Lola Ya Bonobo, or "Bonobo Paradise" in the Lingala language, is an 86-acre sanctuary set in verdant hills 20 miles south of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Founded by Claudine André, a Belgian woman raised in the Congo, it's home to 52 bonobos, from infants to adults, most of them orphaned when their mothers were slaughtered for bushmeat.
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One of André's favorites is a five-year-old once kept in a basket by a medicine man. He chopped off one of the bonobo's finger joints every so often, and it is missing much of one hand. "Congolese believe that if you put a bonobo bone into a child's first bath, the child will grow up strong," André tells me. "He even chopped off the tip of the bonobo's penis to use in rituals."
The sanctuary allowed me to observe bonobo behavior up close, although I recognize that these are traumatized animals living in an artificial environment.
At one of the enclosures, eight bonobos grip their night-cage bars and stare greedily as attendants pile their breakfast outside—papaya, lettuce, sugar cane, pineapple and other fruits. Let loose from the shelters they stay in overnight, they immediately launch into frenzied sex, with even youngsters joining in, the air shaken by their excited screams. Then they settle in a circle around the food and eat. "Bonobos use sex to deflate tension. Competition for the best food could cause a fight, so they defuse it by having sex first," André says.
I saw another side of bonobo sexuality that sets them apart from the other great apes (gorillas, orangutans and chimps). Tshilomba, a 22-year-old female, had been rescued two years earlier after spending 18 years confined in a cage in a Kinshasa biological laboratory. She allows her favorite, Api, a juvenile male, to mount her and simulate sex. She looks the other way when the alpha male, Makali, clearly indicates that he too wants to mate with her. She lies on her side, swollen bottom pointed provocatively at him, and stares with seemingly studied indifference into space. Makali sits by her side waiting for an invitation and, when it doesn't come, wanders away. "With chimps and gorillas, an alpha male would have had sex with the female whether she wanted to or not," says André.
But at Lola Ya Bonobo I also got my best glimpse of bonobo male aggressiveness. At the open-air nursery, a pair of three-year-old males launched repeated attacks on me through the enclosure fence. I stood close enough that they were able to punch me in the stomach, back and face. When I approached an enclosure holding a burly adult male, he dragged a tree bough noisily along the ground at high speed and slammed it into the fence in front of me in a power display. A Congolese researcher named Mola Ihomi had told me that male bonobos in the wild do the same thing when flaunting their power at males from another troop. "I never let male attendants into the enclosures because the male bonobos would attack them," André says.
André and Dominique Morel, who is in charge of fundraising for the sanctuary, are working with the Ministry of the Environment to reintroduce some bonobos into the Lomako forest, but many of the animals have been living in captivity for so long that they might not survive in the wild. André and Morel hope that the bonobos that remain in the sanctuary will serve an important educational function. "By getting people, especially children, to observe bonobos play, they get to love and respect them," says Morel. "We know these visitors will never again eat ape meat."