The gentle bonobo (Pan paniscus)—a primate of west central Democratic Republic of Congo that is known for its peaceful ways—is a fitting symbol for this area that has become a bastion of tranquility in a country better known for conflict.
But this genetic cousin to humans is struggling for survival, and may be just decades away from extinction after years of hunting, logging and war in their fragile habitat.
Good news, however, may arrive soon. The 4,000-square-kilometer Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve is expected to be gazetted this year by the minister of the environment of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The anticipated move comes after a seven-year process championed by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), based in Washington, D.C., and Kinshasa, DRC. with support from Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund (GCF). Kokolopori joins the 30,000-square-kilometer Sankuru Nature Reserve as a refuge for the Endangered primate.
BCI sees the bonobo as a keystone species in the arc of land formed by the Congo River, the second largest rainforest area in the world. Avid eaters of forest fruits—along with leaves, grubs, and rarely, small mammals—the apes help disperse seeds. “By protecting the bonobos, you’re protecting all the biodiversity of the Congo forest,” said BCI co-founder and President Sally Jewell Coxe in a recent interview.
The sparsely populated Kokolopori Reserve throbs with the haunting call of the turaco, a large fowl with striking robin’s-egg-blue plumage, and plays host to the rare Congo peacock. The area—which includes forests considered sacred by local communities—comprises the only known habitat of the reclusive Salongo monkey, one of a dozen primates living here.
As it works to save this habitat, BCI is partnering both with Congolese officials and with the people of some 35 villages that have traditional land rights to the forest, led by dynamic local conservationist Albert Lokasola. Discussions with stakeholders led to one conclusion, say BCI leaders. “Everyone agreed that another national park where you draw the border and throw the people out is not going to work,” Coxe said in a recent interview. “We need another model.”
That model turned out to be the community-based reserve. As it stands, the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve Association, comprising area villagers and NGO Vie Sauvage, is already managing the area—and guarding its wildlife. “The real benchmark of success in conservation is getting buy-in from local people,” said BCI Executive Director Michael Hurley, adding, “It’s happening wherever we’re working.”
That engagement may be traced to BCI’s humanitarian aid and help in building sustainable microbusinesses in Kokolopori. Since 2004, the group has provided mosaic virus-resistant cassava, a food staple, to local people. Production has grown from a handful of cuttings to more than 200 small fields where high yields reduce net damage to the rainforest. “You are actually taking conservation action because the planting is reducing the impact on the forest, improving nutrition, and increasing revenue for the communities,” Hurley said.
GCF was backing the efforts of BCI as far back as 2001, when it underwrote a feasibility study for a bonobo reserve, even as civil war in the Congo still raged. Today, GCF supports capacity building among local villagers, including ecological surveys, land management, sustainable development, stakeholder meetings and public awareness campaigns.
In time, BCI leaders hope to create a 50,000-square-kilometer Bonobo Peace Forest across the Congo Basin, with Kokolopori as an anchor. Corridors between community-based reserves would allow wildlife to move about in safety. As it builds toward the Peace Forest, BCI is reaching out to area residents by launching a health clinic and the region’s first technical college, as well as running radio spots by Congolese music stars Werra Son and Papa Wemba.