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DRC's bonobos have new home in massive reserve

Eddy Isango

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is setting aside more than 30 000 square kilometres of rainforest to help protect the endangered bonobo, a great ape that is the most closely related to humans and is found only in this Central African country. The area amounts to just more than 1% of the vast DRC.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is setting aside more than 30 000 square kilometres of rainforest to help protect the endangered bonobo, a great ape that is the most closely related to humans and is found only in this Central African country.

United States agencies, conservation groups and the Congolese government have come together to set aside 30 569 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, the US-based Bonobo Conservation Initiative said in a statement issued this week.

The area amounts to just more than 1% of the vast DRC—but that means a park larger than the state of Massachusetts and only slightly smaller than the entire country of Slovakia.

Environment Minister Didace Pembe said the area was denoted as a protected reserve last week as part of the administration’s goal of setting aside 15% of its forest as protected area. The Sankuru announcement increased the amount of protected land in the DRC to 10% from 8%, he said.

The Sankuru Nature Reserve aims to protect a section of Africa’s largest rainforest from the commercial bushmeat trade and from deforestation by industrial logging operations in the central part of the country known as the Congo Basin.

Sally Jewell Coxe, president of the Washington-based Bonobo Conservation Initiation, said the group had been working to establish the reserve since 2005, when it started meeting with leaders in villagers that ring the area to persuade them to stop hunting the ape.

Though local lore holds that washing a baby with the ashy remains of a bonobo will make the child strong, Coxe said many area villages have committed to ending the practice.

“We have agreements with many of the local villages that are on the edges of the park, and they will be the managers and be very involved in it,” she said.

Bonobos—often lauded as the “peaceful ape”—are known for their matriarchal society in which female leaders work to avoid conflict, and their sex-loving lifestyle.

The bonobo population is believed to have declined sharply in the past 30 years, though surveys have been hard to carry out in the war-ravaged central DRC and estimates range from 60 000 to fewer than 5 000 living, according to the WWF.

The Sankuru reserve also contains okapi, closely related to the giraffe, that is also native to the DRC, elephants and at least 10 other primate species, the group said.

Start-up funding has been provided through a grant of $50 000 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and about $100 000 from private donors, Coxe said.

“We’re really thrilled; now comes the hard work of funding it for the long term,” Coxe said.—Sapa-AP

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