Democratic Republic of Congo has higher diversity of great apes than any other country in the world. Along with humans there are at least four other species or subspecies in Congo. Of these, Grauer’s gorilla is found only in eastern D.R. Congo. The bonobo, also only in Congo, is limited to the left bank of the Congo River, including our TL2 studyarea and the future Lomami National Park.
Research and conservation efforts are minimal in Congo as compared to other Great Ape countries; and no wonder: in Congo conservation is built amidst insecurity, collapsed infrastructure and corruption. These discourage organizations from investing in conservation and, those who do so, are discouraged from any kind of field check. The field work becomes sort of mythical – does it really happen?
The fastest way to visit TL2: Charter plane to Dingele mission airstrip, 4-wheel vehicle over a road mainly used by bicycles(purple), motorbike beyond a nearly collapsed bridge (yellow), then dugout and foot in the future park (orange).
We were amazed and frankly dubious when Arcus Foundation and a second collaborating foundation told us that they were sending their top poeple to see the TL2 site and the work underway. Would they back down when faced with the cost, time requirements and the unavoidable administrative headaches? They did not. We had a short, fabulous visit at the beginning of September. Their heightened awareness allowed us, too, to see the Lomami wilderness in a new way.
Below are Andrew McAulay’s journal entries. Slobodan Randjelovic took most of the photos and John Fellowes added key identifications as well as a couple photos.
“It is 5am, it is pitch black and I am drenched in sweat, picking my way through dense rainforest underbrush. I am with a small team of nature enthusiasts and researchers, searching for an elusive group of 23 bonobos in the remote Tshuapa Lomami Lualaba (TL2) region, named after 3 rivers in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even by the light of our head torches, the recently cut path is barely discernible.
Two hours later, we come to a halt; dawn is rising and some of us turn off our torches. According to the GPS reading, taken the previous evening as the bonobos were preparing their night nests, they should be about 700 meters to the right, off the “path”. We split into two smaller groups of 5; fingers on lips, no more talking…and as we close in on our target, I find myself choking with emotion. I should have known this would happen.
Suddenly, hands are pointing toward the distant canopy. I try to follow with my eyes… and I catch a glimpse: first of branches swaying and then of a distant swinging silhouette. Urgent whispers are directed toward Slo, bearer of the enormous camera lens that has won him the status of designated team photographer. He is hustled to the front, where he crouches, steadies his lens and captures the perfect shot: an adult bonobo, perched in his nest in the tallest of trees, alert but calm. The great ape gazes directly at us for a while, then disappears from view – and we can see by the movement in the trees that he is descending to the forest floor. The group has decided to move on – and the chances of us being able to follow are slim; but our mission is accomplished and our hearts are happy.
Everything has led up to this moment. Our week’s journey – by commercial airline, charter plane, four wheel drive, motorcycle, pirogue (dugout canoe) and finally foot – feels like a wave that has reached a high point on shore – and now it is time to retrace our steps.”
Other photos along the Lomami River taken through Slobodan’s long lens:
Andrew and the rest of the delegation, Jon Stryker, Slobodan Randjelovic, Annette Lanjouw, and John Fellowes, spent their first two days in Congo at Lola ya Bonobo: a bonobo sanctuary on the outskirts of Kinshasa.
“In contrast to the chaos of heavily populated, semi-rural surroundings, the internationally acclaimed sanctuary is a serene oasis. Simple, elegant accommodation, where we stay the night, is set amidst tall trees and sanctuary buildings. A large termite mound is center stage and a beautiful river runs through the whole property…
In contrast to chimpanzees (not to mention humans), bonobos are relatively non-aggressive and non-hierarchical. They are famous for their sexual activity, which is prolific, multi-partnered and unrestrained by age or gender. Sex performs a complex, often diplomatic function within the community, being used to resolve disputes and maintain relationships….
In actual fact, I observe far less sexual activity than I expected. As we walk along the fence line an old male joins us. He was rescued from a laboratory where he was used for experiments. He keeps lagging back and then zooming up alongside us. He tends not to look at us but seems happy enough. At one point one of the staff asks him if he is happy and he gives us a grin of the type that indicates that he is. Watching him lope along, I comment aloud that I envy his mobility – whereupon he immediately performs a forward roll.….
The next morning is the treat of a lifetime: we get to spend a couple of hours playing with the babies! …Young orphaned bonobos are too sensitive to survive without a surrogate mother — a human…
Upon entering the bath house, Claudine is handed the youngest, Jillie, but Jillie has her sights set on me and is immediately reaching out. I take her in my arms and she snuggles close, her head nestled contentedly against my neck: bliss!
Beauty on the banks of the Lomami, Papilio zalmoxis, second largest of African butterflies.
For me, this trip reminds me of the main reasons for my interest in the protection of earth’s last remaining big, intact, wild places…. Leaving the more remote, ecologically intact areas
– as important seeds of resilience for the Earth in the future and
–(for) the spiritual carrying –capacity of nature. Where fewer thought-waves-and other historical impressions of disturbance are in the air, it is easier for the mind to become still. …to experience ..that the mind and the world, the inner and the outer, are one and the same… It is one thing to know this intellectually, but to experience the truth of it is to be transformed.
The real nature of a human being is truly awesome: ignorance of this is at the root of all our problems, because it makes us feel cut off from each other and from nature and denies us the fulfillment that is our birthright”