Solana Beach resident holding events featuring expert on endangered bonobos

By Karen Billing

Solana Beach resident Debbie Sandler is continuing her efforts to raise awareness for endangered bonobos, co-sponsoring several local events where the public can meet Claudine André, a conservation expert on the species.

Since 1994, André has run Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is making a stop in San Diego on a rare tour of the west coast and will participate in two events held in Carmel Valley and Solana Beach.

“With no formal education in primatology or any other animal science she is an unexpected candidate to achieve landmark accomplishments for one of the great ape species,” wrote Julie Scardina and Jeff Flocken in the book “Wildlife Heroes,” a book that profiled 40 leading conservationists and the animals they seek to protect.

“She’s one of the angels of the world,” Sandler said.

The first event where the public can meet the prominent bonobo activist will be a wine tasting reception hosted by the Sandlers on Thursday, Sept. 26, at Carruth Cellars on Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach from 7-9 p.m. Space is limited for Thursday’s wine tasting event, so please RSVP to the Sandlers at

to be included on the guest list. The evening will include a meet and greet with André, and samplings of Carruth’s artisan, boutique wines.

The second event will be a SeptemberFest Beerfest at Pacific Sports Resort (previously knows as the Pacific Athletic Club) in Carmel Valley on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 4-7 p.m. The event is a Saving the Wild Things event, raising funds for Friends of Bonobos. The SeptemberFest Beerfest will feature beers from Ballast Point Brewery, bites, live music and a presentation from André. There will also be an opportunity drawing on a trip to Lola ya Bonobo. Tickets to SeptemberFest are $25 in advance and $35 at the door. More information can be found at

Currently there are 65 bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo, the world’s only bonobo sanctuary. The number of bonobos left in the wild is unknown but it could be as little as 10,000.

The San Diego Zoo is one of only of seven in the United States to have bonobos in captivity. There are currently 12 bonobos in the group at the zoo.

The bonobo is one of the four great apes (which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), and the bonobos are the least known and the most rare.

As the bonobos live exclusively in the Congo there is a degree of difficulty for researchers obtaining access to the animals as much of the country has been engaged in conflict since 1998.

Bonobos and chimps are humans’ closest relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of human DNA.

Apes, like chimps, live in a male-dominated society with infanticide and war, but the bonobos are female dominated, they are more peaceful and sexual behavior is used as a way to resolve conflicts.

“They are important to protect because they provide a model, both socially and genetically, to show that it is possible for hominids to live without war,” Sandler said. “If bonobos go extinct, there will be no way for researchers to discover the exact mechanisms by which humans’ closest living relatives live in peace.”

Sandler met André at a Friends of Bonobos event in New York in August of 2012 and by October of that year Sandler was in Congo, visiting Lola, becoming more attached to the species and its plight.

André was first introduced to bonobos while serving as a volunteer at the Kinshasa Zoo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Originally from Belgium, André traveled to Congo when she was 3 years old with her father, a veterinarian. She returned to Belgium to complete her education, but moved back to the DRC to raise five children and run a luxury boutique of African art.

At the zoo, she learned that bonobos became orphaned when their mothers were killed in the bush meat trade and struggled to survive. When an orphan bonobo named Mikeno arrived at the zoo, André nurtured and saved that little ape and her life was forever changed, Sandler said.

In 1994, André acquired a 70-acre lush forest retreat that had previously been used by former Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. It became a safe place for bonobos to go.

As baby bonobos are extremely attached to their mothers for the first five years of their lives, easily traumatized and very fragile, they require special attention in the form of human volunteers at the sanctuary called “Mamas.” The Mamas raise the babies until they reach 5 or 6 years of age when they can join the other bonobos at Lola.

The first successful re-introduction of bonobos in the wild took place in 2009 and André is working on that as the next big step for the sanctuary, making sure the animals can survive in the wild.

At the Sept. 26 and 28 events, Sandler hopes people will attend to learn more about André’s compelling story and ways they can help save and raise awareness for these little- known apes.

For information on both events, e-mail Sandler at

Additionally, Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla will host André and “Wildlife Heroes” author Julie Scardina on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 4 p.m., for a presentation and book signing.

Pacific Sports Resort is located at 12000 Carmel Country Rd. San Diego, CA 92130.

For more information on Lola ya Bonobo, visit