'Hippies of the forest' face extinction

Bonobos, the great apes threatened with extinction which resolve disputes by having sex, have been given a sanctuary near Kinshasa where they wait to return to their home in the forests of the vast Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Lola ya bonobos”, the paradise of the bonobos, is a 30ha forest run by the association Friends of the Bonobos, which over the last ten years has taken care of animals which have escaped being killed for the illegal bushmeat trade.

“We recover the orphans, which the environment minister has confiscated from the markets after their mothers have been killed, in accordance with the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites),” explained association president Claudine Andre.

In front of about 20 ministers and delegates visiting the sanctuary and who have come to Kinshasa for an international conference on the great apes, Andre explained how the bonobos were “incapable of surviving without affection”.

It’s feeding time at the sanctuary, and with the distribution of papayas, bananas, sugar cane and other delicacies for the 43 residents, the excitement mounts; loud screams and, in front of the visitors’ curious eyes, simulated sex.

“Do they do this all the time?” asked one surprised Tanzanian official.

“Only to relieve tensions and when negotiating for a perch or food, and then disinterestedly, whatever the sex or the age,” said Andre.

“They also have sex for pleasure but most of the time, it’s a way of making peace. They are a bit the hippies of the forest”.

The bonobos, which resemble their chimpanzee cousins, are distinguished by their black faces, small ears, hidden by their sideburns, and their surprising ability to walk upright.

“It’s us 3,5-million years ago,” said Andre, highlighting the age-old link to humans but also underling the threats to the species which since 1980 have seen their population shrink from 100 000 to 10 000 now.

The bonobo groups are dominated by the females, who have offspring only every six years. In the sanctuary, 80% of the orphans have survived, thanks to the human “subsitute mothers”, without whose presence they refuse to eat.

Three baby bonobos have been born in the sanctuary since March 2005 and the association plans within the next year to release 25 individuals in a special bonobo reserve which will be created in the northern Equator province.

The success of this operation will be a reprieve for the bonobos, a species which intriguingly may hold the secret to HIV/Aids.

“The bonobos can carry the virus but never develop the disease.
With a genetic heritage which matches 99% that of humans, they could, in the long-term, allow the development of a treatment or a vaccin,” Andre said.

After inspecting the reserve, the conference delegates promised a strong final declaration on Friday to protect the great apes which, according to the UN environment body, could lose up to 90% of their habitat to human encroachment over the next 30 years. - AFP

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