February 7, 2008
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with an extended version of the original bonobo expedition video.They may be popular, but bonobos, the promiscuous, peaceful apes bearing a 98 percent match to human DNA, are notoriously hard to find in the wild—particularly if your trackers are afraid of them.
This fall, writer John Falk and photographer Robert J. Ross accompanied primatologist Jo Thompson into the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Salonga National Park with two goals: to connect the isolated Iyaelima to the outside world via radio and to study the group's remarkable relationship with their equally reclusive primate neighbors. Bonobo populations flourish near the Iyaelima, who believe that the apes were once human and could be dangerous if encountered in the forest.
Actually spotting one of these primates proved as difficult as chasing down the Yeti. Only after four frustrating ape hunts did our crew finally have some luck—thanks, perhaps, to a sorcerer's spell.
At 3:30 a.m. near the village of Ila (see map), the team embarked on a three-hour hike in the rain to position themselves under more than 60 nests. Come day break (watch the video), the bonobos announced the humans' arrival with "an unnatural, overwhelming squawking sound, like 60 pterodactyls screaming," writes John Falk in "Why the Bonobos Need a Radio and Other (Unlikely) Lessons From Deepest Congo" (February 2008 issue).
As Thompson was the first non-African person to interact with the Iyaelima in more than 60 years, this is the only known video of the bonobos and Iyaelima in Salonga National Park. Though the footage is dark and somewhat chaotic (not unlike the tracking experience itself), look closely to see the fuzzy bonobo first perched on a branch and then seen leaping through the tree canopy.
Stay tuned for our next video, showing more footage from this groundbreaking expedition into Iyaelima territory.
Feature Article: Expedition Bonobo | Expedition Photo Gallery
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