This is the first part of a series, Part II of which discusses the specific threats faced by bonobos and Sankuru Nature Reserve.
The bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus), is a species of great ape that has experienced a steep drop in population over the past two decades due to habitat loss and bushmeat hunting stemming from wars. Found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), estimates place the number of individuals at between 29,000 and 50,000.
In response to the species’ decline, several non-profit organizations teamed up with governmental agencies in the DRC to create Sankuru Nature Reserve, a massive protected area in the midst of bonobo habitat. However, the reserve is not safe from deforestation, and has lost more than one percent of its forest cover in less than a decade.
Bonobos (Pan paniscus) live in small, female-led groups and have a number of unique physical characteristics such as long hair on their heads that parts in the middle. Scientists consider them the least understood of the great apes. Photo by Pierre Fidenci.
According to Michael Hurley, Executive Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) based Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), which runs the Sankuru Nature Reserve, too much of the bonobo’s forest is being lost, and the populations that still exist are separated from one another due to habitat fragmentation.
“The bonobos are isolated, have lost much of their habitat to logging and face death from hunters trying to feed their families,” he said.
The bonobo is physically and genetically distinct from its cousin, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Biologists believe the two became separated after the formation of the Congo River 1.5 to 2 million years ago. Even today, chimpanzees are found only north of the river, and bonobos are found south of it. Physically, bonobos are somewhat more “human-looking” than chimps, with longer legs, smaller heads with long hair, and a penchant for walking upright. These similarities led early anthropologists to conjecture they may represent a “missing link” between humans and their early ancestors. However, subsequent genetic studies showed that humans are no more related to bonobos than they are to chimpanzees.
Culturally, bonobos are also very different than chimpanzees. They live in matriarchal – female-led – societies and are generally peaceful, engaging in sexual rather than aggressive behavior to settle conflicts as well as form bonds.
The decline in bonobo numbers hastened during the Congolese Civil Wars, which embroiled the region in conflict from 1996 to 2009, with skirmishes still occurring to this day. Heavily armed militias invaded even remote forests and protected areas, clearing trees and hunting bonobos for food. Extreme poverty followed the wars, and today, cultural taboos that once stopped people from killing bonobos are breaking down.
At 23,161 square kilometers (8,943 square miles), Sankuru Nature Reserve is bigger than the U.S. state of Connecticut and is the largest continuous protected area for great ape conservation in the world. However, according to data from Global Forest Watch, it has lost nearly 35,000 hectares of forest cover since it was established in 2007.
“Due to habitat destruction by human activities, bonobos are losing living space,” Hurley said. “[In particular, deforestation] in the western half of Sankuru Nature Reserve has been high and will negatively impact biodiversity through loss of habitat.”
The reserve created by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), which is DRC’s park authority, along with BCI and its local partner, Action Communautaire pour les Primates du Kasai (ACOPRIK). It is the first large, community-based, multi-zoned protected area in the DRC.
Sankuru Nature Reserve is more than just vital bonobo habitat. It is also home to the only known population of okapi (Okapia johnstoni) in central DRC. The reserve also contains elephants, which have been hunted out in many other areas of the Congo forest, plus at least 10 other species of primates, including the rare owl-faced monkey (Cercopithecus hamlyni) and blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis).
The tropical forest of Sankuru stores between 1.5 to 2 billion tons of carbon, which, if released, would be comparable to the carbon emissions produced by 38 million cars and trucks over 10 years, according to Hurley. In addition, the Sankuru Watershed is considered perhaps the most important watershed in the Congo, and acts as the source to five major tributaries of the Congo, Tshuapa the Lomela, Lukenie, the Lomani and Sankuru.
Okapis (Okapia johnstoni) are endangered relatives of the giraffe. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons 3.0.
“This has global significance and is also impacted by deforestation and degradation, and provide an addition incentive to support investment in REDD in the region,” Hurley said.
In June 2009, BCI was granted exclusive rights by the DRC Ministry of the Environment to develop and sell carbon credits as a means of financing of the operation costs of the reserve. Special emphasis was placed on providing benefits to local communities, who have been engaged from the outset in a participatory process.
This is a unique operation model, and the first of its kind on this scale. Indeed, Sankuru is the largest community-supported reserve in the world. Because of this, Sankuru Reserve not only protects bonobos and stores carbon, but generate investment and sustainable development programs to help alleviate the high rates of poverty in the region.
Bonobos are highly threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Scientists estimate only 28 percent of their original range is still habitable. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Still, human pressures are taking a toll on Sankuru as more and more people move into surrounding nearby towns. According to environmentalists, fuelwood harvesting accounts for nearly a quarter of the forest loss in the reserve.
“Charcoal collection and agricultural expansion around villages in the eastern section of the reserve has a negative impact not only on bonobos but also on other primate species,” Hurley said.
A study conducted researchers at various international institutions, revealed that the primary drivers of habitat loss in the region are forest fragmentation from deforestation, and poaching. Fragmentation is particularly dangerous to bonobos as they require large tracts of continuous, undisturbed habitat. Because of this, scientists estimate that as little as 28 percent of the bonobo’s range remains habitable.
According to Hurley, deforestation in Sankuru and the rest of their habitat is leading the species towards extinction. They were the last of the great apes to be discovered, but they could be the first to become extinct due to deforestation, poaching, and war.
“Deforestation due to agricultural expansion combined with significant amounts of bushmeat hunting has impacted bonobos, primate populations and other biodiversity,” Hurley said. “We are working on implementing improved and sustainable agricultural practices in order to address this.”
The Lukenie River is an major waterway in the DRC, whose source originates in the Sankuru watershed. Photo by Valerius Tygart.
For clarification, while Sankuru Nature Reserve offers the largest amount of continuous protected area in great ape habitat, it does not have the largest population of bonobos in the DRC. Contention surrounds the premise that the reserve functions as prime bonobo habitat, which will be explored in more detail in the fourth part of this series.
(07/10/2014) Road construction, the promise of employment, and the conversion of forest to farmland – the effects of logging tropical forests are often not confined to the boundaries of the concessions, where, in the best case, a timber company has gained legal access to harvest trees. Along the Congo River in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo, recent data showing probable forest loss demonstrate the often-unforeseen consequences of timber harvesting.
(07/07/2014) What does SOCO’s withdrawal really mean for the future of Virunga National Park? – Part II. Located in the eastern DRC, Virunga is the first national park created in Africa, a World Heritage Site and home to mountain gorillas, of which fewer than 900 remain. As such, SOCO’s announcement to suspend activities followed in the wake of a concerted campaign led by WWF to “draw the line” to save Virunga from devastation by prospective oil drilling.
(06/30/2014) Released last week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) during the first United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, a new report found that together with other other illicit activities such as poaching, illegal deforestation is one of the top money-makers for criminal groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.
(06/15/2014) Over the last two months, poachers have killed 68 African elephants in Garamba National Park representing around four percent of the population. Poachers have used helicopters, grenades, and chainsaws to undertake their gruesome trade, and, for the first time, the park has recorded that the criminals are removing the elephant’s brains in addition to tusks and genitals.
(05/20/2014) A recent study describes a new population of chimpanzees, which forms a continuous cultural group inhabiting an area of at least 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles). The population, estimated to consist of many thousands of individuals, shares a unique set of learned skills that are passed on from generation to generation.
(05/19/2014) Hydroelectric power, supplied mostly from dams, provides approximately 20 percent of the world’s electricity, an amount of energy equivalent to 3.6 billion barrels of oil. However, a recent study by researchers at Oxford University has found that large dams cost so much money and take so long to build that they may not be economically viable.
(04/21/2014) Forest disturbance in Malaysia, Bolivia, Panama, and Ecuador surged during the first quarter of 2014, according to NASA data.
(04/17/2014) The head of an informal militia and poaching group, Paul Sadala a.k.a. ‘Morgan,’ was killed on Monday after surrendering himself to the army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A well-known elephant poacher and terrorist, Morgan became most famous for leading an attack on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve station in 2012.