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Congo Photo Gallery: Expedition Bonobo
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.   Photograph by Robert J. Ross   Map by Olav Hajek

Photo: Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Feature Article: Expedition Bonobo  |   Video Exclusive: Coming Soon!

Photo: Robert Ross with bonoboLast fall, photographer Robert J. Ross and writer John Falk joined up with primatologist Jo Thompson for a 15-day expedition to see the mysterious bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Salonga National Park. Over 15 days, their team trekked 100 miles (160 kilometers) of dense rain forest, endured heat sickness, and even felt the rath of a sorcerer's curse in order to see bonobos in the wild and learn about one of the most feared and isolated tribes in Africa, the Iyaelima.

Map: Democratic Republic of the Congo

You may have read about bonobos recently in Smithsonian or the New Yorker. Compared with their cousins—the larger, patriarchal, sometimes murderous chimpanzees—bonobos have developed a reputation for being peaceful, female-dominated, and, most famously, for settling their conflicts with lots and lots of sex. Both both bonobos and chimps share a 98 percent match to our human DNA. If human behavior can be traced to that of other primates, many of us would hope that our wiring more closely resembles the laid-back bonobo's than the thuggish chimp's. Who knows?

What isn't funny, or debatable, is the peril that bonobos, and all the great apes, are in—from poaching, habitat destruction, and the stresses of the ever encroaching outside world. The DRC has been plagued by the deadliest war of the past 50 years and an institutionalized lawlessness that spells nothing but trouble for endangered species of all kinds.

For this expedition, Thompson returned to Salonga to do something potentially even riskier: help the bonobos by helping connect the Iyaelima to the rest of the DRC.

This assignment was funded by the National Geographic Expeditions Council

Feature Article: Expedition Bonobo  |   Video Exclusive: Coming Soon!

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