Claudine Andre Interview | Thinking Animals United

May 2016

SURVIVING IN PARADISE

Claudine André, is a Belgian-born conservationist, and the founder of the sanctuary Lola ya Bonobo (Paradise for Bonobos), just south of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country where Claudine herself has lived almost her entire life. The aim of the sanctuary is to save young bonobos, orphaned due to the actions of poachers, and eventually reintroduce them into a forest reserve.

Your public talk included a quote from Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, who said that “in the end we will only preserve what we love”. On your website, however, these words are rephrased: “we will only preserve what we respect”. It is easy to see why bonobos are so lovable, but why do they deserve our respect?

Bonobos are our closest relatives, along with chimpanzees. If we cannot save our closest cousin, we homo sapiens will never help another animal to survive. Then one day we will be alone on the planet, and it will not be the best of times.

Bonobos are unique, we still have much to learn about them. Their social organization is different from other great apes, who live in patriarchal systems. Silverbacks among gorillas, or just very big strong males among chimpanzees dominate their respective groups. Among bonobos an alliance of females takes care of aggressive male behavior, and makes the big decisions. Important males sometimes have a say too, but females are in charge. Bonobos are very peaceful. I see two important reasons for that: there’s no sexual ownership – they are all friends, they make love to dissipate tensions, and there’s no territorial appropriation.

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When one group of bonobos meets another, it’s just one big sex party. At first males make a lot of noise to show that they have the best genes, strength and intelligence, but soon all goes quiet again. Two groups live together for about a month, and it’s during this time that young females leave the group of fathers and brothers, and form new bonds with the female alliance of the other group. Males, on the other hand, never leave the group of the mother, because a female alliance can be very brutal to males who disturb the serenity of their group. By staying in the group of his mother a male bonobo remains protected. Can you see the whole “management” of this?

I don’t really like this comparison, but we can say that chimpanzees are the warriors, and bonobos are the hippies of the forest, because they are able to anticipate problems and resolve them through sex. It’s not always sex really, sometimes just a sexual interplay.

We have a lot to learn about gender from them. For me it’s not about the sexual vision of people – male and female, but about gender, about our personal decisions. It’s important to understand, to learn about this without the taboos homo sapiens attach to a lot of things. If you learn, you can protect better. This is one reason why bonobos deserve our respect.

 If we cannot save our closest cousin, we homo sapiens will never help another animal to survive.

The entire social organization of bonobos is based on love.

What do you think they make of us? I am not asking “what they think”, because that would be…

…it would go too far…

… but how do they react, how do they relate to people whom they see?

I have worked with bonobos for more than twenty years. I am with them all the time. And what I have realized, is that we are not them, and they are not us, for sure. Each species lives in its own world. But between these two worlds there’s a line that we cross all the time. Sometimes we are together, on the same mind wave, we do things together, and sometimes we go back to our worlds. But we cross this line ever day, every hour. We are not the same, but we are closely related.

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Do you think they really like and trust people who are kind to them – for instance, your staff? Do you see their attitude toward humans change when they arrive to the sanctuary and after?

Of course, and it is one of the reasons of our success. I saw the first baby bonobo during the war, when I went to help the zoo in Kinshasa. He was given to the director of the zoo by some man. He was almost dying, orphaned because of the bush meat trade, and brought to Kinshasa by boat.

I told the director that I had a friend who worked at an emergency hospital and I would try to help. He said: “Don’t put your heart in it. This is a bonobo. They never survive in captivity.” They are too fragile, have too weak immune system, and an orphaned bonobo simply doesn’t want to survive. So, after helping the zoo, there was another challenge for me – now I wanted to save that baby bonobo. And I realized very quickly that this animal, if you gave him love, like a mother, would transfer his love for her to you. You can see it in his eyes, in the way he looks at you. Suddenly he wants to survive because of you.

So, this baby survived, and I found an easy way to help fragile baby bonobos survive – just by giving them love. Later I learned that the entire social organization of bonobos is based on love, relations, and resolution of anticipated conflicts.

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I have saved one hundred twenty bonobos. Now I have six substitute mothers because bonobos keep arriving. We have new data about their population in the wild. Everybody left the Congo for a long time because of the war, but after 2004, some scientists came back and tried to find out how many bobobos were left in the wild. The data shows clearly that between 2004 and 2014, i.e. for ten years, each year the population decreased by 5.95%. From what total figure nobody knows exactly, but clearly bonobos are becoming critically endangered.

Many people may think you have a dream job, surrounded by beautiful nature, adorable animals … but you created your “paradise” for bonobos amid the hell of human conflict and suffering, war, collapsing statehood, deprivation. What where the major challenges and perils for you, what was the most difficult part?

It changed all the time, because initially it was just about finding some money to involve Congolese staff. But my husband had his company destroyed three times, I myself had no money … I also had to show to my Congolese staff that I wasn’t going to abandon them or the bonobos we were working to save.

Then very quickly I realized that, yes, the Ministry of Environment could create national parks, but this by itself would not protect orphaned bonobos. It was very important to get local authorities involved, so I went to them and I said: “Here is a bonobo, a natural treasure of the Congo, we have to respect this fact. The law exists to protect them. I don’t have the power to confiscate this orphan, but I will create a sanctuary. And with the sanctuary you will be able to organize confiscations, because you will have a place where to put those orphans.”

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Also, when I was helping the zoo, I realized that I couldn’t save the animals without helping the thirty two people working there. I collected food from the only hotel that stayed open after the war, and from two stores. I shared it with people, and slowly I realized that conservation begins with education. In Kinshasa a lot of poor, abandoned, orphaned children live in the zoo, and they are not particularly kind to animals. But every day they would come to me and say: oh, tell us, what is it like in the forest, tell us stories. Day by day I saw the change and decided that it would be my motto forever: “Conservation begins with education!” I realized that I had to educate the youth, the next generation. This was the first big challenge.

The second challenge was to give a better knowledge of this species to scientists, the education system, universities. They have to come and study bonobos, because we don’t know much about them. Or, perhaps, study them at the zoo. Although at the zoo bonobos’ behavior is totally different. Their numbers there are not large, and it’s not easy to study real behavior of animals who are so social. So I offered Harvard, Duke, St. Andrews, Kyoto Universities, and Max Planck Institute a safe place, a large enclosure of 25 acres, with big groups of 20-25 bonobos.

In 2005, I realized that we would be soon saturated with new bonobo arrivals. And my question was: can I give a death sentence to the last bonobos on the planet? I could not accept this idea. But what could I do? Enlarge the sanctuary? It’s a lot of money: taking care of one bonobo, if we put all running costs together, amounts to $5,000 a year. So why not go for reintroduction into the natural habitat? I had to meet the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which are very complicated, and identify the best location from the six sites I had previously visited.

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I decided to go to the site I had set my mind on. I have lived in Congo since I was three year old, and I travelled everywhere with my parents – my father was a vet. So, I went deep into the forest, in the middle of nowhere, in my canoe. It was just after the war, and local women, when they saw me, would come to me and ask: “Don’t you have a husband?” I would say: “Yes, I have a husband”. “Don’t you have kids?” “I have five kids!” Then the women would say: “So, the war is over! You would never leave the safety of your home, if it was not.” I don’t know, I was just going back to my roots …

It was then that I realized: there’s no other way for reintroduction – you have to involve local communities, work with them. I created a committee for development of the villages located around the reserve. I believe that only thousands of little projects and grassroots communities can give synergy to work initiated by the top. People want to grow, and they believe in you, because you are working on the ground. Big decisions and big NGOs are often seen as the tip of the pyramid (in term of importance), but I believe it’s the other way round – the peak of the pyramid is made up of grassroots populations. Perhaps, I feel this way because I am part of the country, I never left it. Even when people began to shoot, the war started, we stayed there. My husband is part of the country, he’s half Italian – his father arrived in 1921. We stayed there for generations, and my goal for the future is to work with local communities.

I decided it would be my motto forever: “Conservation begins with education!”

It is possible to achieve a lot through connecting with local communities.

This was my next question: how have local people helped you? We often talk about problems, how difficult it is to reach out, but I am sure you have a lot of positive examples of how locals helped you.

We work together with local communities, explain to them why we are there and they tell us what their needs are. For the first ten years we helped them to resolve social issues, now we are going to work on socioeconomic programs. They are proud, they want to have jobs.

There’s an exchange, all the time. To say that it’s a total success would not be true. Sometimes we find a snare in the forest. But they don’t want to kill a bonobo, they want to have an antelope or porcupine. The come to us, and they are so ashamed!

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Let me tell you a story that gave me hope: last year we received a call from a town one thousand kilometers away from Kinshasa. Hunters paid for an HD radio message, in the middle of nowhere, 400 kilometers from our release site, to let us know that they had an adult female bonobo caught in a snare and they wanted us to pick her up. They didn’t want to kill her and they knew that we saved bonobos. My staff said: “Okay, it will probably cost us $1,500, but we have to go. It is proof that people understand conservation.” So we rented two motorbikes, and from our release site two men drove for two days to that village near Bolomba. They found the female bonobo … free! In the village people tried to treat her with palm oil, ash – traditional remedies. And when these men, my staff members, saw that she was so big, they thought: “How can we travel with her? No way!” Then they put her on the back of the motorbike, and she stayed there, slept next to them in the huts on the road to Basankusu, and after thirteen hours on canoe to Mbandaka, the main town of the province, they took a plane to Kinshasa. This gave me hope, that it is possible to achieve a lot trough connecting with local communities and through education.

A far as I know, in many places throughout the Congo people traditionally believed they were related to bonobos …

Yes! You cannot imagine how … In the beginning of the first release of bonobos into the forest, and for about a month the bonobos would disappeare into the forest, but at night they would return and stay near the river. We were there in our big canoes, and every night all the villagers would come in their small canoes, and smile and say: “you know, we never see them – when hunters come, the apes are always dead, so we’ve never seen mums feeding their babies, etc.” They were really excited!

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But one year later the bonobos stopped coming back, they stayed in the forest, they were finally free … And people would tell us: “Oh, you have to bring in another group, we want to see them.” We bought a big island just near the release site. It will be the island for subsequent releases, for preparation, six months quarantine – as required by IUCN guidelines. People can canoe around the island and see bonobos again.

Direct visual access is very important. All these people travel inside the landscape, through the national park, and they know what we are doing, they talk about it, and it becomes part of their self-education.

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P.S. The interview seemed over, and the recorder was rather over-hastily turned off, but our conversation went on and touched upon some important issues. I feel compelled to provide a brief summary of that unrecorded exchange.

Claudine made an interesting point that conservation is not only about science. Of course, its best practices rely on scientific criteria, and science in turn benefits from the success of conservation efforts, but the motivation for preserving wildlife is different from narrowly scientific interest – it’s more universal, involving many ethical and emotional challenges and rewards.

Which doesn’t make it any easier to get the message across or enlist the support of wider audiences.

Millions of dollars go into conservation. But big and influential NGOs are not always happy to acknowledge information that puts the efficacy of their work under question. The ever-growing number of orphans arriving to Lola ya Bonobo is a telling evidence of the species’ declining numbers, but that’s not the kind of news big conservation bodies or potential donors like to hear.

Building trust in relationships with local people also requires a lot of work. Economics is key to winning over both local communities living near protected areas and the sanctuary’s staff – one Congolese who receives a salary supports several people.

The more affluent and educated part of the Congolese society, influencers and opinion leaders, even if they understand the importance of preserving the country’s natural treasures, are often reluctant to actively voice their support in fear of being accused of caring more about animals than humans and their hard lives.

Conservation is no magic, Claudine André concludes, it’s a daily combat, and if she does not succeed in saving bonobos as a unique species, it certainly won’t be through a lack of trying. But she must succeed.

144983677032472Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.

All images are from www.lolayabonobo.org website, unless otherwise indicated.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.