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Searching for Bonobos

  • 11/21/08
  • Paul

The guides haven't seen bonobos in about three months. But we went into the Lomako forest anyway and I thought at least we'll get some good exercise and fresh rain forest air.

Little did I know what I was in for.

At the AWF bonobo research and conservation center in the Congo's Lomako Reserve, scouts go out each day and walk transects through the Reserve to record sightings and signs of bonobos. They record other species, too - black manageys, red-tailed monkeys, red river hogs, forest duikers, pangolins, golden cats, and others. They look for snares and nets, hunting camps, burning, and poachers.

[caption id="attachment_249" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Scouts looking for signs of bonobos."]Scouts looking for signs of bonobos.[/caption]

For 4 hours we trekked through the forest. The scouts were carefully scanning the ground for signs and listening for calls. I was equally focused... on the mud, mosquitoes, intense humidity, slippery logs, and attacking ants in pants.

[caption id="attachment_246" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The dense tropical forest of Lomako."]The forest of Lomako - searching for bonobos.[/caption]

The scouts found remnants of Haumania shoots - an herbaceous plant eaten by bonobos. They were from this morning and we got excited that we might be close. We left the trail and went into the thick of the forest, crawling through vines and stinging nettles.

It was amazing to see how the three scouts spread out in search of signs and communicated with each other through whistles and hand gestures.

[caption id="attachment_247" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Fresh signs: discarded Haumania shoots. But where were the bonobos?"]Fresh signs of bonobos: discarded Haumania shoots.[/caption]

At one point we stopped to wait near an Antiaris tree (a flowering tree favored by bonobos). I spread out my rain jacket and sat with Jolie - the Congolese reporter with us to help raise visibility in national media. Within minutes clouds overhead completely darkened the forest and that pre-thunder storm feeling filled the air.

For over an hour we sat huddled on a log under intense rain. People do strange things when soaking wet in the jungle. To entertain ourselves, Jolie and I practiced French and English. I spent most of the time trying to pronounce beurre (butter) and learning how to say "I don't speak French," while she quickly picked up finger nail, cheek, armpit and other obscure anatomy.

[caption id="attachment_250" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Another friend of the forest."]Another friend of the forest.[/caption]

It was 4:30, getting dark, and still raining. We decided to head back to camp. No bonobos for me today. I knew the chances of seeing wild bonobos were slim, so I tried not to be disappointed.

But we didn't go far before we heard the unmistakable alarm chirp of a bonobo! Trying not to fall over each other from excitement, we searched the canopy above us for the source of the call.

Far above us was a single male bonobo, anxiously looking down at us from the fork of a tree. As it got darker he was little more than a silhouette, but I managed to get a shot and record his call.

[caption id="attachment_251" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="A wild bonobo!"]A wild bonobo![/caption]

Click here to listen to a recording of the bonobo's vocalization.

The bonobo was clearly uneasy. But why? Despite the protection brought by the establishment of the Reserve, are people hunting them? We could only speculate.

To reassure him that we pose no threat, the scouts stooped over and tore leaves and twigs. This mock foraging behavior has been successfully used in the habituation of apes elsewhere.

Much larger than the monkeys we have seen (bonobos are almost the size of chimps), he still gracefully maneuvered through branches in the canopy. We got an extra bonus when he let us follow him to his nest - a large, leafy platform in the crook of a tree.

He tossed some branches around, then settled in and peeped down at us. We left him in peace and returned to camp.

No amount of biting ants or pouring rain could darken our moods!


Paul
About the Author

Paul began with AWF based in Nairobi for a year, before moving to Washington DC. Paul has worked at the Madrid Aquarium and at The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Paul received his B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. He is a member of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leadership initiative and is working on a conservation campaign to combat the illegal trade of Asian pangolins. Paul enjoys photography, travel, hikes in the woods, music, and nyama choma.

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