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Sanctuary: a Love Story

Claudine André

     ...founder/president of Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (The Friends of Bonobos in Congo). Bonobos -- one of humanity's closest living relative, once known as pygmy chimpanzees -- are indigenous only in the Congo, where they face extinction in the wild. In the midst of Congo's devastating civil war in the early 1990s, Mme André began rescuing orphaned Bonobos and has now created Lola Ya Bonobo ("paradise of the bonobo" in Lingala,) a sanctuary for a growing number of orphaned and adult Bonobos just outside Kinshasa.


Saving our closest living relatives from extinction was not on Claudine André's mind when discovered the animals in the Kinshasa Zoo were starving to death in the early 1990s. She just wanted to save the bears and lions and chimps, as abandoned as the rest of the Congo was during its grueling civil war. Then it happened. She fell in love...with a baby Bonobo. And her life was forever changed.

With war raging, there was a steady stream of these captivating orphaned baby bonobos, a highly endangered species, coming into Kinshasa. Separated from their mothers, all they wanted to do was die.

Now Mme. André protects more than 50 of these orphans in the world's only sanctuary for bonobos, "Lola Ya Bonobo" -- "Paradise for the Bonobo" in Lingala, Kinshasa's most prevalent language. Bonobos are the "make love not war" members of our Great Ape family, endemic to only one place on earth:  war-torn Congo.

How were their parents dying? Victims of the "bushmeat" trade, she says. ("Bushmeat" is a fancy word for killing and eating our fellow apes, the bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas.) Combined with loss of habitat, at the present rate, bonobos will be extinct in the wild in fewer than 10 years.

The sad irony is that this "bushmeat" killing is relatively new. Old taboos against eating the apes broke down during the 6 years soldiers lived in the region where the bonobos live. Suddenly, guns and bullets were readily available. And rich people in the cities of Africa, Great Britain, Europe and North America were willing to pay high prices for the exotic flesh. Mme. André is certain that conservation will never work until people in the forest have replaced hunting for apes with better alternatives.

While Mme. André was feeding the Zoo's animals, she discovered something else. Direct contact with the African children is very, very important in efforts to protect wildlife.

Her "Education for Protection" program is critical to conservation efforts, she says. The young of each species intrigue each other. After the children have seen the bonobos in the sanctuary's forest -- very similar to bonobo life in the wild -- Mme. André says it's important to show the children how intelligent bonobos are. She often shows videos of the world's most famous bonobo, Kanzi. He and the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary bonobos share a vital role in the world, she says -- Ambassadors for rapidly dwindling numbers of bonobos living in the wild.

In addition to bringing the children face-to-face with bonobos, Mme. André works to introduce new taboos. She alerts children to the dangers of eating bush meat, including diseases like ebola and AIDS coming from the forest. But it's the genetics that make the biggest impression, she concludes.  Pointing out how closely related we are, she tells them, "It's 99% of our genetics. Do you think if you eat them, you are not 99% cannibal or something?" Good question.

[This Program was recorded May 20, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Claudine André tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how meeting a baby bonobo at the Kinshasa Zoo, in the midst of Congo's civil war, led to her love for this critically endangered species -- genetically among humans' closest Great Ape relatives.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:33

Conversation 2


Saving the Kinshasa Zoo's animals from starvation early in Congo's devastating civil war led Mme. André to the moment that changed her life -- meeting a baby bonobo, she says. Continuing, she explains how much earth's biodiversity means to her, gratified her work with bonobos contributes to it.  She describes how the baby bonobos to whom she gives sanctuary are victims of the cannibal-like "bushmeat" trade” then expands on the huge toll the civil war has taken on the forests' people.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:49

Conversation 3

Selling charcoal in Kinshasa is a significant part of the local economy, Mme. André says, and since the 6 years that soldiers occupied the habitat of the bonobo, the devastating "bushmeat" trade has become the other. She illustrates the urgent need to provide substitute work for the forests' people if bonobos are to be saved from extinction. Rich people in cities drive the bushmeat trade, she reports, not hungry people in the forest. Bonobos exist only in Congo, she reiterates, then recalls anti-bushmeat crusader Karl Amann introducing her to the idea of a bonobo sanctuary and how her "Education For Protection" program came about.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:26

Conversation 4

Mme. André describes the social organization and behavior of bonobos, comparing them to "common" chimpanzees. Humans are closest to bonobos genetically, she says, but our behavior is closer to chimps, as described by primatologist Richard Wrangham. Humans, chimps and bonobos -- three of the 5 members of the Great Ape family -- are further compared. Mme. André describes how she maximizes the Washington Convention which protects endangered species, explains how sanctuaries work and describes how animals who live at Lola Ya Bonobo are "ambassadors." She describes the special role played in her work by the world's most famous bonobo, Kanzi.

Conversation 1 RealAudio13:32


Conversation 5

Because bonobos live 40 or 50 years or longer, Mme. André is seeking the advise of the world's scientists to help her decide how to proceed over time, deeply concerned for the long-term future of the babies whose lives she and her colleagues have saved. She explains the complexities of this daunting challenge.  She recounts the great interest ethologists are taking in the emergent behaviors of her orphans.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:11

Conversation 6

Orphaned baby bonobos ripped away from their dead mothers want only to die, Mme. André says. She describes how these babies' will to live is restored, and invites people to join her in this work.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:54


We share Mme. André's love for the bonobos, counting among our close friends a family of them. We are grateful for the hope that Mme. André gives for orphaned bonobo babies and for their beleagured species. It would be a crime against nature to let creatures with whom we share so much slip into oblivion. Her work at Lola Ya Bonobo gives us hope, and hope, like love, makes all the difference.

We also thank Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Dr. Duane Rumbaugh for introducing us to Mme. André, as they introduced us to bonobos and troglodytes chimps, about whom there is nothing "common"  Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by our interactions with fellow Great Apes.

Related Links:

Visit the Lola Ya Bonobo -- "Paradise of the Bonobo" -- websiteThe BBC has posted a set of pictures and text about Lola Ya Bonobo.  The November, 2006 edition of Smithsonian Magazine presented a cover story on bonobos, including Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's research and a sidebar on Ms. André's work at Lola Ya Bonobo.

The Friends of Bonobos are "generous people of the United States who support "Lola Ya Bonobo" sanctuary in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo." They have wonderful pictures of beautiful Bonobos on their website . And you will find informaton there, if you are interested in "adopting" a Lola Ya Bonobo orphan.  For a contribution of US $20.00 per month for a year, you will receive: An adoption certificate; An electronic photo of your adopted bonobo; The Sanctuary's quarterly electronic newsletter.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh studies the rich and complex communication skills of bonobos.

Frans de Waal has spent much of his scientific career examining the origins of human behavior in that of primates.

Ian Tattersall looks at our many ancestors and, for a time, contemporaries to understand how we became what we are.

Richard Leakey and his family discovered some of the earliest fossil remains or our many ancestors in Africa's Rift Valley. 

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