Bonobos Find Peace in Congo Forest Sanctuary

Kokolopori, Democratic Republic of the Congo–My alarm goes off at 3:30 and I am very excited. Maybe today I will get to see a bonobo in the wild for the first time.

Along with my assistant and three Congolese trackers, we enter plantations. Slash-and-burn agriculture with three-year crop and five-year fallow is commonly practiced here, creating a mosaic of fields and secondary forest through which we trek for an hour before entering primary rain forest. It is still dark as we hike to where a bonobo group went to sleep last night, hoping to be there before they wake up at the crack of dawn. Some birds start to sing as we walk along a small windy path.

Christian Ziegler produced the photos for The Left Bank Ape feature in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Read the accompanying article by David Quammen.

Finally, it is 5:30 now, we come to the place. Pale light is visible in the eastern sky and the trackers point out a group of trees some 100 feet away. Like all apes, bonobos build a new nest every night, by weaving leafy branches together. I step a little closer as the light starts to pick up and I see one of the nests, and hear some rustling. These must be them…and there is one.

Not more then a shadow, one of the bonobos starts to move through the branches with an amazing fluidity for an animal so large (80 to 100 pounds). Suddenly there is movement everywhere. I notice at least eight bonobos take off together and melt into the green of the forest. As I think they are all gone, one individual hangs back, investigating who we are, and gives me a long look. There is still not a lot of light, but I take a first photo of a wild bonobo, which is very special to me.

Kokolopori, the Peace Forest, and Bonobo Conservation Initiative

The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve is the pilot and model for the Bonobo Peace Forest, a connected network of community-based reserves and conservation concessions, supported by sustainable development. Officially established by the DRC Ministry of the Environment in May 2009, the 4,875-square-kilometer (1,882-square-mile) reserve spans an area of rain forest 1.5 times the size of the state of Rhode Island. It serves as a testament to the power of community-led conservation.

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) and local partner NGO Vie Sauvage first signed accords with area residents in 2003 to protect the rain forest and the bonobos who live within. The indigenous Mongandu people at Kokolopori respect ancestral traditions regarding the protection of bonobos, and their daily efforts on behalf of bonobo conservation are yielding excellent results.

This amazing conservation endeavor was founded and is still led by a former National Geographic employee, Sally Coxe. Inspired by National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols’ book on the great apes, she left her staff position to devote her life to bonobos by establishing the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI).

Dedicated teams of trackers have habituated four bonobo groups to human presence, a boon to research and ecotourism (and photographers!) The Mongandu are working with BCI and managing partner Vie Sauvage to protect their forest while also improving their quality of life. Livelihood programs include sustainable agriculture, micro-enterprise, support for local education, and a health clinic. The clinic provides the only medical care available within a 70-mile radius, a tremendous distance in a region with difficult terrain and few reliable roads. Last year the facility saw more than 2,600 patients.

The most important aspect of the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve—and all of the Bonobo Peace Forest sites—is the collaborative, mutually beneficial approach. The Kokolopori model holds such promise that it has inspired nearby communities, on their own initiative, to create their own reserves based on the same principles: Likongo, Lingomo and Nkokolombo. The Congolese are the ultimate stewards of the Congo rainforest, and their leadership is vital to the success of conservation efforts. By engaging with local communities and increasing their livelihood opportunities, BCI and partners are helping to ensure a brighter future for bonobos and for the people who share their rain forest home.

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Christian Ziegler visited Kokolopori to photograph bonobos for the March 2013 issue of National Geographic.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Christian Ziegler is a tropical biologist turned photojournalist for National Geographic magazine, and spends lots of his time exploring rainforest around the globe to document their beauty and complexity - hoping this might help them survive. Having a soft spot for the vegetable kingdom, Christian tried to give plants as much attention as he thinks they deserve.