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Why are We Eating Bonobos? Can We Save Africa’s Vast Wildernesses from Destruction?

Bonobo orphans are pouring into primate sanctuaries across central Africa and thousands of adults are being killed, smoked and bundled with monkeys, pangolins, small antelope and bush pigs for sale in distant bushmeat markets. We are about to reach a tipping point in Africa beyond which it is going to be very hard to save...

Bonobo orphans are pouring into primate sanctuaries across central Africa and thousands of adults are being killed, smoked and bundled with monkeys, pangolins, small antelope and bush pigs for sale in distant bushmeat markets. We are about to reach a tipping point in Africa beyond which it is going to be very hard to save the last populations of Africa’s most enigmatic species like mountain gorilla, bonobo, lion, wild dog, giraffe, rhino, elephant, and cheetah. Years of civil war, unrest and corruption have broken this link for many people that now live in the cities and have evolved a new belief system, together with their new consumptive needs. Bonobo populations have declined significantly due to the bushmeat trade in recent years. People are now eating them and we need to look at what this represents in regard to our future in Africa. Ongoing anti-poaching efforts in source countries have yielded many successes and many, many people are trying to keep bonobos and all wildlife safe within protected areas. Forests and river basins are too vast, while  resources and staff are too few for enforcement of new laws to be effective in slowing the erosion of Africa’s natural heritage. We are just years away from that terrible morning when we all open our eyes and realize that we did not do enough when we could have and that now there was nothing left to save or do. As of today, we still have something to save and we had better get out there and do that…

Terese Hart /
Where there are bonobo orphans, there are dead bonobo adults. Orphans are coming from all corners of their distributional range. Photographed here is a baby bonobo at Lola Ya Bonobo - a Kinshasa bonobo orphanage. We simply cannot apply any further pressure on wild bonobo populations... (Terese Hart /


Research published this year by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has demonstrated that chimpanzees and bonobos are close enough to humans to share 99.6% of their DNA. Due to this close kinship there are deep taboos against hunting and eating bonobos are in fact relatively common throughout their distributional range. It would take but a few minutes in the presence of a wild bonobo to see that they are more like us than we would like to accept. Spend a long period of time with them and you will start to see that they are, in fact, better than us. Happier, honest, caring and trustworthy. Often researchers have encountered areas devoid of monkeys and other wildlife, but still with bonobos. Many local cultures feel a kinship for bonobos linking them to their forefathers. This ancestral and spiritual link has protected bonobos even through the most trying times over the later part of the last century when mad armies shot their way through the jungle and left many of their weapons behind to continue the destruction they had started.


Terese Hart /
Rare photograph of a bonobo moving through the high canopy. Are we going to exterminate this amazing great ape before we even know anything about the species? (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
We have so much to learn from these peaceful forest specialists that have followed he ebb and flow of these tropical forests for millions of years. (Terese Hart /


Africa’s “Great Work” is the persistence of vast wilderness areas all the way through until colonial times  The people’s of Africa clearly lived in balance with the ancient continent we all originated from. Africa is the cradle of mankind and we must look long and hard at the lives and livelihoods of the planet’s oldest resident populations. Today, after 150 years of ruthless exploitation of natural resources, ignorance for basic human rights, endless civil war and faction fighting, and ongoing lies and deceit from the rest of the world we are now a continent of people ripping apart, catching, killing, cutting, burning, raping and excavating our own natural heritage to feed aspirations that are perpetuated by the countries that use and abuse Africa’s resources. The people that Africa want to be like are the very people that are misleading and disempowering the continent. As we stand at the dawn of massive development on the African continent we need to be cognizant of where we have come from and what we want to take with us. NGOs from the United States and around the world have an idea about what to do. Reports have been written about the multitude of problems and threats facing Africa’s last-remaining wild places. If we do not protect and celebrate our remaining wild places now, we will lose the origin of our species, the very wilderness that protected us through ice ages and brought forth modern man 100,000 years ago. We need to do this by establishing new protected areas, expanding old ones, uplifting rural communities, and working with local government to improve legislation. African governments and the rest of the world need to invest in the future of wilderness on earth. As per Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” The great beating heart of Africa will go silent within the next 15-30 years if we do not do everything in our power to protect what we have left now. The great elephant migrations will come to an end, the roar of “king of the jungle” will be gone, the chirping of excited painted hunting dog no more, and the great apes are all in zoos overseas. The African wilderness and other wilderness areas around the world are birthplace of our religion, the first and only places where we can clearly see, feel and understand our connection to this blue planet…


Terese Hart /
Every year hundreds of baby bonobo are handed over to sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Their loving mother were all shot or clubbed to death for the bushmeat trade. These little bonobo orphans can only close their eyes and remember wonderful moments like this one with their mother. Local communities are turning their backs on long held beliefs and killing and eating bonobos. (Terese Hart /


Dr Terese Hart explains: “Bonobos were being killed and sold in meat markets next to forest monkeys, antelope and bush pigs. Anything that could be shot with a 12 gauge shotgun or caught in a metal snare was laid out on the market racks for sale.”


Terese Hart /
A dehydrated and stressed out baby bonobo that was abandoned in the sun outside the kitchen where his/her mother is being grilled and eaten. How can we justify doing this to a great ape that is 99.6% us? This mother and child had a life living free in the wild until she was shot by poachers. What are you feeling looking at this abandoned and hopeless baby? (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
The mother that was killed with her baby grasping to her belly. Her hands and feet are being smoked on the grill for dinner. The baby bonobo waits outside in a heap outside to be killed and eaten or sold into the pet trade. There is no hope... (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
"Bonobo in a backpack". Bushmeat has to be hiked out of remote forests, as wildlife is now scarce or absent in all populated areas. (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
Bonobo that was trapped and then clubbed over the head. These are our closest relatives and we treat them with such violence. (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
"Bonobo in basket". Photographed here on the road to Kindu market. Once the porters have hiked the bushmeat out of the forests, they transfer to bicycles to get the meat to market. (Terese Hart /
Terese Hart /
This is gruesome reality of the bushmeat trade... In the past the local people used to target small antelope, pangolins, rodents and other small- to medium-size animals. Now the trappers simply target "bushmeat" and hunt the forests until they are cleared of wildlife... (Terese Hart /


This sequence of images from “Search for Bonobo in Congo – Field Notes from Dr Terese Hart ( are shocking to say the least and demonstrate in plain sight just how far we have fallen, how far we have pushed the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rest of Africa towards oblivion. If you were to visit central Africa, whether it be Zambia, Malawi or the Congo, you would encounter the most generous, friendly people you are likely to meet in your life. For the most part African people are open, somewhat innocent, and almost entirely non-judgmental. This innocence can easily be stripped away by hate and fear, leaving a person that lives day to day and cannot be held accountable for their actions. We are entering desperate times on the continent, a time when the corrosive effects of alcoholism and crime are the only way out. Pull apart your natural heritage or die… We need to support John and Terese Hart in their mission to protect the three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (TL2), a faraway enigmatic forest in the geographic heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have explored this remote forest since 2007 and discovered great apes (the Congo’s bonobos), the okapi, an endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare and elusive Congo peafowl. Today their challenge is to bring real protection to these forests before the bonobo and everything else are hunted out… and we are left with the “African silence”…


Message from Dr Terese Hart: “The TL2 Project has a budget of $780,000 for 2012. It is a large project that we run efficiently, fairly and transparently. One month ago we were still missing $339,000 for 2012, but because of your generosity and a proposal that was funded we are now only missing less than $99,000.  We are encouraged and sure that we will make it through the end of this year and start 2013 at full strength.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.