From Kinshasa Oasis to Lomami Wilderness: Reflections on a Visit with Bonobos

A siesta at Lola _SR photo
Bonobo takes a break at Lola ya Bonobo

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.

portraits of JonS and JohnH by the Lomami

Jon Stryker (left) and John Hart in bonobo country on the banks of the Lomami

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?

Map of the visit to the future Lomami National Park
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.

landing in KatakoKombe
They landed at the Dingele mission airstip, after a local team widened and lengthened the usable landing area;

looking over the hood east of Katakokomne
A 4-wheel-drive toyota bounced along a narrow path where work crews had spent the previous week levelling and filling the most impossible ruts;

pushing bikes over flimsy bridge
But finally everyone changed to motorbike for the last 50 km because of a bridge too rickety for anything heavier.

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.

early morning bonobo watching in TL2
In the early morning light Andrew peers into the canopy with Wagoma next to him, equally excited and ready to point out bonobo.

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.

In the future Lomami National Park_a bonobo
A Lomami-forest bonobo observes us briefly.

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.

portrait of Annette eating sugar cane on Lomami
Annette in dugout returning to camp.

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.”

Maps and methods at Katopa copy
Looking at maps in the evening at base camp

Other photos along the Lomami River taken through Slobodan’s long lens:

African fish eagle taken from dugout
African fishing eagle

white-thighed hornbill along the Lomami
White-thighed Hornbill

red tailed C. ascanius in camp
Red-tailed monkeys swung over camp.

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.

portrait of Slo on back of motorbike
A self-portrait by Slo on the back of a motorbike to our Katopa camp

portrait Claudine on road from KatakoKombe
Claudine André, the founder of Lola ya Bonobo, accompanies the other visitors to our camp on the Lomami.

“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…

Curiosity and trouble_youngster at Lola
Bonobos from Lola ya Bonobo
an unambiguous pronouncement

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….

Conjugal pileup with junior in the middle_SR
Conjugal pile up at Lola ya Bonobo – Junior still riding Mom’s back in the centre

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.….

a look of experience
An older bonobo at Lola

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…

Portrait of Andrew with a Lola orphan
Andrew and wee little Jillie

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!
Giant Blue Swallowtail-P.zalmoxis
Beauty on the banks of the Lomami, Papilio zalmoxis, second largest of African butterflies.

portrait of JohnF concentrating on an ant
John Fellowes , our group’s observor of insects (more ubiquitous than bonobos) and particularly ants

a beloved formicid
John F. identified this as the weaver ant, Oecophylla longinoda annectens. The name, John explains, is from its nest of leaves woven together with glue squeezed from their larvae.

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.

Taking a stroll with Mom at Lola_SR
Mother bonobo carrying young one at Lola ya Bonobo

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”

A greeting at Lola ya Bonobo
A greeting at Lola ya Bonbo


  1. Holly Johnston
    Posted 2013-11-15 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Thank you.

    Humanity needs to know the truth of us. We have looked for the peace – that is our birthright – in all the wrong places, for generations.

    The truth will set us free.


  2. Posted 2013-11-28 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your experiences in Lomami and Lola, near Kinshasa. In spite of all the problems you mentioned DRC well deserves the efforts of international community to keep its extraordinary wildlife and the well being of its people.
    Great post!

  3. Posted 2015-01-11 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Comments are very scarce. Onlookers are many. You easily find helpers. I write as a citizen. Not an elected or appointed official. I salute your concern for DRCongo’ s fauna, but the question is what do Congolese, at home and abroad, really think about this search. It seems to me, the priority, what would’ve come first, is the proper organization of authority in DRCongo. Your knowledge of DRC could enable you to identify alienated spheres of social life for a basis of the organization of authority : Territories related to precolonial Tribes in DRC. If you heard mumbles implying claims, the total lack of a convenient organization of authority must have been the cause. This change in form would never be a hindrance to your work, especially the search for bonobos. All I’ d suggest, is recognizing rights as far as land is concerned : status rights, use rights and the cadaster and other institutions could be established for keeping these rights. It’ s part of reforms that I’ ve been suggesting. We see surveyors painting trees in the process of delimiting the Lomami Park, helpers cutting down Khaya ( Acajou ) tree just for a new dugout, etc. Some of you for instance, Ashton, have teams. He’ s an organizer. But there’s some formality lacking in all this. Many feel alienated. Traditional authorities and many people who could have a say feel their rights are, somehow, being trampled upon. I hope soon there will be an improved transportation network and resilient cities in Democratic Republic of Congo. Thanks for the concern. I am not insensitive, but for me, the people of DRCongo come first.

    Paterne Murhula Bashengezi

    P.S. Convey my greetings and best wishes to Rebecca. I saw her pictures.

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