Claudine is Helping to Save the Last Bonobos on the Planet
“Both bonobos and common chimps are as close to humans as foxes are to dogs. I don’t know about you, but that’s closer than I feel to some of my human relatives.” – Susan Block,
Bonobos are the least known of the four great apes, which also include Gorillas, Chimpanzees, and Orangutans. Together with Chimpanzees, Bonobos are the human’s closest relative. They are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the DRC, in Africa, where Claudine grew up learning all about animals from her father, a veterinarian. Bonobos are victims of the Bushmeat Trade, where illegal poachers kill meat for income, and Claudine expects Bonobos to be extinct in just three short Bonobo generations (about 75 human years) if we as a global society do not do something about it. Watch this in-depth interview to see how passionate Claudine is about saving this close relative of ours.
Claudine nursed a baby Bonobo back to heath that was found near death in 1993. By 1994, Claudine had more orphaned Bonobos to care for than she could imagine, so she created the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the DRC. The Bonobo sanctuary aims to gather young Bonobos that are victims of poaching, and helps to rehabilitate them physically and socially, and to ultimately reintroduce them in their natural environment.
In 1994, Claudine also founded the Friends of Bonobos in the Congo, and she is still the president today. She stressed the fact that the only was she can do charitable outreach to these Congo communities, is from the base to the top. When she reintroduces a group of Bonobos back into the wild, she needs to have a town nearby looking out for the needs of these animals. The people in that town protect the Bonobos, and in return, Claudine helps the community with things such as books for their schools, medicine for their dispensaries, and so on. Only in this way can the relationship between Bonobos and humans work, eventually saving the Bonobo species. In 2006 Claudine received in Belgium Prince Laurent Award for the Environment, and France ‘s National Order of Merit.
What You Can Do to Help Claudine and the Bonobos
Go to www.lolayabonobo.org and donate to help Claudine release her next group of Bonobos back into the wild!
Talk to others about Bonobos. Most people do not even know what Bonobos are, or that they together with Chimpanzees are human’s closest relative. Talking about these facts alone can bring awareness to Lola Ya Bonobo, the only place on Earth where the Bonobos can be kept safe from the Bushmeat Trade, and eventually released back into the wild.
Share this story, or your own. If you have a Bonobos story, we would LOVE to hear it! If this is your first time hearing about Bonobos, share this story with your friends so they can learn more about these great apes!
Full Transcript of Interview:
Patrick: Hi, this is Patrick Henry from the San Diego Lifestyle. I’m here today with Claudine Andre. Claudine is the daughter of a veterinarian. She moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the DRC, in Africa when she was four years old. She was very young. She grew up there. In 1993, she volunteered at the zoo in…
Patrick: Kinshasa, which is in the Congo, where she nursed a baby bonobo back to health, which was found near death.
Bonobos are one of the four great apes. They’re very fragile from what I understand, especially when they’re babies. As I understand, this was a shocking and surprising feat as baby bonobos are very frail animals.
In 1994, she created the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the DRC. Bonobos are the least known out of the four great apes, which also include gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. They only live in the DRC.
The bonobo sanctuary aims to gather young bonobos that are victims of poaching, which apparently is a big issue over there. She helps them, rehabilitates them physically and socially, and ultimately reintroduces them back into their natural environment.
In 1994, Claudine also founded the Friends of Bonobos in the Congo. She still is president of that organization today.
In 2006, she received, in Belgium, the Prince Laurent Award for the Environment and France’s National Order of Merit.
Welcome, Claudine. This is awesome. We’re really grateful to have you here today in San Diego. I know you’ve been in the U.S. for about two weeks now, hoping to raise awareness for bonobos and hopefully raise money for the sanctuary.
Tell out listeners a little bit about yourself personally and a little bit more about how you got involved in helping Bonobos.
Claudine: It’s a long story, because it begins, like you just said, with my father who was a vet. It’s probably because I was very near the animals.
Congo has a bad reputation. Violence entered my life when I was 14. In 1960, we had independence and a lot of political trouble. Congo is not such a bad country, believe me. Welcome to the DRC. People are so gentle.
Patrick: It’s much more safe now, easy to travel to, and people from the United States come there often?
Claudine: Yes, but if you read the message of your embassy on DRC- go to the web and see- they say, “If you have nothing to do in the DRC, don’t go.”
I can’t believe this. I traveled deeply in the Congo with my canoe, with men. It was a very long trip and no one hurt me. No one wants to hurt you if you come there. You are welcome in Congo.
It’s true that it’s during one of the wars that I began my story with the Bonobos. It was in 1991. Again, in 1993 we entered a very difficult political period.
The towns were looted. We lost our house, our company and my husband’s company. I pushed the door of the zoo and found 200 animals in a very bad state, but also 32 men in the same state, waiting. I don’t know why.
I went back to my husband’s office. It wasn’t an office anymore because he had a door like a desk. Everything was destroyed. I said, “You know what? We stayed 35 years in this town. We are so happy. We have to do something for the zoo.”
It was a little bit unrealistic, I saw it in his eyes, but he said, “Yes, why not. We can save the zoo.”
I went everywhere. I collected food in one hotel left after the war and two shops. I saved the animals. Quickly, someone brought me a little what I believed was a chimpanzee.
The director said, ”No, no, Mama Claudine. It’s not at all a chimpanzee. It’s a Bonobo.” I said, “Bonobo? What is a Bonobo?”
He explained to me that it’s a very fragile animal. It never survives in captivity. It was, perhaps, my second challenge in this moment.
I took this baby Bonobo. I carried it all the time with me. After one or two weeks I realized that he survived because of my love. That is why the bonobos never survive in captivity. You have to take care of them like a kid.
It grew up. I have more Bonobos. I had to involve Congolese authorities because I had a place to put the orphans. They are orphans of the bushmeat trade. Slowly, word-by-word, I have 20 Bonobos, more and more.
I created Lola ya Bonobo. It means “paradise for Bonobos.” When I had too many in Lola ya Bonobo- I had 75 Bonobos- I realized that I would be giving a death sentence to the last orphan of the last great ape in the world.
I decided to reintroduce them in the wild following the very strict guidelines of the International Union for Conversation of Nature. It’s like a bible. You have to focus.
Finally in 2009, I released the first group of Bonobos, in 2011, the second, and the third one. Now I’m ready to release again 18 Bonobos in this very big area. The Congolese government gave me the place.
For me it was very important. I returned to my roots. When I was four years old, I went with my parents deep into the forest, in the bush. When I was almost 50, I returned very deep in my country, to see that the people never changed.
The woman asked me, “You don’t have a husband?” I said, “Yes, and five children.” She said, “My God. The war is finished because if not she would have never come back here.”
Can you imagine being a symbol of peace? It’s sometimes difficult. This is a part of my life.
Patrick: When you return the Bonobos to their natural habitat, do they track those animals and the health of them? How are they doing? Do you have an idea?
Claudine: Yes, we have to follow them for two years. We follow them for two years.
The most important thing when you organize a reintroduction in the former habitat is to have a very close link with the local communities around.
A good thing is to arrive to a deal. You will be the guardian of the Bonobos that I return to your place, and I will help you in your needs, such as school, medicine for the dispensary, the little local association for fishers, agriculture.
It’s a link. It’s an interdependent job. You cannot come and say, “I’m here. I’ve come back with animals to return in your forest.” ..and what? What?
If they don’t understand what you are doing, they cannot help you. They need to understand what you are doing there. It’s not easy. It’s not 100% a success.
Sometimes we find a snare in the forest. They don’t want to kill the Bonobo, but they need to hunt like before. It’s all the time, every day, education.
It’s important when they see the difference. When we are there, they have books for the school or they have medicine for the dispensary.
We begin to become partners with one job. My job is to protect the Bonobos in their former habitats. For them, what I want, it’s to be the guardian. In exchange, we work together in a committee of development of villages.
It’s really just this way it can work. Together. I believe in a lot of grassroots associations with little programs. These people give you the synergy and the hope to do something together, then coming from the top with national authorities or big NGOs.
The pyramid is completely opposite. It’s like this. If you go from grassroots people, programs, you go like this. These people give you the force to go together.
It’s my way to work for conservation. It’s from the base, not from the top to the base.
Patrick: Yes, which wouldn’t work.
Claudine: It’s completely different.
Patrick: I don’t know anything about Bonobos other than what Debbie Sandler has told me. Debbie is local here in San Diego. I know she works with you on the Bonobo projects.
Are they pack animals? How are they accepted back into the wild when they’ve been in your sanctuary? Are they welcomed back or are they pushed out? Do they have to form new groups? How does that work?
Claudine: This is very important. The Bonobos are very special great apes. It’s not one male and female around and a territory no one can come in.
Bonobos are very different. It’s an alliance of females who manage the aggression of males. Like all the males in the world, on the planet, in each species, the males try to get the best genes, strong and intelligent, for the perennity of the species.
When two males are a little bit too strong and try to take the power, this alliance of females punishes them. The most important thing in the Bonobo group is serenity. It’s a social organization. It’s really important.
By the way, on the other end, the Bonobo is an animal that grows up very slowly.
It loses the first teeth at four. The female has her first period at eight, eight-and-a-half. They have the same ovarian cycle as human women, every 28 days. They are pregnant for nine months.
It’s a well-organized and well stable group. It takes 20 years, for you, before the first reintroduction.
They are also very shy animals. You cannot release them in the wild alone. No. You have to have a good group, well organized, with several old females to have a good alliance, several old males, and juveniles.
It takes time to do this. When they are in the wild, they organize. They just have to discover a new place, a new environment. It works. After two years, we can see. Even after two weeks, we can see.
Patrick: They’ve been accepted into the community.
Claudine: They have no wild animals there when we release them. They have to live by themselves, like Robinson Crusoe. They have to return to a new life. They have to organize themselves.
The only thing I suggest is that, it’s perhaps the intelligence of the Bonobos and also how they like their comfort, just like humans. They like big nests, organized to have an umbrella in the rain with a big leaf, things like this. It was really interesting to see how they could survive.
Patrick: You weren’t sure in the first release how they were going to do?
Claudine: It’s a challenge when no one has done it before you. You are a pioneer. They learned from me and I learned from them.
We follow by GPS. We see where they go. Day-by-day, year-by-year, they go farther and farther. They go back to the same place in the same months because they know they have fruits.
After two years, the guideline tells you that you have to organize your data and say whether it’s a success so that you can go for more.
Now we are ready for another group, but it’s another challenge. Bonobos make fusion and fission with other groups in the wild.
It’s not like other great apes where no one can come on their territory. Bonobos are not like that. It’s tourism, to be specific. There’s no sexual propriety and no territory propriety.
They move in the forest and they find another group. It’s a big sex party when they are together. It’s at this moment, the young female changes the group.
The male will never leave the mother because of their protection against the alliances. They stay near them. To have no consanguinity, the young female migrates to another group when they mate. They go in another group.
What I want to organize is another group that they can make a fusion with and after fission. It’s a new challenge. Will they do it or not? I’m sure they will.
Patrick: Awesome. I looked on the Lola ya Bonobo website, which stated that bonobos are a great ape species found exclusively in the DRC. They are endangered and may become extinct in as soon as 75 years. Only between 50,000 and 75,000 remain in the wild today.
That seems crazy to me. How is your sanctuary, your charitable organization Friends of Bonobo, helping to resolve this issue?
Claudine: I don’t know. We cannot resolve these issues. By the presence of one sanctuary, you can enforce the law. Why? The law exists and the national authorities have to confiscate such a treasure of nature in Congo.
They have a place to put these animals in Lola ya Bonobo. The sanctuary’s first role is to be a place to enforce the law. When we collect a baby in a very bad state, the rehabilitation of this baby is important. They have a surrogate to survive because of love.
My motto is, conservation begins by education. When I was in the zoo, I realized how people can change if you explain to them. In the zoo, there were a lot of orphaned human children who lived in the zoo because they didn’t know where to go during the war.
These kids were always around me in the zoo. “Mama, tell me, how is it in the wild with this and this?” I see they changed very quickly. They have another behavior, another approach with the animals. From there comes my motto, conservation begins through education.
Today in Lola ya Bonobo we receive 30,000 children each year, to tell them about bio diversity, about Bonobos, that Bonobos are 100% Congolese. They have to be proud of these great apes, because they are our closest relatives.
Patrick: That’s another part of your charter, to educate the local communities about the bonobo?
Claudine: It’s also important outside Lola ya Bonobo, near the release site, and everywhere. It’s work.
Last year, we had a man who paid to go deep in the forest, 400km from my release site, in the middle of nowhere. He took radio communication, called someone, and said, “You have to try to find the people who protect the Bonobos in Basin Cousseau,” the town where I release the Bonobos.
He said, “I have a bonobo in a rope and I don’t want to kill this adult female. Please, tell them to come here and help.”
We rented two motorbikes to go very deep in the forest. When we saw the female, it was a big female. How were we going to transport them on the motorbike?
Very simply, on the motorbike. One hung like this, because the other one was hurt. Two days on the motorbike, after in the canoe, until Mbandaka, for two nights, and then in a cage in a big plane to Kinshasa.
For me, this a little hope, but this message goes so far in the forest, that education is the way. It’s the way.
Patrick: That’s awesome. As one of the leading experts in Bonobos, which you’ve become over the years, can you tell us a little bit about the difference between Bonobos and other great apes, especially Chimpanzees? They look a lot like Chimpanzees, but they’re obviously very different.
Claudine: Yes. Physically they are alike, but they are not really like them. We are alone, so I can say Bonobos are nicer. Chimpanzees are more robust.
Patrick: More aggressive?
Claudine: Physically more robust. Bonobos are more longiligne, very juvenile in style.
In behavior, they are so different. Chimpanzees are the warriors of the forest. The Bonobo, by its behavior, is more the hippie of the forest. Do you see the difference? It’s a big difference. Gorillas are very different.
Patrick: Very aggressive. I saw that Anderson Cooper visited your sanctuary. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that and that experience?
Claudine: Yes. The first thing is, no one in Congo knows Anderson Cooper. It was funny. Everyone made a big deal. It was so nice to say, “Hello, Anderson. How are you?”
We spent one week together. He discovered that Congo is so nice. He discovered that Bonobos are unique, too. It was a really good time.
Patrick: Awesome. Did you get some good coverage in the U.S. or even globally from that piece that he did?
Claudine: Yes, of course, because it’s a big audience. U.S. is a big audience. We didn’t have the chance to cover the eastern U.S. because President Obama decided to speak that night.
Patrick: This piece ran on 60 Minutes, then?
Claudine: Yes, on 60 Minutes.
Patrick: Interesting. A close friend of mine and Amanda’s, Debbie Sandler, who lives here in San Diego, actually she lives right here in Solana Beach, is involved with you on Bonobos.
She invited us to an amazing fundraising event last year for Bonobos. We attended. It was in Point Loma. At the event, she mentioned that there’s an upcoming movie about Bonobos.
It’s probably released by now, but can you tell us a little bit about that?
Claudine: Yes. It’s a movie we made with a French production. First in French and then after, by chance, we had Debbie Sandler who found someone who wanted to make the English version.
It’s a really long movie, one-and-a-half hours. It’s the story of one orphaned Bonobo, from the moment he was very happy in the forest with his mom. The hunters arrive and kill the parents for bushmeat.
After, a long, bad trip to Congo on the Congo river, and being confiscated, finally, by the Ministry of Environment and brought to the sanctuary and there, a new life, very happy again. Ten years later, he returned to the wild.
Patrick: That’s awesome.
Claudine: Yes. It’s a nice story. It’s the story of all orphans of great apes, even Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Orangutans. They all have the same story for the moment.
It was a new phenomenon in the 1980’s with apes that grew up in Africa. We have a lot of orphans from this bushmeat trade.
Orangutans have another problem also. It’s the land. Their habitat is lost by the palm tree. Agriculture destroys the forest for palm oil.
In Congo, it’s more humans who kill for the bushmeat. They don’t especially focus on Bonobos. Bonobos are a part of the bushmeat trade.
Patrick: That’s sad. Clearly you have a passion for Bonobos and running the sanctuary. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s like on a day-to-day basis, and a little bit more about the Friends of Bonobos and how that works in the U.S., in the Congo, and other parts of the world?
Claudine: In Congo we have several sites, but especially three sites. We have Lola ya Bonobo, near Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, which is very focused on rehabilitation and education and the site also prepares them for release.
We have 1km away Ekolo ya Bonobo, which means “the country of the Bonobos.” It’s the release site. We have an island, Totaka, which is a quarantine site.
Patrick: That’s if the bonobo gets sick and they need to be separated from other bonobos?
Claudine: No. It’s preparation for reintroduction. The guideline obliges to have six months quarantine.
Patrick: I see.
Claudine: In Lola, again, I have 75 bonobo orphans. I cannot sacrifice a big enclosure to make the quarantine. It’s better for me to have the quarantine very close to the release site.
This is the day-by-day, on the ground, in the field, in Congo. We have several sister associations in Europe, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland and Friends of Bonobo in the U.S.
These sister associations focus on helping me, because I need money to run this whole project. They are sisters, and good sisters.
Patrick: Awesome. That’s great. What’s the most gratifying thing you’ve done in your career?
Claudine: I think perhaps it’s making a circle with my life. When I was four, I was deep in the field all the time, in the forest, everywhere with my father and my mother, going to see the people and the cows because he was a vet.
At the end of my life…
Patrick: You’re not at the end yet.
Claudine: Haha, no. Okay.
Patrick: We have a long time to go, Claudine.
Claudine: I hope so, because I’m a grandmother and I want to see my grandchildren grow.
I never imagined this. When the violence entered in my life, in the year 1960, I had all my life in Congo, but always in big towns.
I made a different life, a completely new life, growing up again. I never imagined that I would return to my roots, near the local communities. This is, for me, the most important thing from this combat of the Bonobos.
Patrick: How about the most difficult thing you have to do or that you have done?
Claudine: Yes, I realize with your question that, finally, it’s not “keep the Bonobos alive in world, going deeply, save them.” It’s a daily combat that involves the Congolese authorities. I have a good staff.
I think perhaps it’s now the biggest combat. It’s so difficult because the planet has so many needs for everything. The raising money is perhaps my new challenge because I grow. I have 100 people working with us. I have more Bonobos. I have the local communities to help. I realize that the perennity of the project is to find people who trust in my work and find the money, day by day.
Patrick: I think it’s important just knowing what the Bonobo is and that they exist. I remember when I went to the fundraising event here in San Diego. I think Debbie asked the audience who had ever heard of Bonobos and maybe three or four people had. There had to have been 50 people there. These are people who came to this event.
It’s shocking. I didn’t know. Debbie taught us all how to pronounce Bonobos. That’s step one.
Claudine: I understand very well. It’s why we created these sister associations, which have two goals. To educate the national people about the existence of these fantastic and unique close relatives.
Patrick: Of the great apes, the Bonobo is the closest relative with humans?
Claudine: Not really the closest one. Chimpanzees are close also. However, they exist only in one country and it’s not the easiest country to go to, to study in the field.
Now we know that between 2004 and 2014, from the data collected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Bonobo disappears, each year, 5.95%.
It says that between these two dates, 10 years, almost 60% of what rests in the wild before. We think more and more that the Bonobo is in critical danger.
I say perhaps only three generations are left of Bonobos. One generation is 23 years. It’s high time to do something. Educate the world and continue to educate the local communities to respect them and live together.
I think it’s possible. I have an example. In Namibia, the people have a lot of education. Now they live with the Cheetah, together, because they understand they have to live together. It’s a new challenge, trying to do this.
Patrick: Has it been a successful trip for you to the U.S.? Are you making progress on the fundraising?
Claudine: Sure. We have better and better contacts. Doors open. People are interested. The new numbers given by IUCN give the people the taste to do something.
Patrick: There is more of a sense of urgency.
Claudine: Yes. This is important. It’s a good trip, I think.
Patrick: Good. Tell us a little bit about yourself that most people don’t know.
Claudine: People perhaps believe I am a monkey mom. I have a baby in my arms like this. It’s not true.
I always link my projects with humans. Even in the sanctuary, we buy 13 towns’ vegetables and fruits for the Bonobos each month. We work with the gardeners around. It’s their job for the Bonobos. They return the money, what we buy every month.
It’s the same in the wild, with the return to freedom. It’s a link. Eighty percent of my time is with local communities. People perhaps have to discover that I’m also very humanist.
Patrick: You can even tell from the way you describe the project of reintegration. A huge part of it is dealing with the local communities and having that type of relationship. You’re a grandma, too. You have kids. You have grandkids.
Claudine: Yes. Early in the beginning, it’s just the eyes of this baby Bonobo that asked for my help. The most important thing is to understand very quickly the link and educate the people from the country.
I’m almost born there. I am what the people say mwana mboka. I am a kid from the village. This is important.
Patrick: How can our listening audience, hopefully this gets broader than San Diego, get involved with helping the Bonobo?
Claudine: Go to the website. It’s very easy. It is lolayabonobo.org. There you learn more about the Bonobo. You can speak about the Bonobo. Just speak about Bonobos. It’s a little step to help them to survive in the wild.
Also, be generous. Help me, because I will help the people who are the guardians of the last Bonobos in the forest.
Patrick: Thank you, Claudine. It was really nice meeting you. I’m glad you did this for us. I admire you very much. I’m very impressed with the work that you’re doing. Thank you so much.
Claudine: Thank you, too. My pleasure.