Panama-based Christian Ziegler specializes in nature photography. His exclusive photos of bonobos appear in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic, illustrating The Left Bank Ape, written by David Quammen. In this blog post for News Watch, Ziegler portrays Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for bonobos orphaned by hunters who took their mothers for bushmeat. Here in the grounds of a former country club on the edge of Kinshasa, human “mamas” act as surrogate mothers for baby bonobos, giving them the love and stimulation essential for them to survive. Look at Ziegler’s bonobo photos in National Geographic and more of his photography on his website www.natur.de/.
By Christian Ziegler
My first encounter with bonobos happened in a place called Lola ya Bonobo, which translates to “paradise of the bonobos,” an island of forest in an ocean of houses on the outskirts of Kinshasa. I had come to the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph bonobos, our closest living relatives. Not knowing if I would ever be able to see one of these secretive apes in the wild, I visited this sanctuary to get a feel for what I was looking for, an introduction.
Lola ya bonobo is indeed a paradise for the bonobos, many of which came here as orphans after a long and terrible journey. Hunting bonobos is illegal in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only country where our closest cousins live in the wild, deep in the rain forests of the Congo basin. Yet high prices paid for “specialty bush meat” in restaurants in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, and quite possibly as well in Paris and Brussels, encourage poaching of these apes for sick hedonistic pleasure.
Lola yo bonobo consists of the forest grounds of a former country club with has been divided into three large enclosures, in which bonobo groups roam freely. Claudine Andre, the founder of Lola ya Bonobo and president of the NGO Friends of the Bonobos of Congo, has dedicated her life to the rescue of orphaned bonobos. Any individual who gets confiscated comes to Lola, where a team of veterinarians, keepers, and “mamas” give them a safe and healthy home. Adult bonobos are integrated into existing groups after receiving the medical attention they need, while babies and juveniles, the age group most frequently confiscated, are assigned to a human mama. Bonobos stay very closely with their mothers until they are six years and older, and the human mamas do just that. From daybreak to sundown, the youngsters hang out together, along with their mamas. Without this intense attention, baby bonobos get depressed and die, Claudine tells me.
Some bonobos have arrived here after years of miserable existence. My best friend was Timbo, who had spent seven years in a cage barely his size in a bar in Kinshasa. His body is covered with cigarette burn scars. Many other adults have equally terrible histories. Now in Lola, Timbo is a happy member of a group of a dozen bonobos. While I was in the enclosure, he volunteered as my guardian, protecting me from the other bonobos when they got too excited and interested in playing.
My visit to Lola ya bonobo was my introduction to the bonobos, and helped me understand just how similar these apes are to ourselves. It breaks my heart to know that these creatures are still hunted for meat in much of their range, while we know almost nothing about their lives in the wild. Bonobos need our help, in the wild, and at places like Lola ya bonobo. Thank you Claudine.