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Friday, September 24, 2010

Bonobo conservation via community development

adult literacy class
Into the Congo: saving bonobos means aiding left-behind communities, an interview with Gay Reinartz

Unlike every other of the world's great apes—the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan—saving the bonobo means focusing conservation efforts on a single nation, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While such a fact would seem to simplify conservation, according to the director of the The Bonobo and Congolese Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI), Gay Reinartz, it in fact complicates it: after decades of one of world's brutal civil wars, the DRC remains among the world's most left-behind nations. Widespread poverty, violence, politically instability, corruption, and lack of basic infrastructure have left the Congolese people in desperate straits.

"From a place of privilege, I have had the opportunity to look upon a society essentially reduced to its simplest, most fundamental term—survival. In Congo, I have witnessed wider extremes of cruelty and kindness, exploitation and generosity, revenge and forgiveness," Gay Reinartz told in an interview. While developing and directing BCBI—a program established through the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM)—Reinartz has spent years working closely with Congolese communities in order to improve lives and, hopefully, ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo.

From the moment Reinartz first met a troop of bonobos as they arrived at the Milwaukee Zoo, she was smitten. "They were charming," she says of that encounter. Bonobos are most closely related to chimpanzees, but have been considered a separate species since the 1930s. While bonobos have some notable physical differences from chimpanzees, it is their behavioral differences that have really grasped the public imagination, especially their reputation of being lovers, not fighters.

"Bonobos have a playful nature. The idea that bonobos are a peace loving society is true—but to a certain extent," Reinartz explains. "This trait is relative and must be seen in comparison to other great ape species. The media have overplayed bonobos as peaceniks. While it’s true that bonobos show less aggression, that they have less big-male domination, that 'wars' have not been observed, they do fight. […] Nevertheless, the bonobo has evolved ways to deal with social tension and reduce aggression or conflict—that being social sexual interactions—having intimacy and intercourse for reasons other than reproduction—and empathy."

To save the world's least known great ape, the BCBI has developed a number of initiatives. The organization has trained Congolese field workers to survey bonobo and other large mammal populations in Salongo National Park, providing baseline data for before and after conflict erupted in the region. The surveys are also studying different bonobo densities in a number of sites in the park, variously affected by poaching.

BCBI has also established programs to support protective measures in the park, including setting up an anti-poaching patrol, training park guards, and coming through with supplies and funds for park guards in emergencies. Reinartz says the situation is incredibly difficult for park guards, and often dangerous especially when facing elephant poachers.

"There are fewer than two hundred park guards who are responsible for patrolling this entire area. They lack training, guns, means of transportation, communication, and basic forest equipment. There is approximately one gun per four men. They are no match for the well-armed elephant poachers who come in brandishing AK-47s."

The biggest current threat to bonobos and most of the wildlife in the park is hunting: the great apes are killed for bushmeat as well as trapped in snares meant for other big mammals. Given the poverty of the region, and few ways to make money, the bushmeat trade has boomed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"So, how do we convince them not to hunt? We have to give communities incentives to do something else and begin to build greater awareness. At the same time then, the park guards have to do their job in law enforcement. The two approaches must work from either side simultaneously—one with the other," says Reinartz.

Giving communities incentives not to hunt includes working on providing new economic and education opportunities, both of which are basically non-existent in the region. BCBI has established a farming cooperative with a local NGO, helping villagers can learn to grow their own food and hopefully start up markets to sell the extra. The organization has also set-up primary schools, including providing materials and paying local teachers, and adult literacy courses. In such a region, if conservation is to succeed, conservation programs have to become humanitarian programs, filling in the role of a crippled government, a battered economy, and a region still suffering from bouts of violence. Part of the battle, says Reinartz, is convincing people that conservationists can be trusted, that BCBI won't abandon communities if times get rough again.

"For many people, even though they might understand why and regret that elephants, bonobos and other animals have vanished from their communal forests, they consider conservation efforts as just another way they are being cheated and neglected. To change these attitudes will take a long time and program consistency to overcome generations of negative conditioning and hopelessness," she says, adding that "what surprises me is that they aren’t more cynical than they are."

Even in the face of war and poverty, Reinartz is clearly amazed at the generosity and strength of many of the Congolese people.

In a September 2010 interview Gay Reinartz spoke about the uniqueness of the bonobo, the challenge of saving a species in one of the world's most forgotten places: the Congo, and of combining conservation work with humanitarian programs.

Reinartz will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd, 2010.

To learn more, read the INTERVIEW WITH GAY REINARTZ at

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