Earlier this month, a group of bonobos cared for by WSPA member society Les Amis des Bonobos undertook a remarkable journey. This is the first time that a sanctuary has attempted to reintroduce bonobos to the wild.
WSPA’s Dr Nick de Souza, welfare adviser to the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, was lead vet for the reintroduction.
Alongside the sanctuary team, he travelled to a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo with the bonobos most ready for release: males Mbano, Lomela, Beni, Lomami, Kubulu and Max, and females Lukaya, Lisala and Etumbe.
The journey begins!
Nick, fellow vet Dr Marie-Laure Doppajne and the bonobos (in transport cages) boarded a specially adapted plane at Kinshasa airport on 14 June. A second plane carried the rest of the team, including Lola ya Bonobo founder Claudine Andre.
Like humans, bonobos can be bad flyers. For the nervous, a mild tranquillizer mixed with honey was applied to the lower lip.
Nick told us: “The flight was uneventful, although Itumbe, a heavily pregnant, extremely intelligent female, was quite anxious. She is extremely protective of her son, Mbano. But once she realised that the whole group was heading for the airport, she relaxed. This was a huge relief – her pregnancy means we cannot dose her too heavily with tranquillizers.”
On arrival in Basankusu, 20 police were needed to control hundreds of people who had gathered to welcome the bonobos! Nick noted that the causes of the fanfare – safely in their transport van – were unfazed by this rapturous welcome.
Yet more new experiences
The group then sailed up the Lopori River to a remote location. Flat-bottomed boats were laced together to form a platform for the transport cages.
Nick and Marie-Laure continued to observe and examine the apes en route. This reintroduction is a pioneering move and the animals’ welfare and reactions are carefully monitored.
“It's been a weird and wonderful trip,” Nick told us. “Although we've had our moments of stress, the translocation went very well. When we arrived we let the bonobos out of the cage one at a time so that they would have a chance to look around and settle in bit by bit.”
Preparations for the forest holding pen began in 2008. This stage enables the bonobos to become accustomed to their new surroundings gradually, where their welfare can be monitored.
Nick described their arrival: “The bonobos all seemed to thrill to the freedom of being back in the forest after the long journey. The little ones – like human children flinging themselves out of school at the end of the day – were visibly excited. They ran around, climbing trees, pulling off handfuls of leaves and hurling them down in sheer glee!”
Lisala proved herself the most adventurous, jumping out of the pen to explore. After some time alone, she was joined by Claudine, keen to make sure Lisala wasn’t overwhelmed.
Unwilling to be left out, Lukaya clambered up a palm tree and catapulted herself into the forest! There was relief all round when the daring females returned, apparently satisfied with their new surroundings.
On 15 June, the bonobos passed tests checking for tuberculosis.
By 19 June, all nine were roaming outside the pen quite confidently. After several nights in the wild they appeared to have overcome any nerves.
The group was also finding food – a skill they learned at the open spaces of the sanctuary and a promising sign that they are ready for the wild. For now, their new diet of forest fruits is being supplemented by bananas and oranges fed to them in the enclosure.
This is a necessary ploy – feeding them in the enclosure means the bonobos will coem in for medical and welfare checks during this period of adjustment.
A responsible reintroduction programme takes time. When the bonobos leave the holding pen for good, Ecoguard – a team of 12 trackers – will monitor them for a number of weeks as they establish themselves in the forest.
Nick hopes that the trackers will be accepted quickly – bonobo society is female dominated and, as an all male team, Ecoguard may take a little time to win their trust!
The greatest long-term challenge to the reintroduction is managing the relationship between the local population and the bonobos. The bushmeat and pet trades are the reason most bonobos end up in Lola ya Bonobo’s care in the first place.
But the signs are good. An animal welfare education programme has been running in the local area for over a year. Additionally, the sanctuary maintains constant contact with local chiefs and supports nearby schools.
Claudine, who is so dedicated to these apes, will stay on in the reintroduction area for as long as a month.