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Why the Bonobos Need a Radio and Other (Unlikely) Lessons From Deepest Congo

The only jungle dwellers more mysterious than the Iyaelima people are the rare bonobo apes that live alongside them. A perilous expedition into the Democratic Republic of the Congo hopes to establish contact that will help preserve them both.   Text by John Falk   Photograph by Robert J. Ross

Photo: Congo; bonobo

PLANET OF THE APES: Our "closest" genetic cousin, in the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Left: Salonga National Park.


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The footbridge gave way with the sonic punch of a giant walnut cracking, plunging two of our best porters and a vital load of French electronics into the Lula River, which was little more than a boggy rivulet at this point in the dry season. In a spot where a young woman had recently had her arm ripped off by a slender-snouted croc, they were lucky to make it out alive. The mishap, nevertheless, cost us a half hour of precious sunlight and, perhaps, the goodwill of our increasingly anxious porters.

Map: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Our 30-person campaign trekked the next seven hours in a silent trudge through Salonga National Park, a mostly unexplored lowland rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For reasons that were beyond my comprehension at that early stage, we were led by a mysterious five-year-old boy wearing a tattered red dress who had somehow attached himself to our expedition. No one questioned our tiny guide, or needed to, as he was able to lead
a team of porters, park guards, and one primate specialist through an undulating course of fallen trees, barrel-chested fire ants, and malarial swampland of ankle-deep slop. The rain forest around us was disturbingly quiet: no barks, calls, thumping, or cawing of creatures except the tinnitus of insects and tweeting of birds.

About 16 miles (26 kilometers) in, the boy mercifully steered us into a small clearing. We were not far now from where Belgian colonials in the Congo used to exchange prisoners with a near-mythic people called the Iyaelima, the same "lost" tribe we were venturing into this 14,000-square-mile (36,260-square-kilometer) rain forest to meet. Finding them, in fact, was key to accomplishing our two goals for this journey: to connect the long-isolated Iyaelima to the outside world via radio and, if we were lucky, to study the group's remarkable relationship with their equally reclusive neighbors: a popular, even fashionable, species of primate called the bonobo.

Achy and starving, I eased to the forest floor with the grace of an arthritic in an ice hotel, resting next to my host, Dr. Jo Thompson. Tall, thin, and bespectacled, the 51-year-old director of the independent Lukuru Wildlife Research Project looked more like a schoolmarm than a controversial grassroots conservationist, let alone one who had lived in a mud hut for 16 years, escaped from a psychopathic jungle warlord, and prompted a certain infamy for her Dian Fossey–like advocacy of the bonobo.

When Thompson began studying the rare apes in 1992, not much was known about them, and since then, due to their extreme isolation, relatively little has changed. Studies portray bonobos, which share 98 percent of our DNA, as almost comic distillations of enviro-liberal idealism: a nonviolent race of proto-hippies who live in a matriarchal, highly promiscuous society, using sex to solve intragroup conflict. In a New Yorker article entitled "Swingers" (July 30, 2007), bonobos are characterized as "equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty." Reports on PBS and NPR depict a primate one might expect to find making artisanal cheeses off-the-grid in Vermont—while having a lot of sex. And because bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are our closest relatives, their behavior is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature.

Research on the species in the wild, however, has been complicated by the fact that they are notoriously hard to find. The first bonobo primatologist managed to observe the cagey creatures for a mere six hours over a two-year span in the 1970s. Since then, poaching has halved the bonobo population (numbers vary wildly, with some estimates as low as 10,000). Their flesh, reputed to strengthen children, is a hot commodity in the multimillion-dollar-a-year bush meat trade.

Thompson, however, has found one bright spot in this otherwise bleak picture: a near-symbiotic relationship between the Iyaelima—a people once described by Belgians in colonial reports as "fearsome cannibals" and "unconquerable"—and an uncommonly large group of bonobos in the Salonga.

Thompson first learned of the Iyaelima in 2005, when two small men emerged from the jungle a hundred miles (161 kilometers) south of the Salonga and handed her a remarkable letter written in French. It was signed by Chief Longanga Isako II, leader of the notorious tribe. Widely feared and despised by the villagers whose land borders the park, the Iyaelima have lived deep in the rain forest, in self-enforced exile, since their Bantu ancestors first settled this region, carefully cultivating their reputation by planting fables of their ferocity with itinerant traders. Chief Longanga's letter, however, requested that Thompson travel into Iyaelima territory to meet. The trip would make her the first non-African to lay eyes on the tribe since two American missionaries briefly passed through in the late 1940s. Why he wanted to open up now and why he chose Thompson, he didn't say.

Thompson's expedition began in January 2007, a time when the Iyaelima's right to remain in the park had been challenged by a group of the world's biggest nongovernmental conservation organizations (known as "bingos" in the DRC). Backed by the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an initiative funded by the United States that has pledged upwards of $53 million to protect the Congo Basin and develop an ecotourist industry there, the NGOs have come to view the Iyaelima as a threat to the park and its wildlife. Led by the World Wildlife Fund, the bingos have challenged a DRC law that categorizes the Iyaelima not as human, but rather as "wildlife"—a statutory demotion that has so far allowed the tribe to remain in the park.

After her three-month survey, however, Thompson concluded that, far from endangering the forest's plants and animals, the Iyaelima's unusually small ecological footprint, animistic spiritual beliefs, and ancient traditions made them ideal conservationists. This was especially true with regard to the bonobo, whose population was five times denser in Iyaelima territory than in the rest of the park. The feared Iyaelima and the peaceful bonobo appeared to live in perfect harmony.

"I remember meeting with a woman from one of the bingos who asked me, 'What's so special about the Iyaelima?'" Thompson said. "I said they were leaving a minimal footprint on their ancestral land and had nowhere else to go. She actually said, 'So? We've resettled people off their ancestral land in the past.'"

"Jo is a good primatologist, but she is not a trained socio-anthropologist or conservationist," said an official with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kinshasa, the traumatized capital of the DRC. "And the problem is, she is giving the Iyaelima the impression that they have the right to live in the Salonga, and they don't."

Our expedition—and the now damp radio unit—was Thompson's answer to the bingos. On her last trip Chief Longanga had asked the researcher to return and bring his tribe a phonie, the shortwave radio network that connects the government, missionaries, aid groups, and the military throughout the DRC. The device, Thompson knew, would instantly alter the way of life for the 2,300 Iyaelima, providing constant news and a direct line to the outside world—not always a good thing. But it would also allow the Iyaelima to participate in the debate roiling in Kinshasa that would ultimately determine their fate. Not coincidentally, an outcome in the tribe's favor would help preserve one of the world's best bonobo sanctuaries. "I decided to go for it," she told me before we left. "I bought the equipment for $5,000 in Kinshasa. What else could I do?"

Back in the forest, someone called an end to the half-hour rest. Our group, led by the boy in the red dress, started up a hill just as the equatorial sun was making its eternal nosedive to the horizon. We had another eight miles (13 kilometers) to hike to our campsite, a park patrol post called Iyamba. Soon our porters, preternaturally fearful of traveling in the forest at night, began to sing to ward off the leopards and evil spirits surely lurking in the descending darkness. A wonderful, booming chorus of disembodied voices called out to ancestors in the spirit world for protection.

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