Racing to save bonobos

How one organization redefines the way we conserve species

Cayte Bosler | Boulder Weekly

Canadian-American novelist Deni Béchard, a recent resident of Breckenridge, has written two award-winning books and explored more than 50 countries. When he heard bonobos, our closest living relative alongside chimpanzees, are going extinct, he set out for the Congo to turn his writing abilities to examining the sole country where bonobos exist. In Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos and Make Conservation Go Viral, Béchard pries into the foundations of a place wrought by war and home to extreme beauty (the second largest rain forest in the world is here) with a personal desire to tell an empathetic story. He says he is sick of reading books about imminent doom.

His first exposure to bonobos came before the wild forests of the Congo, with American primatologist Sue Savage- Rumbaugh at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary. Savage-Rumbaugh was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people for her success with sign language studies with bonobos. A technology she developed allows bonobos to communicate with a keyboard of lexigrams, producing 120 separate utterances using 12 different symbols. Those talents have been demonstrated by a bonobo named Kanzi on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Béchard notes how strange it is that bonobos are becoming media darlings, as they are being exterminated in the Congo. Generally, conservation movements consider any public awareness to be a positive.

The average person still cocks their head at the mention of a bonobo, even though we share more than 98 percent of our genetics. Recent studies provide evidence to suggest we shared a common ancestor as recently — relative to an evolution time scale — as one million years ago.

But Béchard wonders if their portrayal in Western media might be a bit too kitschy. They swing safely from trees in glossy photographs. Rarely do we pause to consider their larger plight.

It is difficult to collect reliable population estimates partly because this creature learned to stay elusive for its own survival by taking refuge in dense forests, and partly because organizations often skew estimates to benefit their projects. Regardless of whether our primate cousins remain in numbers as low as 5,000 or at a peak of 50,000, their future is precarious at best. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List classifies them as facing extinction.

Threats include poaching, war, habitat degradation due to logging and agriculture, and a general lack of information about the need of bonobo groups. The biggest threat to their survival comes from bushmeat hunting done by those living inside the country.

A hunted, skinned bonobo, eerily resembling the human body, draped over a stick for sale, may not make the cover of National Geographic, for obvious reasons. But as gruesome as this image may appear, Béchard considers the circumstances that led up to it.

The Second Congo War, 1998 to 2003, claimed more than 5 million lives and left the country unstable and with a lack of infrastructure and marketplaces. Turning to the wild for meat, then smoking it to last long distances, offers an adaptive solution and fulfills the legitimate need of hunger. Béchard, even on this aspect, is reluctant to blame or vilify. Instead, Béchard’s latest book provides depth, context and clarity into the rich history of a country enmeshed with a species facing peril and some harsh realities about the global conservation effort.

While he jokes that his book won’t single-handedly save the world, he does have concrete missions.

“My mission as an author is to educate people, to generate empathy to step outside of their bubbles and understand another creature is going to extinct —and one that shares many of the qualities we recognize as human: empathy, a strong sense of family, deep emotion and intelligence,” he says.

The most dire estimate predicts all bonobos will be extinct within 50 years.

“I think there is no question that a great deal of their habitat will disappear with more plantations, more mining, more logging,” he says. “But groups will survive. I think as far as perseverance goes, we don’t have a choice. You give up or you do something. We have to look for solutions and engage in public debate. Each member in our society has to decide the degree to involve themselves. My dream for this book would be that someone says to me, I became a conservationist because I read this book in college.”

The book, in which he chronicles one of the biggest conservation efforts underway, focuses largely on the Congolese people — he tells how their livelihood and participation is crucial to furthering any conservation aim.

“I think that one of my goals is to make Western readers not see themselves as the saviors of the world, that we have the solutions,” he says. “So many of our projects fail because we don’t recognize the intelligence of local people or engage with it. We diminish it and try to get them to go along with our plans.”

Béchard writes that “the Western view of the Congo remains limited by colonial mythologies: the great river, the dark heart of Africa, notions that Cold War rivalries, mineral exploitation, and the recent wars have kept alive in our minds. The Congo has come to signify savagery, and hearing its name, many shudder without quite knowing why.”

That angle, he says, is reinforced by gonzo journalists who often emphasize the brutality and abuse of the Congo. He acknowledges the hardships and repercussions of a nation devastated by war, but bad things happen everywhere, he reminds us. When he chose to embed himself in the issue of bonobo conservation, he was less interested in pointing fingers and more focused on finding solutions.

What he found was a small nonprofit, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, or BCI, based in Washington, D.C., and the Congo. To date, the BCI has worked to protect more habitat and to stabilize local communities than any other existing non-governmental organization (NGO) in the Congo. The BCI works with local Congolese leaders to address root causes of unemployment and poverty. The solution may seem simple and rational, but in fact, what is referred to as collaborative conservation is rare in large-scale conservation organization operations.

BCI built an inclusive model by inviting people from rain forest villages to participate. Béchard writes, “They take into account their histories, cultures, and needs in order to foster grassroots conservation movements.”

By understanding another culture’s values, he says, the BCI’s conservation model becomes self-replicating. A tenet of his book is how to make conservation go viral, something he doesn’t think will be achieved by a colonial model — that is to say, large non-governmental organizations competing with one another to establish reserves all the while ignoring local leadership potential.

“The greatest solutions and the greatest allies we can have in these struggles to protect the environment are local people — and they are driven and compassionate about conservation — more collaborative and creative in their solutions than we are,” Béchard says. “We need to learn from them and recognize them as equals.”

It demands a great deal of tact on the part of any organization attempting to work with the Congolese people. The recent war, and the repeated insult of colonization, leave many natives skeptical of outsiders, at best. Building trust and mutual respect is key.

Not every habitat can be set aside as an animal reserve; some have villages nearby. But Béchard says there’s a way to work around that.

“If you create an educated culture with mutual benefits of living next to bonobos, then they get benefits by protecting them,” he says. Benefits like a boosted economy when researchers and tourists visit. A hundred U.S. dollars can provide schooling for many families for up to a year.

“Larger NGOs tend to cannibalize smaller NGOs — they come in with big government money and absorb the small projects that are much more personal and work because they are built around human relations,” he says.

When a section of forest is put under the care of an organization and it has not built a relationship with the people living closest, he says, then when war breaks out or funding ceases, leaders brought in from other regions, or the foreign representatives of the NGO, leave. If local leaders have built their reputation on the local reserve and their life around it, they have an incentive to stay and defend it.

That’s not to say traditional NGOs are not achieving admirable goals. Many well-cared-for forest reserves have resulted — but Béchard would like to see the underlying perspective of these organizations shift.

“If NGOs collaborated across the country, I can almost say without question that they wouldn’t be wasting millions of dollars competing with each other,” he says. “There is so much that slows us down because of our territorial nature. The way bonobos behave can be a lesson.”

Béchard, who has spent time with bonobos in research facilities and in the wild, says he thinks there is a line between what we can understand based on scientists’ field observations and what we learn by living with another creature and sharing its daily life.

He wasn’t expecting to gain profound insights into humanity from interacting with bonobos. He devotes a few chapters to this unexpected discovery — how the social structure, one of sharing and relative peace, stands to shed light on our own future.

“If you were to invite someone from another planet and say ‘OK, what makes a human a human?’ and we were written up in the intergalactic species, an observation might be: We fight over resources, we hoard resources,” Béchard observes. “Where there is a concentration of resources, there are high levels of peace, but where there is an imbalance, there is a high level of violence and fight for control. Bonobos share resources in all instances and are connected by all adult members in the group. They have aggression and violence, but it is restrained for common interest.”

A strange irony, considering the very creatures exhibiting cohesive group dynamics are the ones we are competing against each other to save.