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Stress with siblings (December 12, 2022)

All Great apes need many years to grow up and the common pattern is that females gives birth to another infant when the older one has already reached an advanced stage of independence. Yet, even when infants no longer need maternal support for transport and nutrition, their social dependency is likely to remain for a longer time. There is anecdotal evidence from nonhuman primates suggesting that older offspring may show signs of frustration. From humans it is well known that what parents consider a “joyful event” turns into a traumatic experience for the older sibling. A recent study found that for immature bonobos, the arrival of a sibling is associated with considerable stress. While observations did not reveal any changes of behavioral profiles of the immature individuals, measures of urine samples showed a massive increase in the stress hormone cortisol. At the same time, the concentration of a marker indicating a reduced immune competence declined. It is no surprise that the birth of another infant is associated with some loss of maternal effort to the older offspring. The finding that wild primates react with permanently increased stress in their late adolescence was unexpected. It is no secret that for humans and animals, chronic stress makes sick and, in extreme cases, can cause irreversible physical and mental damage. For wild animals however, the birth of a sibling is a normative event and it takes up to seven years until the mother gives birth to another baby. At this age, young bonobos no longer need assistance for transport and are quite capable of finding food on their own. Why adolescent bonobos react so sensitively is not yet known. One possible explanation is that the steep rise of the stress hormone prepares the organism for future events – a stress test under maternal supervision, so to speak. This could prepare the offspring for future stress events and trigger mechanisms that help to cope with physical stressors.

Picture 1: Ekopi (right side) is four years older than his brother Elenge (middle) and both will depend for many years from the support of their mother Evimba (left side). (courtesy Kevin Lee, LKBP). .

An educational approach to improve the living conditions of forest communities
(November 08, 2022)

Dense rainforest as far as the eye can see. This is what the aerial view looks like when you approach the Salonga National Park by plane. When the plane starts its descent, sandy patches become visible. What you see are tiny villages that are scattered in the dense green of the seemingly endless forest. The settlements in the vicinity of Salonga are a cosmos of their own. The people live without electricity, water comes from a nearby creek and what they need to live comes from the forest and nearby fields. Parents stick to the traditional way of life. It determines land rights, the sharing of prey and a catch of fish, allocates privileges and regulates the social and economic relations of the village community. For young people, this leaves few options. Either they join the queue of older siblings that decides how much of the family’s land belongs to them, or they follow the widely branched relatives and move to neighboring villages. Many young people would like to learn or study a profession, the only prospect of paid employment. The prerequisite for being accepted by a college or vocational school is a state diploma. Every year, finalists from all over the country apply to take the exam, and in the big cities the event is celebrated by pupils and parents. In the villages, the annual test is also an important event, since the certificate of the “diplom d’etat” is the key to an apprenticeship. But participation costs money, a requirement that not every family is able to meet. There is another weakness of the payment system: not every successful exam reflects the performance of the pupil. In a society where barter transactions are common, there is an unspoken expectation that the certificate will be guaranteed when the payment is made. Yet, in spite of such flaws, the value of the paper remains, because nothing works without. This year substantial support for the education program provided by Bonobo Alive to schools in the buffer zone of Salonga came from “Rettet den Regenwald e. V.” (Save the Rainforest,), an association that is committed to helping those who live in and from the forest. Worldwide, plantations, mining and farming are threatening the last remaining rainforests, and without the continued commitment of “Rettet den Regenwald e. V.” and other conservation organizations, the loss of natural forest resources would be far greater than it already is. For many people, forests are the basis of life and sustainable use is the best way to protect tropical rainforests. People who have lived there for generations have a vested interest in preserving their habitat. Paving paths for young people out of the forest can help to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of forest communities and, at the same time, buffer against increasing pressures on natural resources.

Picture 1: Participants of this years examination at the village of Ipope (Tommaso Manzoni, LKBP).

Congo basin in a changing world: how endangered is Africa’s largest forest ?
(October 09, 2022)

The Salonga National Park is not the only protected area on the African continent but the largest one when it comes to tropical rainforest. While other forests in the Congo Basin are more or less threatened by agriculture, oil drilling and mineral extraction, the 36.000km² large Salonga National Park in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) seems to be a relatively safe place. Thanks to the efforts by national authorities, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and IUCN, plans to cut wood or drill for oil currently has been banned. Therefore, the Park was removed from the list of “World Heritage in Danger” in July 2021, classifying again as a UNESCO world heritage site of nature. Last week, the pre-COP27 meeting took place in Kinshasa allowing experts from national and foreign governments, as well as international environmental organizations to discuss efforts needed to fight climate change in general and conserve DRC’s tropical forests playing a pivotal role in international climate and environmental protection in particular. In connection with this conference, the German and Swedish Embassies jointly hosted a side event on “Climate and Security: Challenges in DRC “and Barbara Fruth (picture), the chairwoman of Bonobo Alive participated in this meeting. Based on 30 years-experience in DRC, she presented the forest’s major threats. Using long-term data from the LuiKotale Bonobo Project, a recent study revealed that climate change has already reached the heart of the Congo basin (https://journals. plos. org/plosone/article?id=10. 1371/journal. pone. 0252527). Tropical rainforests act as a CO2 sink buffering global warming. Without this buffer effect, even the most optimistic climate models would collapse. It is well known that large-scale deforestation has catastrophic consequences, however the continuous loss due to slash and burn agriculture is the responsible for a yearly loss of large parts of natural forest. If the effects of global warming change tropical vegetation, its capacity to bind CO2 may be reduced – a vicious circle with disastrous consequences.

Barbara Fruth presenting concepts for the management of the buffer zone of the Salonga National Park at a meeting organised by Sweden and Germany in conjunction with preCOP27 (Photo by Antje Herrberg)

An hour of glory in the rainforest (September 10, 2022)

The photo below (picture 1) shows a male bonobo holding a young mongoose in his arms. There is something cautious and routine about the way the ape keeps the little predator, as if the mongoose were his constant companion. The picture is not only artistically and technically a success, but also documents the extraordinary encounter between two species that live in a predator-prey relationship. Mongoose are related to civets. They live in family groups and feed on insects, snails and small vertebrates. Bonobos feed mainly on plants, but they also hunt other monkeys, forest antelopes and, occasionally, also mongooses. On a day that the photographer spent together with a team of bonobo researchers in the forest of LuiKotale, the group captured a mongoose that was traveling with its offspring. While most of the group focused on sharing and consuming the meat of the prey, the male grabbed the young and carried it around for an hour before finally letting it go. The extraordinary encounter provided the wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler (picture 2) not only a series of spectacular photo documents but also earned him an award at the “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” competition. Of the 40,000 entries submitted by photographers from 93 countries, 15 were selected, including the photo with the bonobo and the mongoose. The winners of the renowned photo competition will be announced on 11 October 2022. It was not the first time that Christian crossed the forest of LuiKotale in search for images. It’s now a year that he and his assistants have been documenting fauna and flora of the unique landscape in the center of the Congo Basin, an archaic landscape that hosts animals and plants that have already become extinct elsewhere. Christian’s photographs reach a wide audience and have the potential to act as an ambassador for research and conservation.

© Photo: courtesy Christian Ziegler, LKBP

© Photo: courtesy Victor Ammann, LKBP

Camp management - a special kind of logistics (August 12, 2022)

For Melina Gersberg (figure 1), the day begins at six o’clock with the reading of the weather station. At this time, one team of research assistants is already in the forest. The rest is still asleep. The kitchen plan was set with the cook on the evening before and with some luck her day starts smoothly. An hour later, the camp becomes a lively place and will stays busy until evening. One worker needs cigarettes, another one soap, and the sugar bowl also needs to be filled. The fisherman delivers his catch and insists that weight is taken immediately - with drying, the fish become lighter which would lower the price. By 8:00 am, Melina is in the office, doing book keeping, ordering supplies, handling e-mails, making sure all battery chargers are running. Messages from the field teams arrive and are forwarded to assistants who are still in camp. At noon porters arrives with provisions from the village. Baskets with Manioc roots, bananas, and other local foods have to be weighed and stored in the depot. Before the porters make their way back they need to be paid. Then Melina answers requests from villagers and writes the list of orders for the next transport. In the evening when the teams return from the forest, plans for the next day are discussed, data files downloaded and the equipment for the next day is prepared. Then, the cook asks for instructions and the fisherman who has injured his foot needs disinfectants and bandages. The LuiKotale research station is not large and the number of people working and living there is small. Nevertheless, taking care of the camp is more than a full-time job. Free days are only free when Melina goes to the forest. Otherwise, there is always someone who needs help in “a very urgent matter” and when the office door is open, the work comes by itself. Apart from the time investment, running the camp requires an unusual array of skills. It ranges from accounting, communication (in French, English and Lingala) and data management to organizing transports, software installation and maintenance of power generators. The expertise of those who take over the camp is, at best, limited to some of these skills. With Melina, it was her talent to organize and structure things and the knowledge needed to keep the budget in order. Mastering the other tasks came with time. Without Melina, nothing works in LuiKotale, at least until she has trained her successor. What comes next is still not entirely fixed, but Melina can look calmly ahead. With the expertise from LuiKotale, she will be up to every task.

© Photo: courtesy Christian Ziegler, LKBP

Project Bongo: A preliminary inventory of a large forest ungulate (July 12, 2022)

Wildebeests, zebras and antelopes roaming across open grassland, in between elephants, rhinos and lion packs. It is this concentrated mass of wildlife and the endless space of the landscape that shapes our image of the African continent. Conditions change in the dens rainforest. The lush vegetation provides enough food, but in contrast to the savannah, the productivity of the plants shifts from the ground to the canopy. Under these conditions, large body size and grouping become a hindrance. Forest-living antelopes, elephants and buffaloes are smaller and more gracile than their savannah-living counterparts. One species that does not follow this trend is the bongo, Tragelaphus eurycerus (Figure 1). With a body weight of up to 400 kg, the antelope is one of the largest rainforest species. The thick fur looks exotic in the humid rainforest and the strong and twisted horns leave no doubt about the strength of the animals. For local people hunting bongos was and still is a challenge that translates into various taboos. While this gives the giant antelope some protection, African mysticism is not an obstacle for hobby hunters. Large body size and a pair of strong horns are highly valued trophies making hunting concession a lucrative business. Another threat is the transmission of pathogens from domestic cattle which may kill bongos and other wildlife in large numbers. Bongos therefore need refuges where hunting is banned and cattle herding absent. Protected areas such as the Salonga National Park could therefore be crucial for the survival of the species. However, it is not clear at present whether this assumption is true. No one knows how many bongos actually live in the park and whether the current efforts of the Congolese Conservation Authority to protect the population are sufficient. The Serengeti Park Foundation (, which has long been engaged in the protection of endangered wildlife, is carrying out an initial inventory of bongos in the buffer zone of Salonga together with Bonobo Alive. Currently, camera traps (Figure 2) are placed in open swamps and patches of grassland which are known to attract bongos to obtain information on the rate of visits and the number of individuals, visiting such places. In a second step, it is planned to equipped some individuals with devices that provide detailed information about ranging patterns and habitat use. Based on this information, conservation organizations and the park authority could develop a monitoring program to monitor the status of the population in the park and adjacent areas over the long term.

© Archive/LKBP

© Gottfried Hohmann/LKBP

Zoe is missing. (May 23, 2022)

Primate researchers have a habit of naming the subjects of their research. If it were only a matter of distinguishing different individuals, numbers would serve the same purpose. However, most people find it easier to associate individual faces with a name. Zoe, an adult female bonobo, belongs to the group that human observers monitor since almost two decades. It was many years ago that Caroline Deimel, now vice-chair woman of Bonobo Alive, travelled to LuiKotale and caught the first useful photographs from members of the West community. Among them is one of Zoe. The photograph shows a serious, self-confident face, framed by the dense green of the rainforest (Figure 1). The portrait became the flagship of Bonobo Alive; it exists as a postcard, imprint on T-shirts, and adorns the letterhead of the club. Since naming Zoe, tens of thousands hours of observations have been recorded from her and her relationships within the group have been resolved using genetic fingerprints. Zoe’s individual database includes countless urine samples that will provide information about her biological life history. Like all resident females, Zoe is not alone. Her clan includes three sons, Ben, Zed and Zizu (Figure 2), as well as her daughter Zaina. The fact that Ben is Zoe’s adult son was not known at first and only came to light following genetic kinship analyses. In Pan paniscus, the success of the males depends closely on the support of the mother, who can also gain because of the shared benefits of close kin. With three sons, Zoe is exceptionally well positioned to pass on her genes. However, the future of the Zoe clan remains uncertain: in the autumn of 2021, Zoe developed disease symptoms. She had discharge from her eyes and nose and was obviously in a bad physical condition. She began to stay away from larger groups. At first, the family clan stayed together, but at some point Ben, Zed and Zizu started to go their own ways. Zaina was only four years old at that time and continued to rely on maternal care and support. In December, Zoe and Zaina were seen for the last time. Ever since, there’s been no trace of mother and daughter. Only in April Zaina was seen again, this time in the company of her brothers Ben, Zed and Zizu. Zoe hasn’t been seen, and what has happened since she disappeared remains a mystery. The assumption that she might have died from a disease is not farfetched. Nonetheless, when this might have happened, and how Zaina managed to find her brothers, are questions that will remain unanswered forever. While Zaina will probably leave the group in a few years, Ben, Zed and Zizu will stay and continue the family history in their own way.

© Caro Deimel/LKBP

Zoe surrounded by her family. Ben is grooming Zed (left) and Zizu is sitting right in front of his mother.
© Melina Gersberg/LKBP

Mama Fifi takes the helm (April 16, 2022)

Visitors to the LuiKotale and Ekongo research stations quickly realize the important role of local assistants. Together with the international research team, they facilitate the daily monitoring of wild bonobos. They arrive under their nest sites at 5 a. m. and return to the camp long after sun set. Some provide food for those living at the camp site, others go fishing, maintain the trail network of the study site, build bridges, and renovate the makeshift buildings of the camp. While the duties vary, the Congolese staff have always had one thing in common – staff were exclusively male. The participation of women has always been rejected. Paid labour is in demand and therefore something that is claimed by men. Women, it was said, had to stay in the village, work the fields, cook, and take care of the children. These are certainly conceivable arguments, but they do not explain why women were denied access to work for many years, even when there were job opportunities in the village. In the society of the Nkundu, the allocation of privileges is done by the vote of the village elders who are all male. All this changed when the person responsible for the acquisition and transport of local food to the research station left the village. A replacement had to be found quickly and this time there was a female candidate - Mama Fifi from Lompole village wanted the job. Despite her work as a teacher in the village school and taking care of her own family, the training was quick and easy. Twice a week, she organizes food transports from the village to the forest, buys cassava, plantains and spinach from the surrounding villages and distributes the food to the available carriers (Figure 1). When Mama Fifi had taken over the job, she followed up. Unlike her male predecessors, she wanted to learn more about working in the forest and go to the bonobos with the international research team. The request came as a surprise to everyone and required some planning. When Mama Fifi arrived, she moved into a shelter within the quarter of the then all-female research crew. The morning after her arrival at the camp, she set off with the researchers and, according to her, saw wild bonobos for the first time in her life (Figure 2). The acceptance of male leaders to include women in project work and thus in earning opportunities is an important step towards a more equitable distribution of available resources. For Bonobo Alive, it paves the way to communicate the need for conservation and research to the entire village population.

© Gottfried Hohmann/LKBP

© Melina Gersberg/LKBP

Expanding protection of wild bonobo populations (March 05, 2022)

Bekesse is the name of a small savannah, an island in the middle of the largest continuous rainforest on the African continent. Until a few months ago, these grasslands and surrounding forests were hunting grounds for the people of Mbungusani village. As in other villages, subsistence hunting has a long tradition. However, the forests in the buffer zone of Salonga National Park are not only used by local people; they also attract hunters who trade with ivory and bush meat. In this context, Bonobo Alive has been engaged in conducting anti-poaching patrols for years, and it became evident that Mbungusani supported the commercial trade of bush meat and ivory. Villages that tolerate the hunting of forest elephants and other wildlife share the profits, and it was clear that diplomatic intervention alone would not be enough to take action against the hunters. In order to improve protection, Bonobo Alive and the LuiKotale Bonobo Project contacted the village elders in an attempt to reach an agreement to abolish their support of commercial bush meat hunting. Success did not come overnight, as there were always setbacks due to individual hunters not adhering to this agreement. Nonetheless, the interest in the work of Bonobo Alive and its potential benefits to the villages prevailed. Eventually, the village agreed to assign a large part of its forest for nature conservation and research. The implementation of this agreement involves not only declarations of renunciation by the villagers, but also investments by Bonobo Alive. The construction of the Camp Bekesse (Figure 1) was a milestone on the way to involve the people of Mbungusani in conservation projects. Start-up funding for the Mbungusani project come from Wilhelma, the Zoological and Botanical Garden in Stuttgart, Germany. For several years now, Wilhelma has supported the work of Bonobo Alive and is directly involved in efforts to protect wild bonobos and their natural habitat. With Mbungusani on board, the area of pristine rainforest habitat villages made accessible to the conservation initiatives of Bonobo Alive, now extends over 1400 km² (Figure 2). Securing this area in the long run, presents Bonobo Alive with new challenges!

Study area of ​​the LuiKotale Bonobo Project (LKBP) in the western buffer zone of Salonga National Park (top left) with coloured sections of the forests assigned to four villages (top right). Mbungusani Forest with research camp Bekesse funded by Wilhelma Zoological & Botanical Garden; Bekombo Forest with research camp Ekongo funded by the Ouwehand Zoo Foundation; Lompole Forest with research camp LuiKotale funded by MPG, BMBF and CRC / KMDA (Map LKBP_2021© E. McLester).

Bekesse research camp shortly after the construction of the first three houses. From left to right: depot with office and accommodation for assistants; shared dining and working areas; Kitchen with pantry and sleeping quarters for local assistants (photo LKBP_2021© F. Brenet).

World Bonobo Day (February 09, 2022)

The LuiKotale Bonobo Project conducts long-term studies on the behavior and ecology of members of two neighboring bonobo groups. The challenge for long-term projects is that it requires the permanent presence of human observers. Only then is it possible to follow natural changes such as growth and development or the dynamics of social relationships within and between neighboring groups. Since the start of the project in February 2002, some 7,300 days have passed during which researchers have collected data on the behavior and lifestyle of the bonobo population in the forests west of Salonga National Park. Several years passed before the bonobos got used to humans and during this phase considerable time was spent searching for the elusive apes. Today, there are rarely any gaps between observations and researchers travel with part of the group every day. The long-term observations at LuiKotale shed light on a primate species whose personality long seemed to be characterized by peacefulness, diplomacy, and compassion. Since the start of the Project, researchers have found that bonobos can also do things quite differently: in LuiKotale they regularly hunt other primates; adult males harass immature individuals; and in encounters with neighboring groups, bonobos sometimes fight with all available means. This part of the behavioral repertoire does not necessarily fit into the picture of the peaceful ape, a widespread image of the bonobo. Yet, it closely resembles what we hear about our own species every day. February 14 is World Bonobo Day, a day designed to draw attention to the dangers that bonobos are exposed to in their natural habitat. Bonobo Alive strives to give the bonobo population outside of Salonga National Park a future by advocating that bonobos are no longer hunted and that their natural habitat is preserved in all its complexity. Those who care about protecting our closest living relatives can actively participate simply by supporting Bonobo Alive.

Kevin Lee/LKBP

The 2021 teams of LuiKotale and Ekongo (January 26, 2022)

Every year students and researchers come to LuiKotale and Ekongo and stay there for up to twelve months to do research and conservation work. Without their contribution, it would not be possible to accumulate long-term data on the behavior and ecology of bonobos, nor to implement those measures that aim specifically at protecting free-living bonobos and their environment. Some assistants may appear in reports posted in the News section or in the Mail from the Forest, but most of them remain anonymous. This is going to change; the first News of 2022 mentions all those who have been involved in one way or another in implementing research and conservation projects during 2021 Those who disappear for several months in the forests of LuiKotale or Ekongo have to adapt to unusual working and living conditions and will be deprived of things, that are usually taken for granted. On departing from the capital Kinshasa, one loses contact with the internet and phone calls are only possible via satellite phones. Connection to the rest of the world depends on a fragile radio e-mail system. For most of the assistants, the media abstinence is a dramatic experience. Equally strange is the isolated location of LuiKotale and the limited space in the camp. Two to three square meters of tent space is everything that residents of the station call their own, and all other resources are shared. Compared to the small camp site, the surrounding forest appears gigantic and dimensions of this landscape become rather vague. Distances between different places are measured in days, the word for yesterday and tomorrow is the same, and whether or not food will arrive from the village depends to a great extent on the weather. On the other hand, life in such an enclave offers things that are rather rare in conventional research environments: a landscape that is relatively untouched by humans, an unobstructed view on animal research subjects, immersion in a foreign culture, and a natural environment that few others have a chance to experience.

Figure 1: Robert de Agrela, Nadia Balduccio, Ana Kovacic, Alicia Bonilla Alcacer, Melina Gersberg, Tommaso Manzoni (back from left to right), Sonya Pashchevkaya, Joana Duran Tapia, Victoire Martignac (front from left to right). Photo by Nadia Balduccio

Figure 2: Cristian Alvaro Tamayao (links) und Luz Angela Carvajal Villalobos (rechts). Photo by Barbara Fruth
Figure 3: Ed McLester (Photo by Ed McLester)

Figure 4: Tino Fruth (Photo by Barbara Fruth)
Figure 5: Floriane Brenet (left) and Victoire Martignac (right). Photo by Barbara Fruth
Figure 6: Megan Soulsby (Photo by Luz Angela Carvajal Villalobos)

Figure 7: Anne-Marie Hébert (left) and Barbara Fruth (right). Photo by Christian Ziegler
Figure 8: Daniel Blankenheim (left) and Iris Witkamp (right). Photo de Barbara Fruth
Figure 9: Solène Lehmann (Photo by Barbara Fruth)

Zoom on Congo basins‘ wildlife (December 10, 2021)

Visitors to the LuiKotale research station enter a world in which everything revolves around bonobos. This is not surprising because for over twenty years these apes have been the subject of intense research. In fact, the bonobo population of LuiKotale is among those that have been observed most systematically and has made unique contributions to the scientific records of Pan paniscus. Because of the never-ending bonobo talk, people tend to overlook that the surrounding forest is home to a diversity of fauna and flora, representing an intact landscape of the central Congo basin. The fascination for the human-like ape is also reflected in the media: film and photo productions from LuiKotale revolve almost exclusively around the behaviour of the bonobo. Other species that populate the forest and what role the lush vegetation plays are rarely mentioned, if at all. Christian Ziegler (picture 1) has decided to change this. In August, the world-renowned photographer arrived together with Victor Ammann and Paul Bayfield (Figure 2) to launch a comprehensive documentation of the habitat that bonobos share with humans and other animal species. For several weeks, the team hiked through the dense forests surrounding the two camps Ekongo and LuiKotale, capturing footage of plants, animals and humans alike. For Christian, it was not the first visit. Ten years ago, he came to LuiKotale and managed to do what hardly anyone before him had done: photograph black apes in an ambience of dark green vegetation. The images that he brought back meant that international photo agencies became interested in this rare primate species. At that time, Christian’s work was truly a pioneering achievement. Although the bonobos were already used to being observed by humans, the sounds of the camera shutter and the large photo lenses were avoided by the apes. For days Christian followed the bonobos through the forest without landing a single good shot. Yet, in the end, it worked out and Christian was able to portray the bonobos in a way that depicts the secretive life of an ape that has so much in common with us. With the same enthusiasm, Christian, Victor and Paul have now dedicated themselves to documenting forest antelopes, colobus monkeys, mangabeys, wild boar, and the lush flora – and have captured images that show how humans have adapted to this unique natural environment. Protecting the last stronghold of Africa’s rainforest requires more than what wildlife photographers can deliver. Nonetheless, the images will contribute to raising the awareness that is needed, to preserve a place where humans and wildlife still coexist.   

Alliance for species protection (November 11, 2021)

Salonga National Park is a giant among the protected areas of Africa, encompassing 36,000 km2. The Park is surrounded by dense forests making the terrain relatively safe from farming. Yet, the hunt for bush meat is still a lucrative business and by far the biggest threat for the Park’s fauna. The fight against poaching poses a constant challenge to the Congolese Conservation Authority (ICCN). In the last decade, international conservation initiatives have made considerable efforts to improve the training of forest guards and to enhance working and living conditions. However, even in the few places where ICCN has base camps, the guards are not able to stop people from entering the park. To track down illegal activities, ICCN depends on support from the human population that lives in the buffer zone. The LuiKotale research station and its permanent staff mean it is particularly suited as an early warning system. Today, communication between LuiKotale and the ICCN station Mundja works well. In the past, messages were transmitted by couriers and it often took a long time for a letter to arrive at the station. Since Mundja has had internet, both stations have started communication via e-mail but improved communication alone is not enough. Personal relationships between researchers and guards remain important. Conservator Jean Sendi Sita (picture 1, left) has been in charge of the Mundja station for a year now and gives high priority to the partnership with the research team. Today, requests for ICCN staff participating in patrols are responded to quickly and without bureaucracy. LuiKotale supports ICCN with technical equipment and transport. In August, Barbara Fruth handed over a large quantity of field clothing to the head of the office in Mundja (picture 2). The new outfits create formal equality of guards and assistants working on the research project, thus strengthening the collaboration of the different actors in the common goal of protecting bonobos and other endangered species.

Figure 1: Conservator Jean Sendi Sita (left) and his assistant Bassa Ngodja (Photo: Barbara Fruth, LKBP)

Figure 2: Part of a larger shipment of working cloths that were handed over to ICCN in August 2021. Since many years, the project receives working cloths from the Zoo in Cologne, a valuable contribution supporting the conservation work of Bonobo Alive (Photo: Barbara Fruth, LKBP)

Inventive apes (October 04, 2021)

Watching great apes in their natural habitat is a fascinating experience and attracts visitors to Africa every year. Those who want to study the behavior of apes have to turn away from tourist trails in order to follow them on their daily walks through the forest. This sounds simple, but is not an easy task – it can take years for wild primates to get used to humans. In the forest of LuiKotale, two bonobo groups have been habituated and for more than one hundred individuals, encounters with humans have become a daily routine. Nothing in the behavior of the bonobos suggests that the people who accompany them through the forest during the day were considered as being a threat. When a group settles on the forest floor for a siesta, observers are often surrounded by individuals whose rapid eye movements suggest deep sleep. Despite this familiarity, humans and apes both usually keep a distance from each other. Observers stick to social distancing to prevent pathogens from being transmitted by humans to bonobos. Apart from the health issue, there is a risk that close proximity could influence the behavior of the animals and thus distort scientific data. Why bonobos pay attention to distancing rules can only be guessed. Adults may still remember a time when humans were a threat. This is different for younger group members; they are familiar with the presence of humans from birth. A simple explanation for why they keep a certain distance may be that they imitate their mothers' behavior. Why some animals deviate from this convention is a mystery. Like many other young bonobos, Rita (Figure 1) has known human researchers since she was an infant. After reaching puberty, she started traveling without her mother Rio (Figure 2) and spontaneously showed a strong interest in people and female assistants became her favored targets. In their presence, Rita would swing veraciously through vegetation until she was close enough to kick against a backpack or drop to the forest floor right in front of a person. Often, speaking loudly was enough to attenuate Rita’s approach, and it wasn’t long before Rita stopped making contact on her own. At that time, Rita had already joined one of the neighboring groups and contacts with conspecifics had become more important than inviting researchers to a brawl. When Rita got pregnant and had her first infant, she ignored the presence of humans, just like all the other bonobos did. Daughter Rusesa (Figure 3) is now four years old and on her way to independence. Like Rita, she has developed a strong interest in humans, watching them with deliberation, running towards them or throwing jumping displays so close that humans sometimes get in touch with a hairy arm or leg. Adopting the same therapy as with Rita, assistants are on their way to discouraging the unwanted curiosity. One compelling question is why Rusesa has developed the same liking for humans as her mother did. Imitation is an unlikely explanation as Rita gave up the habit long before she was pregnant. It is obvious that mother and daughter share a personality profile that combines curiosity, confidence, and a strong sense of how to surprise human beings. Researchers are rarely present when a novel behavior appears, and the observations of Rita and Rusesa are still no more than anecdotes. Yet, unusual behavior of Rita and Rusesa could become the corner stone of a family tradition and contribute to unravelling the puzzles of cultures in our closest living relatives.

© LuiKotale Bonobo Project/Sara Kovalaskas © LuiKotale Bonobo Project/Zanna Clay© LuiKotale Bonobo Project/Luz Angela Carvajal Villalobos

Caroline Deimel joins the board of directors of Bonobo Alive (September 01, 2021)

The Board of Directors of Bonobo Alive is responsible for implementing the objectives of Bonobo Alive. At this year’s Annual Meeting, Caroline Deimel joined the Executive Board. She replaces Elisabeth Labes as Vice-Chairman and will run the direct conservation work together with Barbara Fruth (Chairman) and Valeska Soliday (Treasurer). “One lesson we have learned from bonobos is that it can be quite efficient when females are in charge of business”, Caro jokes. She knows what she’s talking about, having studied bonobos and chimpanzees in Africa. Caro is one of the founding members of the Association and, as a former research assistant, knows the research team, bonobos and the specific conditions at the LuiKotale research station. Following a field stay at the LuiKotale field site, she became Deputy Project Director of the Semliki Chimpanzee Project in Uganda. Caro has studied biology in Vienna (Austria) and anthropology at Indiana University in the USA. Today, she conducts research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen. Her portfolio ranges from behavioral studies in the field to the technical skills required for research in a hormone lab This diverse background influences her research at the Max-Planck-Institute and gives her a great advantage when it comes to the planning and execution of the conservation work of Bonobo Alive: “Academic research is often biased towards exploring theoretical frameworks, which are not always applicable to grass root initiatives that consider the acute needs of the species I study. However, being a board member offers opportunities to shape conservation activities and incorporate my expertise from previous work in Africa”. Caro sees the strengths of the Association in the close connection to the LuiKotale Bonobo Project and its long-term relationship with the local population that has emerged over two decades. In this way, actions aiming at protecting bonobos and their habitat are not undertaken without consideration for the realities of the lives of local people. Explaining her motivation to get involved with Bonobo Alive, Caro says: “If we want to study bonobos, it is our obligation to protect them. However, this can only be done in a sustainable way if we collaborate with village communities. For too long and too often, Western researchers in Africa have been ignorant to the needs of local people and their traditional life style. As a result, projects do not always have the outreach they could achieve and are prone to fail in spite of appropriate funding. I’m glad that Bonobo Alive provides us scientists with a solid platform that offers not only logistics but also a wealth of expertise on the culture of the people sharing the forest with bonobos and other wildlife.” By taking Caro on board, Bonobo Alive has gained a dedicated researcher and conservation activist whose Viennese blend of activism, pragmatism and inventiveness will promote the Association, today and in the future.

© Raphael Deimel © Philipp Wenzl

The monkey with the golden fur – solving the puzzle of an unknown forest dweller (August 02, 2021)

Exploration of the tropical rainforests is largely consigned to history. Very few empty spots remain on the map of our planet, and satellite cameras have mapped even the most remote corners of the earth - at least superficially. For generations, researchers have been out observing the behaviour and lifestyle of wild animals, have collected plant samples, and have analyzed the composition of sediments representing deposits from thousands of years. Camera traps track the lives of cryptic species in the forest and movements of individual animals can now be monitored online even over long distances. On the one hand, humans have made tremendous progress in gaining ever more insights into the habits of animal species and their global migration routes through the use of these technical tools. On the other hand, there is good reason to suspect that many animal – and presumably plant – species have not yet been discovered at all. A third dimension of fuzziness relates to species that have been named but apart from their existence, remain unknown to mankind. This most likely applies to legions of insects and other small creatures, but some blind spots also exist on the map of mammals. The Golden-bellied mangabey (Figure 1) is one such animal. This species is endemic to the southern Congo basin and lives a secretive life. Its status in the wild is unknown, information on behaviour and habitat is scarce, and what descriptions do exist are based on assumptions rather than solid data. It is not often that a primate species remains a blank slate and what British primatologist Ed McLester (Figure 2) has conducted over the last months is a pioneering achievement. Six months ago, he joined forces with the bonobo researchers who are studying wild bonobos in the forests of LuiKotale and Ekongo. First, he went in search of the monkeys with the golden fur. Once he had located one group, he followed the monkeys on their daily travels through the undergrowth. When the group strayed too far from the research camp, Ed would pitch his tent and spend the night together with the monkeys in the forest. After a few weeks, most members of the group had become accustomed to their bipedal companion. They stopped running away, even when he was in the middle of the group, and when they heard the noise of humans passing by in their dugout canoes in a nearby river, the mangabeys showed signs of curiosity towards what Ed was doing. Following the group on its daily tours, a new world unfolded to the researcher. Because of the monkeys' familiarity with their new human member of the group, Ed was able to observe bonobos, forest elephants, antelopes and other wildlife species that tend to avoid close encounters with humans. Among the most important discoveries so far is that golden-bellied mangabeys use many of the same food resources that are important to bonobos. Because of this overlap, studying golden bellied mangabeys will inspire those who collect data from wild bonobos to ask new questions about how these primates interact with each other in the forest. Currently, Ed is analysing data from the pilot study, after which he is determined to return to the forest and the mangabeys. So much remains to be discovered about the monkeys with the golden fur. Apart from opening new territory to primate research, Ed’s work will make the rainforest of the Congo basin more familiar to all of us.

Copyright: Ed McLester/LKBP

Taking a close look at the communal life of forest animals (July 02, 2021)

The Congo is one of the largest rivers on earth. The gigantic current originates in the middle of the continent and crosses the equator twice until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast. For species that do not swim, the river poses an efficient barrier. The central lowland basin is densely forested, in some places flooded all year round and is drained by a number of large rivers. Due to this spatial isolation, animals and plants form a community that bears similarities to island populations. How this community interacts and how competing species coexist is largely unknown. However, the research on bonobos in the forests of LuiKotale reveals, that the links of this ecological network can be quit ambivalent. Bonobos use food sources that are also exploited by forest hogs, arboreal monkeys, hornbills and elephants. At the same time, bonobos hunt antelopes, monkeys, rodents and birds. Humans target the same species and are also the most dangerous predator of bonobos. In addition, there are other predators such as the golden cat, the leopard, snakes and birds of prey. The diverse predator-prey relationships and the multilateral competitive conditions reveal the “global” nature of species assembly: Everything is somehow connected to everything.

If one wants to understand the behavior and the way of life of bonobos, more information is required from those species whose needs are closely intertwined with those of the bonobos. Since long, such studies are on the to-do list of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project, but, for one reason or another, had to be postponed. This is now changing: In fall 2021, a team of researchers will start with data collection in the field to quantify the distribution and diversity of animal species engaging in a competitive relationship with bonobos. To account for the impact of human hunting, data will come from forest areas that differ in their protection status. Funding for this project comes from the Berlin Zoo. Since a long time, the Berlin Zoological Garden supports the work of Bonobo Alive and staff from the zoo came to Congo to get a first-hand impression of the field work. Additional funding comes from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz and the Center for Research and Conservation in Antwerp, Belgium. The three-year program promises novel insights into the ecological network of a community that has only survived in this form in the Central Congo Basin. Occupation of the Congo Basin by humans has also a long history and traditional forms of use still dominate today. Therefore with the information obtained by the upcoming project, one can glean how humans and bonobos can coexist.

Because of the flat terrain of the Congo Basin, the river landscape often appears like a lowland plain with several lakes and islands.
Copyright: Christian Ziegler

Bonobos chase leopard: a rare snapshot on an unknown prey-predator relationship
(May 31, 2021)

Everyone walking through the forest of LuiKotale is likely to encounter red forest hogs, duikers and monkeys. These species serve important functions in the complex relationship of forest dwellers. Like bonobos, they disperse seeds and by doing so, ensure the survival of a diverse plant community. Being frugivorous, they also compete with bonobos for food resources, an interaction that may actually regulate the apes’ population density. Bonobos, in turn, execute control over population dynamics by hunting duikers and monkeys. This way, bonobos end up at the top of the food chain. Apart from human hunters, leopards are the only species that could kill an adult bonobos. The cat inhabits the entire Congo basin and in some places, has the reputation of being a serious threat to Great apes. However, leopard hunting on bonobos is an unconfirmed guess. Fecal analyses revealed that bonobos are part of the dietary repertoire of leopards but if this reflects active hunting or scavenging remains unresolved. In their daily work, bonobo researchers sometimes run into leopards and, occasionally, camera traps that are set out in the forest to monitor nocturnal species capture images of the predator. To get a closer look at the putative prey-predator relationship, information on the leopards’ hunting behaviour is need. Yet, bonobos spending their day in company of human observers are well protected from attacks. Therefor the observations obtained by a group of researchers in LuiKotale add an extremely valuable piece to the natural history of bonobos (for a report and a video clip see As usual, day work begins in the early morning at the nest site. Later the apes descend and move on the ground, looking for food and engaging in mutual grooming. Suddenly, alarm calls are heard from a distance, stirring excitement in bonobos and researchers alike. After a short run through the undergrowth, they end up at the spot where the alarm calls come from. The eyes of the bonobos are directed towards the canopy of a tall tree; whatever triggers the alarm must be hidden somewhere in the camouflage of leaves, twigs and branches. Tension rises when an adult male and some other individuals climb into the tree, shake the branches and emit threatening barks. When the male approaches the suspect spot, a leopard appears and approaches the bonobos, giving deep growls and roars. Unlike human observers, the bonobos appear well prepared as their retreat is modest. As soon as the leopard retreats into the canopy, they approach again triggering more mock charges. Finally, the apes descend from the tree and the leopard escapes from its arboreal hideout. While bonobos return to their daily routine, the excitement about the event remains alive and will fuel discussions among researchers for a long time. The observations leave no doubt that bonobos at LuiKotale consider leopards are a potential threat. Harassing predators is a characteristic element in many prey-predator-relationships. On one hand, it makes that predatory species acquire the label of being a threat. On the other hand, it diminishes hunting success prompting the hunter to abandon the area. The encounter described above is the first in 20 years. If one wants to learn more about the relationship between bonobos and leopards such random encounters are not sufficient. Systematic collection of leopard feces can inform about the prey spectrum of the cat. Tagging leopards with electronic transmitters would allow tracking their movements and comparing them with ranging patterns of bonobos and other potential prey species.

Photo: Nicolas Corredor Ospina/LKBP

Tracing human footprints (May 6, 2021)

At first glance, rainforests seem alien, the closed canopy and the dense ground vegetation give the impression of untouched nature. A closer look however reveals traces of users of this landscape. Rocket hard termite mounts compete with trees and herbs for space. Porcupines, civets and forest antelopes have created a network of narrow paths and forest elephants maintain tunnels that are devoid of ground vegetation. While these traces indicate competition for space, the relationship between plants and animals is largely mutualistic. On the one hand, plants are exploited as food or nesting material and vegetation is trampled wherever it interferes with the traffic of forest animals. On the other hand, animals serve plants by dispersing seeds and in many species; the germination capacity is crucially dependent on the passage through the consumer’s intestinal tract. The result of this mutualistic relationship is a system of high biological diversity where acts of giving and taking are balanced. At places where people settle, conditions are dramatically different. In permanent human settlements, forest is gone and the soil eroded (Figure 1). These clearings are surrounded by the fields where cassava, plantains and corn are cultivated. The land is cleared with axe and fire. Monocultures of demanding crops loose quickly fertility and planters have to move on to create new fields. The forest can gain control of the fallow land, but until a species-rich flora can emerges, it is again cleared. As long as the number of villagers remains small, the system is balanced but the equilibrium is fragile; if the demand for cultivated land increases because of population growth or because trade in certain agricultural products flourishes, agriculture expands and forest cover recedes. Taking a birds-eye view is the best way to spot transformation of forest into farm land. Valeska Soliday (Figure 2) takes a close look at this process. The applied geographer does not need an airplane or a paraglider. Using high-resolution satellite images, temporal and spatial changes of forest cover can be quantified (Figure 3). This monitoring is particularly important in the surroundings of Salonga National Park, the largest protected rainforest on the African continent. Today, the park remains embedded in a green sea of tropical forest, rivers and swamps and the few human settlements are scattered across the mega-landscape look like scratches on elephant skin. If the status quo can be maintained, a world heritage site remains intact and the park and its buffer zone have a future. Conservation projects offer jobs and attract not only experts, but also local people from more distant places. Paid labor is notoriously difficult to find in rural areas and prospects of employment have magnetic power attracting those who are in need for a job as well as business people. While the effects of the influx of work force and the concomitant changes of economic conditions can be guessed, precise information of the real impact is scarce. Therefore, Valeska’s special interest is the forest status of Salonga National park and its surroundings. Applying sophisticated tools of remote sensing, Valeska can identify sources of human-induced changes in vegetation and evaluate this transformation in a quantitative manner. Information collected during the presence of Bonobo Alive and the LuiKotale Bonobo Project serves as a model for future calculations. For 20 years, conservationists and researchers have purchased food supplies from nearby villages, boosting the demand for agricultural products. With these figures, Valeska will be able to analyze how agriculture has developed in the past and how the presence of project staff as well as demographic developments of village populations has affected the environment. This case study provides an important reference for bonobos conservationists in the LuiKotale forest and a blueprint for large-scale assessments that are relevant for the entire buffer zone of the National Park. Making human activities visible is one of the most important prerequisites for the long-term protection of a habitat that has ceased to exist elsewhere long ago.

Figure 1: Aerial view of one of the villages that can also be seen in the upper part of Figure 3 (source: WorldView-2, shot taken on 5.3.2011).

Figure 2 (courtesy B. Fruth/LKBP)

Figure 3: Satellite image showing the study site around the LuiKotale research camp (red triangle in the lower part) and a savanna-forest mosaic in the middle (dark pink patches are grassland savannah). The upper part shows farmland (marked in bright green) surrounding forest villages (source: landsat-8 OLI / 21.7.2018).

Bonobo conservation under scrutiny (March 31, 2021)

The central Congo Basin is one of the few remaining places on earth that remain largely unexplored, the last place on the African continent where forests appear endless. Ekongo is a tiny spot in this monumental landscape. Small rivers mark the terrain that the people from Bekombo village consider their legitimate heritage. Although situated in the vicinity of the LuiKotale study site, researchers and conservationists had no access to Ekongo forest. Villagers were suspicious of those pretending to protect the forest and its wildlife and had doubts that it was nothing else than genuine research interest that motivated foreigners to search for wild animals. Following years with never ending negotiations, the village elders finally agreed to the request and designated a small savannah patch as camp site (see News of June 2015). In 2016, a camp was established and the first team started its search for wild bonobos with the aim to habituate them to the presence of human researchers. Funding for the habituation project comes from the Ouwehands Zoo Foundation and Bonobo Alive. Currently, Iris and Daniel (Figure 1) execute the difficult and often frustrating task. Unlike in the first couple of years, Ekongo-Bonobos do no longer consider the habituation team as a threat, at least as long they rest in trees. Yet, when traveling on the ground, they still keep a safe distance to humans obstructing observations and makes research assistants sometimes losing their targets. Navigating behind black-haired legs and backs just one minute ago, they may suddenly be left alone in what looks like an empty forest. When Daniel and Iris end up like this, they focus on the sound of the forest hoping to hear something that helps to catch up with the group. If nothing happens, the search for the needle in the haystack starts again. But sometimes, waiting pays off and it is due to the patience of Iris, Daniel and their predecessors that the rate of contact hours with bonobos increases. The apes have good reasons to avoid humans. Until 2016 the villagers used the forest for hunting and snaring, targeting mainly larger mammalian species, including bonobos. With the agreement between Bonobo Alive and the village, hunting was banned in one part of the community forest. Later, two neighboring villages decided to allow access to parts of their forests and agreed to abandon hunting in these areas. To assess the effect of reduced hunting pressure on the status of bonobos and other wildlife, a biomonitoring project, generously funded by the Berlin Zoo Foundation, will be launched in the forests surrounding the study area of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project. How long does it take that formerly heavily hunted areas get repopulated, and how does this affect the status of species competing for the same food sources? For Bonobo Alive, answers to such questions will provide the bench mark to assess its conservation strategy.

Hunting silent hunters (March 02, 2021)

Good news first: Since summer 2020, four villages located in the buffer zone of Salonga National Park have agreed to assign part of their forest for conservation. The essence of this agreement is that villager’s abandon hunting of bonobos and other endangered species and that villages will no longer support the business of professional bush-meat hunters. Instead, villagers will participate actively in biomonitoring and other conservation activities. Due to this initiative of Bonobo Alive, about 500 km2 of intact forest habitat – home of an estimated population of 200 bonobos – has a prospect of enjoying an enhanced protection status. Violations of the agreements can be detected with ease: Gun shots carry far across the forest and allow detection of the place of invasion. Moreover, being prevented from active hunting, villagers are now very alert about the activities of their neighbors which creates a control system that did not exist before. A look back shows that trust between villagers and conservationists increases with the duration of the agreement, making execution of conservation efforts more reliable and more accepted among village populations. Now the bad news: The general ban of hunting has led to an increase of snaring, a traditional hunting technique that is more difficult to execute but also hard to detect. To become an effective business, thousands of snares have to be put out and trappers aim on places with a high activity of forest antelopes, wild boar, and other medium sized wildlife species. This way, they create snare lines with thousands of wire traps waiting for their bait to arrive. A snare does not kill an adult bonobo but causes serious injuries and many victims are handicapped for the rest of their lives (News section, Bonobos under fire, April 2018). As shown in the attached video clip, other individuals show empathy with the injured group mate, but efforts to remove the wire have never been observed. The only way to deal with the increased popularity of the silent way of hunting is vigilance and the execution of frequent snare patrols. Currently, the search for snares has become a regular activity, a development that reveals a dilemma that has to be resolved: Because participation in a search team generates income, the placement of traps may become a lucrative job beyond the hunting success. One strategy to solve this conflict of interest is the deployment of permanent patrols that screw up the silent hunter’ business.

Videoclip: The video shows the male Kebo licking carefully the snare injuries on the right hand of the young male Tembo.

Member of a snare patrol removing wire snares

Lambert Booto – teacher, conservationist, and mediator (February 08, 2021)

The Congo basin is one of the last strongholds for a rare and rich assembly of plants and animals that are adapted to the moist evergreen lowland forests on the African continent. While vast areas of forest still remain, more and more animal species are endangered because of habitat degradation and hunting. One way to prevent this trend is to form alliances with the people who rely equally on the natural flora and fauna of this mega landscape. Like their nonhuman cousins, the wellbeing of indigenous human societies hinges on natural resources that can only be obtained from an intact ecosystem. From this perspective, there must be a general overlap of interest between people who practice a traditional life style and Bonobo Alive whose mission is to preserve and protect wild bonobos and their natural habitat. 

At the same time, disparities between both factions exist when it comes to the way of resource exploitation. To succeed in the effort of protecting endangered species, one has to convince the people to use resources in a sustainable way. This is a challenging task which requires agents who have an intimate familiarity with the cultural peculiarities of both Congolese and Western societies, bilingual language skills, and a clear understanding of the consequences of human encroachment. People with such a portfolio are difficult to find on the job market and it is usually sheer luck to meet someone with such skills. Master Lambert is a trained school teacher who has thought school kids before turning up at the camp site of LuiKotale. Apart from having all the skills of a person that lives from forest products, he seemed to understand immediately the need of wildlife conservation in general and the protection of bonobos in particular. When Bonobo Alive organized an environmental education program for the secondary schools in the buffer zone of Salonga National Park, he went back to his profession as a school teacher (Fig. 1), guided through nature movies that were shown to the village population, acted as a shrewd advocate in meetings with local authorities and served as a competent team leader. 

Meanwhile Lambert spends most of his time following wild bonobos. He collects research data, trains new assistants, serves as a consultant for ecotourism experts and film teams, and represents the project to authorities of the provincial government. What is more, Lambert has made the protection of wild bonobos to his own business and lobbies for this in the village communities. Hunters have a high social status, they are influential characters in the village community and … are the dear enemy of Lambert. With sonorous voice and colorful language, he doesn’t get tired to explain that Bonobo Alive works towards preservation of natural forests and the survival of wild bonobos outside protected areas. Disregarding these efforts, snaring and hunting has not yet stopped and there are always people who ignore the convention that has been reached between villages and Bonobo Alive. Yet, there is hope for change: Some of the people who were trained by Lambert have also turned into advocates for the protection of bonobos. While this is not yet sufficient to safeguard the buffer zone of Salonga, it is an important step on the way to activate involvement of the people living in the forests of the Cuvette central in the protection of wild bonobos and their habitat.

Lambert Booto in the class room during an environmental education campaign Lambert (left) and Tommaso Manzoni (camp administrator of the LuiKotale research station) removing snares during an anti-poaching patrol.

Ten years species protection – a preliminary resume (January 13, 2021)

It is ten years ago that Bonobo Alive makes efforts to protect wild bonobos and their natural environment. Has the work been successful? This question is asked again and again not only by the people that are (or have been) active in the field but also by those who support Bonobo Alive with donations. Answering this question is not easy because there are various ways to measure success and many of them represent limited time frames, a serious obstacle in case of a species that has a life expectancy of many decades. On common way to estimate the effect of conservation measures is to assess the status of a regional population. The validity of such a test hinges on the number of groups involved, the time period that is covered by the data, and information on the age structure of these groups. The latter requires close range observations and long-term monitoring, two approaches that are usually restricted to a small number of groups. In the LuiKotale forest, the place where Bonobo Alive is active, are currently two communities involved in long-term research and two others are in the stage of habituation. Yet, looking at the two groups that are under constant observation, a promising picture emerges: Group size has increased ever since the onset of field work. Birth rates are high, mortality low, and there is a constant influx of young females from other communities. What about demography? Some female clans consist of three generations that is, mothers, daughters and grand-children use the same forest range. This is uncommon because young females should transfer to other communities before giving birth for the first time but some of them appear to avoid the risk of moving to another place and decide to stay with the natal community. Surprisingly, social relations between mother and adult daughter are not sticking out as being particularly friendly and supportive. Moreover, as long as grandmothers have their own babies, grand children do not benefit from the presence of close kin. One conclusion that can be drawn from the increase in community size is that at the beginning of field work, group size was below the carrying capacity of the habitat and that the increase in community size is the result of improve protection from hunting. Thus the efforts of the last ten years to protect the bonobos of the LuiKotale forest from hunting have not been wasted.

Protecting bonobos (November 27, 2020)

It’s three a clock in the morning - time to get up for the team of research assistants at the LuiKotale field station. Too early for a breakfast; just a cup of tea or coffee before they enter the darkness of the forest. Head lamps light the way, a narrow path interrupted by tree falls and liana tangles. The speedy walk lasts an hour; then the destination is reached. What looks like a random forest spot transpires a strong smell, a mélange of horse stable and latrine, the nest site of a group of bonobos. The apes are still resting somewhere in the canopy. Torches are switched off, face masks (a precaution to prevent transmission of diseases from humans to apes) are put on, equipment is getting arranged. Then, a few moments of silence and rest. A long day lays ahead, ten kilometer or more through dense undergrowth, swamps, forest streams, perhaps a visit to the muddy backwaters of the river Lokoro.

It will take twelve hours or more until the bonobos climb into trees, brake branches and pick leafy twigs to construct a solid platform that resists storms. The team accompanies the group throughout the day, rests when the bonobos do and run when the apes hurry up. Each person shades a specific individual and collects data for the long-term data base of the project. Besides serving scientific tasks, the escort offers protection for a species that is targeted by human hunters. The men involved in the bush-meat business cope easily with the discomfort of a shabby forest camp, the limited food supply, and the endless charges of forest bees and other insects but avoid contacts with researchers and conservation activists. Bonobo Alive raises funds and organizes initiatives that aim on protecting bonobos.

Yet, execution of the tasks is in the hands of people who give up family and friends, internet and other luxuries of western civilization. Those transferring money and ideas into action are young, mostly female and determined to stop the devastation of natural resources. Nine months is the common term for volunteers joining the project. Securing forest refuges, lobbying for conservation and law enforcement are important tools to prevent the deprivation of natural resources. However, the success of conservation initiatives hinges on the permanent presence of people who are willing to devote time and energy to stay with those whose life is in peril. 

Giulia, Luz. Francesca, Cristian and Maisie are amongst those who make personal commitments in order to give bonobos and their natural habitat a future.

Does protection affect decisions on inter-community transfers? (October 18, 2020)

Bonobos form social units – so called communities - that contain more females than males. While some females remain in their natal community, most of them leave at the time of puberty and join other groups. What triggers transfers and what influences a females’ decision to join a particular group are challenging questions for those studying the social system of bonobos. Suddenly, researchers discover a “new face” that may join a group of residents for days, weeks or months. Adolescent females are good in establishing affiliative relations with immatures and their mothers who welcome the new arrivals. For the immatures, immigration means arrival of play mates and mothers benefit from services such as grooming and allo-mothering. Because of the smooth integration and the mutual attraction, it is not always easy to decide whether a young female is still visitor or resident. Females that appear well integrated may suddenly disappear, return after few days, or never come back. One reliable criterion to assign permanent group membership is pregnancy. Pregnancy testing is part of the long-term monitoring program at LuiKotale and so far, none of the immigrants that tested positive has ever left the host group.

The presence of temporary visitors was noted from the start of field work at LuiKotale. What is new is the number of adolescent females that settle in. Currently, there are five candidates lobbying for residency. In conjunction with the high birth rate, the large number of immigrants has increased the size of the West community and it is tempting to speculate that this may be due to the improved protection status. In this case, one would expect that other communities experience a similar trend. Yet, data from the neighboring East community do not support this view. More important than the increase of a single group is the distributions of bonobo inside and outside Salonga National Park, one of the last strongholds for the species Pan paniscus. Do bonobos still exist in larger distances from the protected site, how does the presence of humans affect population densities and what is the impact of diurnal monkeys competing with bonobos for the same food resources? To explore these and related questions, a survey will start in November 2020 covering the forest of the Luikotale Research Project and adjacent areas.

Adolescent female Bella (left) grooms Ngola. Bella appeared in 2018 and her status is still undecided. Ngola is around since 2014; she commuted repeatedly between the two habituated and other communities. She has been tested pregnant in May 2020, and we expect her to remain in the West community. photo © LKPB/B. Fruth Adolescent female Yambii immigrated into the West-community in June 2012 but left in September 2012 for good. photo © LKPB/M. Kölbl

Risk assessment in the time of the pandemic (September 30, 2020)

Compared to other parts of the African continent, the equatorial forests appear as an empty space. Human populations are low, traffic almost nonexistent, and those who venture along the muddy paths walk or ride a bicycle - poor conditions for the spread of viruses. Indeed, in the light of the current pandemic, the isolation of the forest environment and its inhabitants could easily turn out to be advantageous. This view is challenged by the idea that viral infections including Corona19 may originate from tropical environments, a hypothetical scenario which is not unjustified but remains to be proven. If people would be convinced that the last forest refuges on earth are sources of deadly viruses, this may well provide the justification to eradicate the remaining forest refuges along with its flora and fauna. While international media keep up the fears from viral attacks, researchers and conservationists also worry about the risk of viral transmission to wild animals. The species that are particularly vulnerable are Great apes, human’s closest relatives. To decrease the risk of spreading CORONA19 to wild apes, some suggest suspending field work and limit conservation work until the virus is under control. At the first glance, the arguments sound reasonable. Given the susceptibility of apes towards human strains of viral diseases, the disruption of contact seems the best that humans can do in a difficult situation. It is understood that measures should be taken to avoid that the staff of such projects will be deprived of its income. Yet, taking a closer look gives reason to doubt that the recommended strategy wills really the best to protect populations of wild apes. 

During the last decades, multiple studies have explored the efficiency of conservation strategies. While the studies varied in terms of methodology, sample size, and analytical approach, they converged in terms of a key finding: The strongest impact on the survival of Great ape populations comes from the permanent presence of researchers and conservation activists; as longer the continuous presence, as better the protection status. In contrast, where apes are left alone, pressures from human hunting and snaring increase and populations decline.

As the news about the spread of the pandemic reached the Congo basin, rumors came up about an intense influx of hunters invading the community forests near Salonga National Park. In June, project staff found the remains of several freshly killed forest elephants. Realizing the uncommon threat, the Congolese Wildlife Authority ICCN and the LuiKotale Bonobo Project launched an anti-poaching patrol, an initiative that turned out to be not too early: ICCN guards encountered multiple hunting teams that had invaded the forests around the protected study site. The guards arrested hunters and confiscated bush meat, including parts of several bonobos. Thanks to the rapid action, the invasion of hunting teams was put on halt. The lessons learned by Bonobo Alive are to expand its efforts of monitoring the forests surrounding the study site, enhance the early detections scheme aiming to identify human encroachment, and lobby for participation of the villages in conservation. To prevent viral infections, the health protocol that has been observed since more than a decade seems to be fairly efficient. Everyone following bonobos wears a mask and maintains a minimum distance. Masks are exchanged on a daily base and people showing symptoms of infectious diseases do not follow bonobos until the symptoms have disappeared. Accounting for the new risk from COVID19, additional measures including a two week quarantine have been implemented.

Bonobo Alive is convinced that the continuous presence of project staff is imperative to prevent that wild bonobos and other endangered species become victims of hunters armed with automatic weapons, an endless supply of ammunition and thousands of snares. While the danger of transmission of viral infections is not unjustified, large scale hunting is a reality that deserves vigilance and immediate action.

Population census in Salonga National Park (May 5, 2020)

How many bonobos are left in the wild? This question comes up again and again, not so much out of curiosity but, more often, reflecting the genuine interest of people and institutions that are engaged in protecting the endangered great ape species. The question sounds simple, but answers are difficult and often painfully vague. The range of distribution of bonobos is limited to one African country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In this with 2.4 million km² second largest country on the African continent, they only occur south of the gigantic Congo River. It is not known which of the sparsely populated forest areas of the lowland basin south of the Congo River harbours bonobos, although suitable habitats can be estimated from vegetation maps, knowing that Bonobos inhabit lowland rainforests, and use savannah forest mosaic habitats. Still, the extent of habitat inhabited by bonobos remains largely unknown and confirmation of their presence in one area cannot simply be applied to another. In addition, the occurrence of the species in a certain area does not allow drawing any conclusions as to how many individuals actually live there. In the past, very few surveys have been carried out, and were limited in terms of both time and space. Because of its central geographical location in the middle of the lowland basin and its enormous size of 36,000 km², Salonga National Park is considered a hotspot for the survival of wild bonobos.

National and international conservation organizations also want to know to what extent the protected area is actually fulfilling its task of providing long-term protection to its fauna. One person who is working on solving the puzzle is Mattia Bessone, PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University in England. In his doctoral thesis he evaluates data that have been collected in what has been one of the most comprehensive biodiversity studies to date. Before Mattia sat down in front of his computer, he spent two years in and around the 17,000 km² southern part of the park (Figure 1), managing census work, providing food and equipment to the field teams and coordinated transport and data collection for over 80 people. Already at this stage it became obvious that bonobos occur everywhere in the Salonga National Park, but their frequency and distribution vary greatly across the park.

Counts of sleeping nests, footage from camera traps and direct encounters provide the raw material for his study. In a first analysis, which was just published in the "Journal of Applied Ecology", he tested the applicability of camera traps for the census in the park. A total of 160 camera traps were set up in 743 locations that were uniformly distributed over the park range for a period of 18 months. With this unprecedented effort, over 16,000 suitable video clips came together providing 170 hours of suitable footage, revealing a wide variety of forest dwellers suitable for scientific investigation. This was the first time that the occurrence and density of bonobos and 42 other animal species with which they share this ecosystem could be assessed, including numerous cryptic species rarely spotted by the human eye.

Bonobos ran into camera traps at 66 out of the 743 locations (Figure 2). With these film episodes, Mattia was able to estimate their density in the southern part of the park between 0.24 and 1.21 adult individuals per square kilometre.
In the next step, he will investigate the nest counts and direct observations along the 743 transects. Bonobo Alive supported the project with a study on nest building in the LuiKotale study area. Every bonobo independent of the mother builds a new sleeping nest each evening. Sometimes individuals also build day nests. In order to be able to draw conclusions from the number of nests counted on the number of bonobos present, one has to know how many nests are built per bonobo per day and how long these structures are visible, which disappear at different rates depending on the construction quality, type of tree, height and season.

These data will allow comparison to the results of the camera traps. By that, precision on bonobo population size in southern Salonga and the factors impacting on their occurrence can be increased. Moreover, the figures will map variation of population density across the park which can help detecting biotic and abiotic factors explaining the observed variation. As in previous studies, the results also are estimates of a specific snapshot in time. This however is the crucial prerequisite to be able to determine a clear trend with future studies: Are we dealing with a stable population? Is it growing or is it decreasing, as is generally feared? This is a cornerstone for a long-term monitoring of the bonobo population in the largest protected area in the central Congo Basin, the Salonga National Park.

Living in a world without health care (January 24, 2020)

Bonobos share their habitat with many other mammalian species. Within this community, they are both, predators and prey with the strongest pressure coming from poachers. An entirely different source of danger that is often underestimated, are diseases. Many viral infections that are relatively harmless for humans can kill bonobos. Other diseases are not lethal but exert pressure on the apes’ immune system, diminish physical strength and cause metabolic challenges. Accidents are another cause impairing health, well-being, and fitness. How well or unwell a bonobo feels is often hard to see and long-term monitoring of the individual health status is perhaps the most reliable way to detect sudden deviations from “the norm”. To compile a bench mark for health status, the LuiKotale Bonobo Project has set up a protocol for non-invasive data collection indicative for the health status including parasitological analyses of faeces and measurements of physiological markers in urine. Another important source of information are changes in behaviour such as duration of sleep, the engagement in play behaviour, changes in foraging as well as the emergence of symptoms such as coughing and sneezing. Mélodie Kreyer (see attached Figure) , PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University, has collected detailed data across several field seasons, analysed samples in the lab, and aligns them with behavioural observations. The daily contact with people poses an elevated risk to bonobos and the elaborate approach taken by Mélodie in screening disease symptoms does not only reflect academic interest but has also relevance in the context of conservation. To prevent disease transmission from humans to bonobos, researchers observe a minimal distance, wear surgery masks and stay back in camp as soon as symptoms of infectious diseases emerge. All this has become routine but does not address the specific questions that engage Mélodie: How often do wild bonobos suffer from infections, how do others respond to a “sick” individual, does impaired health affect foraging behaviour in general and the ingestion of plants with pharmacologically active compounds in particular? The observations of bonobos offer a model for a life without doctor and medication, and by doing so shed light on our own history.

Drawing attention to conservation (September 5, 2019)

Experiencing wilderness is a common motivation for a visit to the zoo. Those visiting the “Wilhelma”, the zoo in Stuttgart, can combine their visit with a contribution to nature conservation and the protection of wild populations of endangered animals. The Wilhelma offers the possibility to support conservation projects when visitors purchase their tickets: Those who are interested in contributing to conservation pay one Euro more. How this extra payment is used can be learned from presentations, movies and other media. In addition, the zoo also organizes each year a day dedicated to conservation (Artenschutztag). On this day, the zoo hosts people representing conservation projects that have been supported by the Wilhelma. This way, visitors can meet those engaging in the protection of endangered species. This year (2019) Bonobo Alive was present again and informed about its initiatives to protect wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic from hunting. Visitors scrambling around the table with the T-Shirts with the faces of Zizu, Zoe, and Hugo (bonobos living at the LuiKotale study site) also wanted to know more about the life and fate of wild bonobos: How do they respond when encountering human hunters? What do they do when being injured by a snare? How many bonobos are left and how can local people benefit from participation in conservation work? Inquiries from young visitors were particularly persistent. Few people will ever travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo to observe bonobos in the wild but the outdoor facilities of the Wilhelma allow facing these impressive Great apes without prior long distance travel and stimulate people to help protecting bonobos and their natural environment.

Village communities join alliance for protecting bonobos (May 13, 2019)

Salonga National Park is the largest protected rain-forest on the African continent and offers refuge to a number of endangered species. Harboring large populations of wild animals attracts people who make their living by hunting, snaring, and the trade of bush meat. The advantage of declaring 36.000 sqkm forests as protected area turns into a serious problem if it comes to monitoring and law enforcement. Unlike many other places in Africa where human populations exert permanent pressure on protected areas, Salonga is embedded in a largely intact forest landscape: The number of human settlements is low, the area of cultivated land small and infrastructure for transport negligible. The villages along the parks border claim historical rights of ownership and exploit the forest using traditional technologies for hunting, snaring and fishing. To safeguard the resources inherited by their ancestors, access to a community owned forest is restricted and requires approval from the elders of each village. This scheme offers a simple but efficient means of control that has been adopted by Bonobo Alive to enhance protection of wild bonobos from hunting and snaring. To put this into effect, Bonobo Alive contracts part of the community forest for conservation. In return for the agreement to restrict hunting and snaring to other parts of the community owned terrain, Bonobo Alive builds schools, pays salaries for teachers, and provides villages with logistic and economic support. As a result of the self-imposed restriction to hunting, village communities have become more sensitive towards the activities in their forest and are particularly vigilant if people from outside try to invade their forest for hunting.

Until recently, two villages have participated in this initiative. At the beginning of 2019, meetings with a third village paved the way for signing a contract with a third village. The forest of Mbungosani is very large and attracts hunting teams targeting elephants and other large animals, including bonobos. In a first round, Bonobo Alive settled an agreement with the elders of Mbungosani to stop hunting and snaring in an area that is adjacent to the range of one bonobo community that is currently under habituation. However, based on the latest survey results, the range that Bonobo Alive intends to contract may be home of two other communities. Bonobo Alive is drafting a campaign to obtain the means that will allow expanding the contract to a larger part of the forest of Mbungosani. However, the first and most important step – making the village community sympathize with the aims of Bonobo Alive - has already been achieved.

A decisive point in the negotiations with the village elders is the limitation of the hunting-free zone. However, the flat terrain of the lowland forest offers few geographical reference points to help with mapping. Together with representatives of the three villages, Barbara Fruth draws up a first map in the “sandpit";. The marking made here will later be verified during a site inspection. © Alexis Louat/LKBP

Help for school kids (February 13, 2019)

When the schools close for the summer break, the live of those terminating school has already taken another track. Fishing, hunting, construction work and farming are skills that are not learned in school. Those who want to go on with school have to move to the province capital or another larger city. For the people living in the remote forest villages, chances to obtain a higher degree rare poor. Moving to another place poses considerable logistic challenges and often enough, the enrollment in a high school fails because of lack of funding to pay for school fees and lodging. Yet, chances for higher education are not equal, even when logistic and financial obstacles have been removed: families tend to invest in the education of their sons. Dorcas is an exceptional case. Thanks to the combined funding from Bonobo Alive and ‘Children for a better World’, a foundation based in Germany, she and Justin, a boy from the same village, moved to a boarding school in the city of Oshwe, 350 kilometer away from their forest home. For Dorcas and Justin, life away from their families poses a personal challenge. Bonobo Alive hopes that the initiative will raise awareness towards conservation among the school community. Like other urban places, bonobos and other wildlife has largely disappeared from the forests surrounding Oshwe. The goal to protect bonobos and their natural habitat will only succeed if people realize the economic benefits that ca be gained from conservation. Dorkas and Justin are agents to spread this idea.

Bonobos under fire (April 17, 2018)

Since years Bonobo Alive is engaged in the protection of bonobos in the buffer zone of Salonga National Park. Stock numbers obtained along this work indicate that the effort pays off. The permanent presence of researchers and conservationists has contained snaring and hunting, improving the security of the habituated bonobos as well their neighbors.

It was always clear to us that the impact of our efforts had its limits. However, how fragile the tediously constructed shield really was, we had to learn a few weeks ago. In February 2018, poachers in the southern part of the study area LuiKotale were up to mischief. Almost two thousand snares were discovered and removed by help of local villagers and our team on ground. Sadly, Ulrich, a young male of the middle community had already got caught in a snare and struggles with the wire around his hand (Figure 1a&b).

Then, armed poachers arrived in the neighborhoods of the study site. Neither snares nor the invasion of poachers are new to us but the intense and targeted killing of bonobos is. In March we received a message that seven bonobos had allegedly been shot in the immediate neighborhood of the study site. This was a shock – not only for us but also for the local people working for the LuiKotale Bonobo Project. The Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN) was informed immediately and investigates the case but the prospects for success are slim. Even if the hunters were to be arrested and prosecuted the disillusion remains that something similar may happen again at any time.

It is no relieve but a glimpse of hope that the people from the two villages working with us became active and are committed clearing up this crime. Their commitment shows how much they identify with the project and its goals. For them, bonobos mean a lot more than just a piece of meat. Let’s hope that their traditional network that ties huge family clans together will spread this attitude.

Bonobos attract researchers, conservationists, and film teams, opening up new sources of income for entire villages – but only as long as they are alive.

Figure 1a) Ulrich with a metal cable at his left hand; b) close-up of the injured fingers. Photos © LKBP/Megan Claase

Pharmacy for humans and apes (January 04, 2018)

Bonobos and chimpanzees are our closest relatives. What we share are not only the habit of being embedded in complex social systems and the ability to cooperate with kin and non-kin alike, but also the susceptibility to diseases in general and infectious diseases in particular. Humans go and see a doctor and zoo-living apes are cared for by the vet. But what do wild apes when they get sick? Researchers tackling this question tend to look at medicinal plants. This is not surprising as there is profound knowledge about the curative effects of leaves, flowers, barks and roots. While this approach facilitates successful search for appropriate specimens, it is not sufficient to proof any cause and effect. The latter requires - amongst other - knowledge about pharmacological active compounds and their fit with specific symptoms of disease. For the research staff at LuiKotale, scoring health-related parameters of bonobos is part of the daily routine. The expertise for identifying pharmacological properties of wild plants comes from Musuyu Muganza, an approbated pharmacist associated with our project since long.  Since 2011 he conducts work combining the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants from our study area with the detection of pharmacologic active compounds and their therapeutic effects. For the last two years, Bonobo Alive e.V. has covered part of the expenses for doing research at Antwerp University. In January 2017, Musuyu submitted his PhD thesis and when he travelled back to Kinshasa, he had a doctoral hat in his luggage. To turn the engagement of Bonobo Alive e.V. into a real success story, one would wish that the work on medicinal plants and their use by animals will be incorporated into the curriculum of Kinshasa University.

Research on medicinal plants of our study site in the Cuvette Centrale included systematic collection of specimens (figure 1), their taxonomic identification in the herbarium of the University of Kinshasa (Figure 2), and pharmacological analyses (Figure 3). Current point of culmination is the successful defense of Musuyu Muganza’s (center) dissertation at the University of Antwerp (Figure 4).

Mothers and sons (June 06, 2017)

Female bonobos are attentive and patient mothers who care for their offspring even when full-grown. Parenting into adulthood is only possible when the offspring stays in its natal group, as males tend to do. Females, on the other hand, usually transfer to other groups around puberty, where they weave their own social network. The benefits of close bonds between mother and son are not yet entirely understood, but observations suggest that a mother’s protectiveness can influence competition among males. Thus, maternal support may cause an imbalance of power that puts males without close kin at a disadvantage.

Zoe, with her three sons, is an institution of the West-community, and well occupied with maternal duties. Her oldest son Ben reached adulthood a long time ago, and holds a high status within the male cohort. Zed, the middle child, is not yet fully grown, but shows ambitions to use maternal support to promote his individual career. Zizu is Zoe’s youngest son, a privileged child that also benefits from the high rank of his mother and the presence of Ben and Zed.

The atmospheric portrait of Zoe taken by Caro Deimel became the label for Bonobo Alive, and is also displayed on the bestselling t-shirt. Now, Zizu has joined his mother: Etta Sophie has designed the print on the new Bonobo Alive t-shirt collection, using a shot taken by the wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler. This way, the t-shirts symbolize the trait that distinguishes bonobos from other Great Apes: mothers and sons stay together.

Bonobo Zoe, © Caro Deimel; Bonobo Zizu, © Christian Ziegler; T-Shirt Collektion

More Information:

Pictures: left side: "Zizu" by Christian Ziegler, middle: "Zoe" by Caro Deimel, right side: new T-Shirt Collection

More help for protecting wild bonobos (June 15, 2016)

Substantial efforts are made to protect great ape species throughout their range of distribution. However, it is not always clear how effective this investment actually is. Recent studies have tried to assess the impact of conservation activities in quantitative ways and offer a kind of quality control of different types of wildlife conservation. What was found is that the permanent presence of people engaging in the protection of great apes is particularly effective in preventing hunting and other destructive activities, disregarding whether this is done by conservationists or researchers. Based on this it is tempting to argue that the task of protecting wild populations of apes can be achieved by hiring enough staff and install them at as many sites as possible. In reality however, the number of long-term sites in ape habitat is limited. The reason for that is a mix of different things including the costs for running such sites, the difficult conditions for living and working at remote field sites, and the constraints in finding the people who are prepared to spend long periods of time in such areas. An alternative to creating new sites is expanding the range of activity at established ones. Thanks to the support from the Ouwehands Zoo Foundation (OZW) and Quagga, two nature conservation organizations from The Netherlands, as well as the Wuppertal Zoo Society, the Zoo Cologne und the Wilhelma Stuttgart, Bonobo Alive e.V. is now able to expand its conservation activities to a new area of about 100 km2. This forest is in close vicinity of the LuiKotale Bonobo Research site (see attached Figure) and covers the range of bonobos not yet under improved protection. With the support from the above mentioned organizations, people from villages that have not yet been employed can be hired for the assessment of the bonobo population in their forest, habituation, biomonitoring, and anti-poaching patrols. Improving the protection status of the new terrain will benefit bonobos and many other endangered species. Bonobo Alive will use this as another opportunity to convince village people how wild animals and humans can equally benefit from conservation activities.



Zoo Cologne equips anti-poaching patrols (December 18, 2015)


When waters rise at the end of the dry season, fishing subsides and the local population covers its need for animal protein focusing on subsistence hunting.  Given the low population density, subsistence hunting is sustainable. This is in strong contrast to the organized commercial poaching, involving groups of well-armed people coming from other provinces, furnished with plenty of ammunition. Their focus is on large mammals: elephant, forest buffalo, sitatunga, and bonobo. Although hunting of endangered species is illegal, poaching and bush meat trade is common as law enforcement is rare. In order to put a stop at the professional poacher's game, practical steps such as anti-poaching patrols covering the remote forests are required. Occasionally, large scale anti-poaching initiatives are launched by international conservation organizations but information can travel fast in the forest, rendering raids that involve not only wildlife guards but larger groups of armed soldiers often ineffective. Compared to that, anti-poaching patrols can be more efficient when they focus on small areas and involve people from nearby villages. With some encouragement, it is not difficult to motivate village people as they are all but excited by the invasions of armed poachers into their traditional hunting grounds.


Since several years, Bonobo Alive e.V. supports anti-poaching patrols of teams consisting of villagers and guards from the Congolese Wildlife Authority, ICCN. Donations to Bonobo Alive e.V. are used to purchase equipment, provisions and remuneration for these patrols. Next to contributions of members and single donations, Bonobo Alive e.V. obtains substantial aid from German Zoos, such as the Zoo Wuppertal, Stuttgart or Cologne. Recently the Zoo of Cologne donated a large number of working clothes for the members of the anti-poaching patrols. Better equipped, these feel not only safer but on one level with the uniformed and armed wildlife guards. Testing the clothes during the last patrol, people were more than satisfied.

With this, Bonobo Alive e.V. sets new standards for its initiatives. “The trousers and T-Shirts with the logo of the Cologne Zoo are getting status symbols among the male village communities” says Antonin Leclercq who is currently in charge of organizing the anti-poaching patrols. Without intention, the donation from Cologne Zoo may give an unexpected popularity to the ideas of species protection and nature conservation.

Assessing Bonobo Protection (July 08, 2015)


The biggest threat to wild bonobos is hunting by humans. To protect the bonobo population of LuiKotale and its surroundings from hunting mixed teams of armed guards from the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) and villagers conduct anti-poaching patrols. This initiative which is financed exclusively by Bonobo Alive aims on detecting hunting camps, identifying hunting on protected species such as bonobos and elephants, and enabling the Congolese Wildlife Authority to take action. Due to the permanent presence of researchers and local staff it is relatively easy to assess the impact of such patrols within the study site of LuiKotale. Evidence suggests that conducting anti-poaching patrols has largely reduced hunting within the study site and that bonobos are now better protected than at times when there were no anti-poaching patrols. However, how effective are the patrols in areas that are further away? How effective are they in protecting bonobos and other endangered species such as forest elephants and buffalos, and – provided there is a detectible effect – do patrols have a lasting impact on hunting and other forms of human encroachment? To answer these and related questions, a monitoring project has been launched to assess the status of bonobos and other wildlife on a larger spatial scale. Using standard techniques for biomonitoring such as transect walks and camera traps to obtain information on the status of rare and nocturnal species. As the two examples attached here show, the camera traps facilitate close range encounters with some rare and enigmatic species.


The results can be used to measure the impact of patrols in a quantitative way. Under the leadership of the Zoologist Joost van Schijndel, a local team will survey an area of about 300 km2 for signs of bonobos and other protected wild life. At the same time, the survey will generate specific information on the use of the forest by humans. With the results of the monitoring program, we will help to evaluate the impact of patrols on a spatial scale and to improve the protocol of the initiative. In addition, the data can contribute to plans for protecting bonobos across the southern part of Salonga National Park.

Video clip: leopard
Video clip: elephant

LuiKotale bonobos – ambassadors in a recent conservation campaign (October 15, 2014)


Since several years, Bonobo Alive has made efforts to protect bonobos at the site of LuiKotale and its surroundings, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now the targets of protection appear in a large campaign launched by WWF Germany. WWF has ambitious plans to enhance protection of bonobos and other wildlife in Salonga National Park–one of the largest refuges of wild bonobos in DRC. The footage that is used in this campaign features members of the Bompusa community–a group that has been habituated to the presence of researchers and which provides data to an increasing number of research projects. Thanks to the continuous support of Bonobo Alive, the bonobo population at LuiKotale and its surroundings is better protected than in other places in DRC. It is hoped that the WWF campaign will succeed in protecting endangered bonobos throughout DRC, and that the bonobos of LuiKotale will serve as ambassadors of hope and flagship-species for conservation in this international campaign.

Family story (August 11, 2014)


Female bonobos are caring and attentive mothers and establish close social bonds to their offspring. Sons remain in the natal group and maintain close associations to their mother even as adults. Daughters are different: They transfer to another community before starting to reproduce themselves. However, rules are not without exceptions: In February 2014, the young female Polly gave birth to her first child while still remaining together with her mother Paula and her two sisters Priska and Parvati in the community in which she was born. Polly is the oldest daughter in Paulas clan and with 12 years an exceptionally young mother. No one of the research team at LuiKotale had sensed Polly’s pregnancy and the birth of little Puran, Paula’s grand-daughter, came as a big surprise. The fact that Polly gave birth before emigrating is puzzling. There are multiple other bonobo communities in the forest of LuiKotale and Polly had many opportunities to join one of them. In fact, she had already disappeared for some time but then re-joined the study group. Why did she stay ? Paula is among the top ranking females and Polly may just delay her transfer to another group to enjoy a bit longer the privileges deriving from her mothers’ dominance status. While the puzzle remains to be solved, researchers at LuiKotale have the rare opportunity to study interactions among three generations of the same matriline.