A Congolese woman’s passion for rescuing bonobos, a member of the great ape family with close genetic ties to both humans and chimpanzees, has generated support throughout the world, including North County.
Two local women, Debbie Sandler and Ashley Stone, sit on the board of Friends of the Bonobos, a nonprofit group that supports the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC.
Claudine André, founder of Lola Ya Bonobo, was in San Diego recently, and met with a reporter to discuss her work, the plight of the bonobos, and the organization’s efforts.
Lola Ya Bonobo was founded in 1994 to rescue orphaned bonobos whose mothers were killed by poachers involved in the bush meat trade, in which exotic animals are slaughtered for their meat, which is then sold illegally for thousands of dollars.
“It’s a business,” said André. “They can make a lot of money.”
At the sanctuary, located on 75 acres near the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, the orphans are raised until adulthood, then released to the wild in a remote section of the country. André plans her third bonobo release this summer. The sanctuary houses about 75 bonobos.
On April 23, a French documentary about André and her work, called “Beny: Back to the Wild,” will be released in English in the United States. After a premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center, the film will be available for streaming on Netflix, said Sandler, of Solana Beach.
“Her story is about to become well-known in the U.S.,” said Sandler, who has visited the bonobo sanctuary in the DRC twice, in 2012 and 2015. Her passion, said Sandler, is education and advocacy for the bonobos, which are found in the wild only in the DRC, and are listed as an endangered species.
Stone, of La Jolla, also is involved in advocacy, and has founded a new nonprofit, The Bonobo Project, to raise awareness about the animal’s plight and generate support for Lola Ya Bonobo and other conservation groups. Stone also has visited the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary.
“The bonobo is, in my opinion, the underdog of all apes,” said Stone, because there are so few animals left in the wild (estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000), and they are not as familiar to people as the other great apes, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
Along with public education, said Stone, she hopes the new group will be able to convene annual summits for bonobo stakeholders, and strengthen ties with the San Diego Zoo, which is one of only seven zoos in the U.S. with a bonobo collection.
The five-member Bonobo Project board includes Kim Livingstone, lead keeper for the San Diego Zoo’s primate department, and Jingzhi Tan, a postdoctoral associate with Duke University, who has conducted research at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary.
According to the World Wildlife Fund website, bonobos are smaller, darker and leaner than chimpanzees. Their groups are considered more peaceful than chimpanzees, and they are led by females.
Therefore, said Stone and Sandler, bonobo society can serve as an inspiration for humans, their close genetic relatives.
“I believe bonobos offer hope to humanity, because they resolve their conflicts peacefully,” said Stone.
As André has pursued her work with the bonobos, she has enlisted the aid of Congolese people, seeking to educate them not to use bonobos as a source of food or keep them as pets. To encourage their cooperation, she said, her nonprofit has provided schoolbooks, medicine and agricultural assistance, and has also hired locals to track the animals after they are released into the wild, and to undertake anti-poaching patrols.
André and her husband, who runs a transport business, have five children, and her daughter, an attorney, recently took over daily operations of Lola Ya Bonobo. “We have an alliance of females, like the bonobos,” she said.
The release site, called Ekolo Ya Bonobo, is several hundred miles north of the sanctuary. To reach it, André and her staff must fly partway, then complete the final portion of the journey by canoe on the Congo River.
Although the DRC has suffered from armed conflict between government forces and insurgents over past decades, André said most of the fighting is confined to the eastern part of the country, near Rwanda. Travel to the release site is not dangerous, she said.
Efforts to preserve the bonobos are important not just for them, but for humans, too, said Sandler: “We need to keep these guys around so we can continue to learn from these apes.”
For information about Lola Ya Bonobo, visit lolayabonobo.org. For information about The Bonobo Project, visit bonoboproject.org.