip, patches of savannah started to emerge from the sea of dark green. We landed on a bumpy expanse of sandy ground and were greeted with a round of applause from a large group of locals from two nearby villages, Ipope and Lompole.

The village of Lompole

Without the support and cooperation of these villagers, the research project would not be able to exist. Local communities have signed use and occupation contracts granting the researchers access to areas of the forest where the bonobos live and agreeing not to hunt for food in those areas. The communities benefit from the money they get in return, and some of the villagers are employed at the camp, performing the various jobs needed to ensure the project’s successful operation – which include helping to protect the bonobo’s habitat. We spent a day in the village of Lompole, which allowed us to gain an impression of the lives people lead in this exotic location so far from “civilisation”. Groups of children followed us around the village, constantly asking us to take their photograph. Every photo subsequently shown on the monitor was greeted with uproarious laughter.
 

That first night was full of strange noises, and I slept badly. In the morning, I learned that the main culprits had been male hammer-headed bats, who cry out loudly at night. Regardless of how tired I was, we now had to tackle the final stage of our journey to reach the research site – a walk of around 25 kilometres. We traversed two patches of savannah before taking a narrow path through dense rainforest. We crossed smaller rivers by wading or stepping across logs, but we had to use the dug-out canoe to make it across the larger River Lokoro. After that, we remained in the boat to navigate a flooded part of the forest, before finally reaching the clearing where the camp is situated.

The camp

The LuiKotale research site provides long-term accommodation for up to 20 people – foreign researchers, and workers from the neighbouring villages. The camp consists of several huts that are used either as store rooms, as work space, or to give the sleeping tents added protection from the elements. In the middle of the camp is an open-sided hut (a standard construction around here) furnished with a large table. This is where the camp inhabitants get together to eat, relax, work on the computer, or discuss important topics. Everything in the camp is made of various woods and palm leaves. The toilets and showers are situated at the edge of the clearing.
  

Conditions at the camp are very basic, and yet it has everything its occupants need. The river provides water for drinking and washing, while food comes from the village. Rice and bread made from cassava form the basis of most meals. This cassava bread, known as “kwanga”, is an acquired taste, and eating it remained a challenge for me throughout my stay – to put it mildly! But there was also a variety of fruits and vegetables, and a fisherman regularly brought us freshly caught fish. We had a – somewhat irregular – electricity supply thanks to solar panels, and with the help of a large antenna we were even able to receive and send
e-mails. Upon arrival at the camp, we were shown around and familiarised with the routine. Next, we received instructions on how to conduct ourselves when out in the forest and in the presence of the bonobos. The study area has a designated network of marked paths, but a compass and GPS equipment are still essential tools. That was one of the many things I was to learn for myself. The other essential items for any trip into the forest were: a mask; a head torch; secateurs; string; a first-aid kit; replacement batteries; binoculars; and plenty of drinking water. I would soon find out why all these things were necessary.

Two bonobo groups are regularly tracked in the forest around LuiKotale. Since the members of each group also move around within variously constituted smaller groups, the researchers cannot always be sure of the whereabouts of each animal. After several years of regular visits by humans, the bonobos have got used to their presence (a process known as “habituation”). They now allow the researchers to get relatively close without markedly altering their behaviour. But in order to avoid infecting the apes with disease, the researchers keep at least seven metres away and wear masks over their mouths. If a researcher is sick, he or she must remain at the camp.
The researchers observe the bonobos until late in the afternoon, when the apes start building themselves a nest for the night out of twigs and leaves, high up in the trees. The researchers know they are likely to find them in the same place next morning. They tie a thin piece of string from the nesting trees to the nearest path through the forest. Compasses and GPS provide additional assistance in finding the path the next day.

Observing the bonobos

The first shift starts early. The researchers on duty make their way through the forest when it’s still dark, lamps on their foreheads. The time the alarm goes off depends on how far the bonobos’ current sleeping quarters are from the camp. The experienced researchers walk quickly through the forest, as they are familiar with the paths. In this climate, almost any activity makes you sweat immediately. I quickly got out of breath, and I soon had blisters on my feet as my shoes were not yet adequately worn in. This typical beginner’s error was to plague me over the following weeks. With the help of the string that had been tied the previous evening, we found the bonobo’s lofty dormitories before the first individual awoke. I couldn’t help but wonder what the bonobos must think of these strange people showing up under their beds every morning with bright lights attached to their heads.

Almost all research topics require the researchers to be able to distinguish between individual bonobos. As these people spend a lot of time following the apes around when they are walking on the ground, and staring up at them when they are sitting in the trees, more often than not their view is from behind. That means that they can more easily identify the bonobos by their bottoms than by their faces. Another distinguishing characteristic is that adult females have very different breast sizes. And yet, as a newcomer to the team, it took me several weeks to reliably identify the individual apes. With the dense foliage, you rarely get a clear view.
And once you do have a clear idea of who’s who, it’s important to be on your toes. When an ape gets up in the morning and urinates over the edge of the nest, bonobo researchers don’t run for cover. Instead, they race out with a pipette and a tube to collect it from the leaves. The hormones present in the urine provide vital information for a variety of research topics.

Many research areas investigate the bonobos’ social behaviour. But if you have a romantic notion of observing animals in the wild, let me tell you how it really is! Following the bonobos for several kilometres a day over rough terrain and through thick vegetation, usually in very hot and humid weather, is a real test of fitness and stamina. While the bonobos scurry nimbly and almost noiselessly through the thick undergrowth, their human pursuers have trouble keeping up. And then there are all the insects that constantly bug you, in every sense of the word.

I can’t help but think that the basic and somewhat cramped conditions at the camp would start to take their toll over nine months – which is the length of time some researchers spend here. But every time I found myself tangled up once again in vegetation and lost sight of the bonobos, I was just glad to discover them again. I had the luxury of simply observing everything around me, without the need to pursue a research topic. Over time, the researchers develop a sense of what direction the apes are headed in, and the secateurs help them progress without causing too much disturbance. Those that have been working out there for a while also learn to read tracks and identify noises.

In the early afternoon there’s a change of shift. During the hottest time of the day, the bonobos usually take a long break, and the team uses this opportunity to send the coordinates to the camp via satellite phone. The late-shift team members back at the camp are expecting the message, and soon set off. Usually, the handover runs pretty smoothly. If the bonobos are on the move, the researchers communicate their whereabouts with calls. While the early-shift team heads back to camp, the late-shift researchers continue to follow the bonobos until evening, when the nest-building begins again. Bonobos call to one another as they make their beds. These “nest calls” can be roughly translated as, “Good night! I’m building my nest here.” Once the bonobos have settled, it’s time for the researchers to head back to camp. Again, the duration of the walk home is determined by the location of the bonobo’s nesting site. Darkness falls quickly here, so researchers often need their headlamps for the homeward journey.

Thoughts and impressions

Because I work with bonobos in the zoo, I had certain expectations of how the apes would behave in the wild. Much of what I saw on my trip was familiar to me, but there were also several surprises. For example, I couldn’t understand how the bonobos made decisions on what direction to take. They seemed able to agree without even necessarily being able to see each other. If I, on the other hand, didn’t keep an eye on my compass, I would often end up losing my bearings. I was also surprised by how calm the smaller groups of bonobos remained when they reunited after several days of separation. In fact, all social contact between the apes seemed less frequent and less intensive than I was accustomed to witnessing from the bonobos in the zoo.
I came to love that moment in the early morning when we would wait under the bonobos’ nests and experience the forest waking up. I was also delighted on those rare occasions when I got a really clear view of the bonobos – when the group took a break, for example. The adults would rest on the ground or a fallen tree, while the young would take the opportunity to play together.

Of course, there was more to see in the forest than just bonobos. We regularly heard other primates like colobus monkeys, guenons and mangabeys complaining loudly about the presence of humans in their home. Often, duikers would dart into the undergrowth right before our eyes, and I twice came across a group of red river hogs. Butterflies fluttered all around us, and our ears were filled with the constant, unforgettable symphony created by countless birds and insects.
The Congo Basin is also home to a forest-dwelling species of elephant. Although I regularly came across proof of their presence in the form of dung, I didn’t spot a single elephant. I couldn’t understand how such large animals were able to hide, but was secretly relieved not to be confronted by them. The researchers usually only see the elephants, leopards and many other species that live here on the cameras dotted around the study area.

I have worked with the bonobos at Zoo Berlin for many years now, and am very familiar with the species. I have also read a lot about them. But following their fellows in the wild – seeing them in their natural habitat and observing their daily routine – was an experience that no book could ever replicate.
The forest seemed idyllic – but, sadly, appearances can be deceptive. The Congolese rainforest is under threat, and bonobos are at terrible risk from commercial poaching. So it was reassuring for me to see that here, at least, the bonobos and many other animal species are being offered long-term protection thanks to the research site, the collaboration with locals, and the excellent work being carried out by the anti-poaching patrol units from Bonobo Alive.

I was able to witness one of these units – made up of villagers and rangers from the Congolese nature conservation authorities – as they set out on a multi-day patrol. Their mission is to prevent illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade – at least in the zone they cover, which includes and extends beyond the study area. But the patrols and accompanying conservation measures not only have to be organised, financed and conducted, they also have to be monitored to evaluate their effectiveness. During my stay at the camp, a Dutch researcher named Joost Van Schijndel initiated a research project to do just that. I was therefore delighted to recently hear that initial findings are in and that they suggest that the patrols are indeed having a positive effect on biodiversity in the areas covered.

Interview with primatologist Dr Gottfried Hohmann

In order to gain an idea of what the researchers at the camp are doing, and how their work helps protect bonobos, we also spoke with primatologist Dr Gottfried Hohmann, who led the bonobo research group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology before (supposedly) going into retirement. Hohmann also established the LuiKotale research site and founded the charity Bonobo Alive. He has been observing wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for around 30 years and still plays an active role in efforts to protect these wonderful apes in their natural habitat.

Could you share with us one or two personal highlights from your work?
The most incredible moment for any primatologist is when you develop a connection with wild primates. The first time a bonobo stretches out in your presence, yawns and closes its eyes, you feel this remarkable moment of closeness between ape and human. From a scientific perspective, our discovery that female bonobos hunt and share the spoils with others was certainly a highlight. It took a long time for this discovery to be accepted and taken up in the relevant literature. But that finding gave us a whole new perspective in a field that remains male-dominated to this day.
Our primate keeper Ruben Gralki told us about an exciting study into bonobo conservation efforts. Some findings from this study were published recently. Could you briefly explain what the objective was and how the relevant data were collected?
For many years now, Bonobo Alive has been organising patrols that track down poachers and trappers. Poaching represents the greatest threat to bonobos and other wild animals, and it needs to be countered with all available means. Unfortunately, success in this area has been modest to date, and it is difficult to quantify. The anti-poaching patrols are financed exclusively by donations made to Bonobo Alive, which made it even more important to us to find out if the work carried out by the patrols was having the desired effect. To do so, we spent more than a year collecting data on the number and variety of wild animals present in different areas of the forest. We set up camera traps that automatically snapped pictures every time something moved within the field of view. In this way, we were able to capture images of timid, nocturnal animals that are not usually seen, as well as the more common species. The study was designed in such a way that the findings can be extrapolated to a larger area. The central focus of the study was a comparison of figures from three different areas. One was the well-protected study area around LuiKotale; the second was the larger zone patrolled by anti-poaching units; and the third was an area of a similar size where there are no researchers and no conservationists. Analysis of such datasets is complicated, as many factors have to be taken into account. All the results obtained so far have found that the size of wild animal populations depends to a large degree on how often an area is patrolled. The more frequently patrols comb an area, the more animals there are and the more biodiversity there is. That means that the investments made by Bonobo Alive and its donors have paid off! It is wonderful to be able to report on study results such as these. The results also show us that we have a responsibility to keep going – to enhance the teams in terms of personnel and equipment, to expand the area of operations, etc.
What role does scientific research play for your charity Bonobo Alive, and what significance do zoos have for your work?
The scientists who work for Bonobo Alive and the LuiKotale Bonobo project in DRC are very privileged. They watch the bonobos every day in the knowledge that their presence in the forest is protecting the bonobos and other wild animals. Of course, it’s also a very emotional experience for these individuals: being so close to the bonobos and spending so much time with them blurs the boundaries between “them” and “us”. But these personal experiences quite rightly play a minor role in the scientific research being carried out. Our work also requires the commitment of people who can spread the word about conservation far and wide, and this is a role that zoos and their staff fulfil perfectly. Zoos have an explicit mandate to conserve threatened species. Bonobo Alive is the ideal interface for those activities. Of course, it’s important to generate funding, but we also want to give people who have dedicated their lives to caring for apes the opportunity to see the animals in the wild and to gain some ideas for what zoos may be able to do to ensure that apes in captivity get to experience conditions that recall the lifestyles of their fellows in the wild.
Thank you very much for this insight into your working life. We wish you continued success!

If this report has fascinated you as much as it did us, do spare a thought for the amorous apes next Valentine’s Day – or perhaps on a wedding day or a loved one’s birthday – and give a gift that goes a little deeper. A contribution to saving our endangered cousins is sure to leave a more lasting impression than flowers or chocolates. You can help bonobos by sponsoring one of the bonobos at Zoo Berlin or making a donation to Bonobo Alive.

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