Our Kissing Cousins

A bold attempt to save the bonobos, one of our closest simian relatives.

Congo. Nightmare or paradise? The history is heartbreaking, almost unbearable, and yet Deni Béchard’s The Last Bonobo: A Journey into the Congo provides hope that paradise may reassert itself. The bonobo or Pan paniscus was assumed to be a chimpanzee until very recently, when close observation revealed dramatic differences. Where the chimpanzee is male dominant, warlike and rapacious, the bonobo is matriarchal. Alliances are made by females and a male’s rank depends on his mother’s. In fact, the bonobo is entirely unlike the chimpanzee, although both of them are so closely related to us that some researchers believe they should be classed in the Homo genus. Which do we most resemble? Known as the “make love not war” primate, the bonobo exhibits sexual behaviour that in every possible combination replaces aggression. Unrelated groups mingle instead of fighting. The species’ most striking achievement is not tool use or warfare but an evolved empathy. Can we learn from them?

Béchard’s interest in this question began with a visit to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in Washington DC, where he observed her work with the famous bonobo Kanzi who was using a keyboard and lexigrams to communicate. When necessary, Kanzi even combines and composes, asking for pizza by pointing to lexigrams of cheese, bread and tomato. And Kanzi understands complex spoken sentences. He makes stone tools. He builds fires and cooks. Savage-Rumbaugh puts it this way: “If Kanzi can learn a language, what can human beings learn? We can certainly learn how to get along.”

But Béchard’s book is not the place to discover Kanzi’s intellectual secrets or to indulge in vivid descriptions of bonobo intimacy, which involves all varieties of touching and kissing around greeting, appeasement, grooming, affection and resolution of conflict. Rather, the book is a fascinating account of Congolese political history and Béchard’s own journey into the Congo interior with a team that is involved in an unusual and perhaps revolutionary form of conservation. Sally Jewell Coxe and Michael Hurley manage the Bonobo Conservation Institute in Washington DC and the Democratic Republic of Congo simultaneously, flying in both directions, keeping offices in both places, communicating with staff over several time zones and taking small planes and smaller boats into the shrinking rainforest. This small organization has done more to save bonobos than any of its larger counterparts.

Tragically, the rainforest of the Congo is the only place bonobos survive, and they are being routinely decimated by soldiers who are slaughtering them for food and by villagers who are dislocated and hungry after 50 unending years of savage conflict. The bushmeat trade thrives where cassava fields have been abandoned. And the Congo rainforests, crucial to preventing more climate change, are also extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Kinshasa, the chaotic city once called Leopoldville, is fuelled by a postwar rush for minerals. The Chinese are building highways into the interior while the Congolese wear rags and go hungry and gangs roam the city streets. Without adequate health care, HIV is rampant. Only five percent of the population earns a salary. With this kind of poverty (exceeded only in Bangladesh), the rainforest and its inhabitants are fatally vulnerable and the last living bonobos are quickly disappearing.

Sally Jewell Coxe believes there are two basic approaches to conservation. One is essentially colonial: outsiders come in and secure exclusive property and establish rules and priorities. Reserves are established and people kept out. Policing is required in order to keep down poaching and the exiled inhabitants of the area are in conflict with its new creed. The other design, the one being tried by the Bonobo Conservation Institute, is inclusive, respecting local communities and their values and creating protective reserves that include human villages.

BCI began its work by contacting the Bongandu, an ethnic group that has historically respected, even protected, the bonobo. In Kinshasa, at the BCI office, a map shows 15 conservation areas under development within the bonobo habitat. This complex interrelationship of people and places is a matter of life or death for the bonobos and for the forest itself, since the reserves protect the entire ecosystem that creates balance between flora and fauna, including human beings. The most impressive parts of Béchard’s story are, in fact, his tender accounts of the African men and women involved in this creative project along with a wonderfully clear and concise review of Congolese political history. It is the story of conflict, savage murder, occasional appeasement and resolution, all of it human.

Arriving with BCI in the village, it all seemed fairly simple to me. But I was seeing a system they had spent a decade building; of camps with a clinic, generators and solar panels, and communication via radio; of trackers and local conservationists BCI had educated, funded, and supplied. On each of their visits they left most of what they brought: tools, tarps, generators, and electrical cords, as well as boots and ponchos, bags of batteries and flashlights. And though the mud huts of Yetee struck me as impoverished, ten years before the village had been destitute, with no livestock, its cassava fields gone. The Congo had just emerged from a war that killed the majority of its five and a half million victims through starvation and disease; it was a place where, if you happened on a village, a man might come out to greet you, wrapped in a tattered cloth, and then go back inside and give the cloth to his naked wife so that she could present herself.

Kokolopori is a region hungrier than most and farther from markets and outside support. But in the BCI Kokolopori bonobo reserve, local villagers have allocated certain areas of the forest for protection and other areas for agriculture. They rotate their fields, making efforts to avoid deforestation. Some hunting is allowed within the reserve because it is the traditional source of livelihood and nourishment and BCI respects Congolese traditions, tribal boundaries and economic needs. Béchard notes that “in working with the Congolese to preserve their forests, conservationists must know exactly what they are asking in each instance, in each distinct place and community, always being conscious of the economic stakes for local people, and they must forge common goals if conservation is to succeed.”

Béchard, a native of British Columbia, has been to many parts of the world and reported on human culture extensively. Hoping for a book about bonobo society and culture, about our affinity with the empathic creatures so closely related to us, I was initially disappointed. But here, Béchard describes a new kind of human effort that is every bit as fascinating as the bonobo social contract. I read The Last Bonobo with increasing interest and excitement. Good news well told is always more than welcome.