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Bonobo conservation stymied by deforestation, human rights abuses

  • The bonobo is a relative of the chimpanzee, and is found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) south of the Congo River. They are endangered, with habitat loss and the bushmeat trade their primary threats. The Sankuru Nature Reserve is the DRC’s largest nature reserve that is focused on bonobo conservation. However, deforestation rates have only increased in Sankuru since it was created in 2007. Meanwhile nearby Lomami National Park is experiencing almost no deforestation.
  • Researchers attribute the disparity in deforestation rates between Sankuru Nature Reserve and Lomami National Park to the lack of human settlements and clearer managerial strategy in the latter. They claim that Sankuru lacked buy-in from the local communities, and that conflicting land claims made conservation efforts more difficult to achieve.
  • However, there may be a dark side to Lomami’s success. Sources claim that the military, which is tasked with protecting DRC’s national parks, have engaged in torture of people suspected of poaching. There are also reports that a community within Lomami was displaced without proper consultation or a suitable alternative location.
  • Researchers say that to ensure effective engagement, indigenous forest-dwelling communities should be granted proper security of tenure over their lands, and community-managed forests should be set up and funded around the perimeter of the park.

Bonobos, unlike closely related chimpanzees, choose love over war. But with each passing year, there is less room in this world for these amorous primates as the world’s largest bonobo refuge continues to lose thousands of hectares of rainforest to agricultural expansion.

Two African apes are the closest living relatives of humans: the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus). Modern chimpanzees and bonobos likely diverged from a common ancestor some 1.5 to 2 million years ago after their territory was separated by the formation of the Congo River, the world’s second largest river.

Bonobos are only found on the southern side of the Congo River in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Culturally, the bonobos are very different from the chimpanzees, choosing to live in matriarchal societies and engage in sexual rather than aggressive behavior to resolve conflict. Bonobo survey data has been difficult to obtain because of longstanding, violent conflict in the region and the remoteness of their forest habitat, but the IUCN reports the species population is endangered and in decline.

The Sankuru Nature Reserve is the country’s largest nature reserve created for bonobo conservation. Sally Coxe, founder and president at Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), said the idea for the reserve arose from a grassroots movement organized by local NGO Community Action for the Kasai Primates (ACOPRIK), which was formed in 2001 to address increasing hunting pressure on primates in the area.

“With support from BCI, Sankuru conservation leader Heritier Mpo rescued an orphan bonobo named Esake that we successfully delivered to Lola ya Bonobo earlier this year,” Coxe said. “Bonobos are being hunted in parts of Sankuru; with renewed support, BCI and partners plan to strengthen bonobo monitoring and protection and conduct an awareness and anti-poaching campaign.” Photo courtesy of Sally Coxe.

ACOPRIK eventually reached out to the BCI for assistance in creating a community-controlled protected area. The DRC’s national authority overseeing protected areas, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), performed its own assessment at Sankuru, and decided to prioritize the area for official protection in 2007. At this point, Coxe said an agreement was made with the local communities who agreed to no longer hunt bonobos, and to join together to create a community-managed nature reserve.

“As its name indicates, the Sankuru Nature Reserve is not a national park; it is a nature reserve,” Coxe told Mongabay in an email. “It is controlled and managed locally… The people of Sankuru remain the stewards of their own land.”

Coxe said biological surveys taken at the time of its creation revealed rich biodiversity, with “rare and endemic species including the okapi, bonobos, and at least ten other species of primates including the rare owl faced monkey and blue monkey, as well as Congo peafowl and forest elephants.”

At the time of its creation, Sankuru was heralded as the largest protected area for great ape conservation in the world. However, the reserve has continued to lose thousands of hectares of forest every year. Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) show Sankuru lost over 136,000 hectares of primary rainforest between 2001 and 2018. Further, deforestation appears have accelerated since the park was created in 2007, with over half of 2001-2018 tree cover loss – 70,800 hectares – happening between 2014 and 2018. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate the reserve is currently in the midst of another big year for deforestation.

Satellite data show high levels of deforestation in Sankuru Nature Reserve this year while neighboring Lomami National Park has remained almost entirely unscathed. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Satellite imagery shows much of the deforestation Sankuru has experienced over the past 20 years has been concentrated concentrated near towns, as well as along roads and paths that traverse the reserve. Coxe said Sankuru’s deforestation is primarily caused by expanding agriculture.

“The deforestation that does exist at Sankuru stems largely from swidden (aka slash and burn) agriculture,” Coxe said. “People have inhabited this forest for centuries, and are part of its ecosystem. People are also the [primary] threat to bonobos and biodiversity.”

In addition to habitat loss caused by deforestation, bonobos are threatened by the bushmeat trade. While traditional bushmeat hunting is one of the primary food and income sources for forest-dwelling people and communities in the DRC, the bushmeat trade has become increasingly commercialized with meat and animal parts sold in large cities, and even exported to other continents.

The bushmeat trade has expanded partly alongside the logging industry as roads built to transport machinery, loggers and timber also give commercial hunters access to previously unreachable populations of wildlife, including chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is a unique and endangered relative of the giraffe, and is only found in the DRC. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Terese Hart, who is the American director of the TL2 Project and the Lukuru Foundation, was instrumental in pushing the DRC government’s creation of the nearby Lomami National Park in 2016. In contrast to Sankuru, with which it shares a border, there has been very little deforestation happening within the Lomami National Park, according to satellite data from UMD.

In 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a survey in 30 percent of Sankuru. The survey only found nine old bonobo nests situated in one four-kilometer area near the eastern edge of the reserve, and found no evidence of elephants or other large mammals. Hart said her team found evidence of bonobos and okapis near the Lomami river on the eastern side of the reserve, but the elephants “were killed off years ago.”

Community-based versus national park conservation models

Hart told Mongabay that she attributes the disparity in deforestation rates between Sankuru Nature Reserve and Lomami National Park to the lack of human settlements and clearer managerial strategy in the latter.

“There are no villages in the Lomami National Park,” Hart said. “Because it is a national park there is a clear statement of what is and is not permitted within its borders. The Reserve has no such clarity.”

Hart claimed that Sankuru lacked buy-in from the local communities, and that conflicting land claims made conservation efforts more difficult to achieve.

“The human landscape is particularly problematic as several ethnic groups are mixed together with conflicting land claims. One can please one group and almost certainly cause an uprising in another,” Hart said.

Coxe argued that Sankuru’s community-based approach to conservation may have been ahead of its time, and its current lack of effectiveness is a consequence of inadequate funds. She contrasted this to the hardline conservation approach taken by Lomami National Park.

Essylot Lubala of the Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestiere en RDC (OGF) participated in stakeholder meetings and “information exchange” with Sankuru communities, according to Sally Coxe. Here he is standing by an area of savannah within the Sankuru Nature Reserve. Image courtesy of Sally Coxe.

“Protected areas that are community co-managed are relatively new in the DRC, and remain the poor and neglected cousins of African national parks,” Coxe said. “The Sankuru Nature Reserve is a multi-zoned, community-managed protected area. By contrast, Lomami is a national park, and people who had been living within its borders were expelled.”

Human rights abuses cloud national park

In the years before the Lomami National Park was created, a village called Obenge used to occupy territory which is now within the park’s borders. According to Hart, the “bushmeat” village had planned to move long before the park or any protected area was set up. She said the inhabitants agreed to leave after they were promised a new village in a different location by German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) and World Bank, which has yet to materialize.

“Although GIZ provided materials which are now being used by TL2 to build their houses, the World Bank has done nothing. These long delays are very regrettable but it should be noted that the first move of Obenge away from its original site had nothing to do with the park,” Hart said.

Mongabay reached out to the World Bank to get their take, but received no response by the time this story was published.

Bonobos are different than chimpanzees in many ways – they have smaller heads, darker faces, and longer hair that part down the middle. They’re also more likely to walk on two legs. Photo courtesy of Sally Coxe.

Maud Salber, who is Senior Project Coordinator for Rainforest Foundation UK, told Mongabay by email that her team surveyed 28 villages neighboring Lomami National Park to document local and indigenous communities’ perceptions of the park and conservation enforcement. She has a different account of what happened to Obenge.

“Communities first left Obenge in 2013 to seek refuge from clashes between armed groups in the area. A number of people returned but they were then forced out by government forces in 2017 to make way for the park, without proper consultation,” Salber said.

“They haven’t had a say in the relocation site, which they describe as wholly inadequate for their livelihoods, and the promised houses and infrastructure have not yet all been built. The process clearly did not adhere to international standards – no consultation, no compensation and no clear plan in place to compensate their loss of livelihoods”

Salber said there was an effort to redraw the park’s boundaries to avoid villages, but even so, many communities lost access to significant parts of their customary lands traditionally used for hunting, fishing or gathering — putting a strain on already tenuous livelihoods. Further, she said communities complained about being harassed by park authorities who abused power for personal gain, with reported human rights abuses, and a case of sexual assault.

Dr. Mwanza Ndunda, general director of the Congolese Center for Multidisciplinary Research traverses a bridge on a mission in Sankuru. Photo courtesy of Sally Coxe.

Additionally, Hart has written on her blog site that an innocent local was tortured because DRC military park guards mistook him to be an informant for a poaching warlord Thoms who has allegedly raped local women and murdered several park guards assigned to protect elephants. However, Hart said the person whom soldiers accused of collaborating with Thoms turned out to be a medicine salesman who happened to be in the wrong village at the wrong time.

Hart said that the human rights abuses that are committed by park authorities are “regrettable,” but “the truth is very complicated… ‘best practices’ are difficult to assure in truly remote areas where there is no police force or government presence.”

In 2017, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the DRC to halt the military from committing widespread human rights abuses. The DRC military primarily oversees the country’s exploitation of resources and protects business interests for the elites.

Hart said her private NGOs had “no say” on the UN human rights chief’s call for ending DRC military abuse. She did not point to any clear steps that have been taken by park authorities to assure that human rights abuses are not committed in the future. Mongabay received no response to emails sent to DRC government offices.

Grant land tenure to save the bonobos?

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has included indigenous rights in its 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land, recognizing that the participation of Indigenous peoples is crucial to combating global climate change by preventing deforestation and preserving ecosystems.

Salber believes there is a way that bonobos and other endangered wildlife can be conserved without causing human right abuses of indigenous forest-dwelling people. “The current trend towards more militarisation of conservation efforts certainly is not the way to go,” Salber said.

“We have worked with a lot of communities around the park and it is clear that they are very committed to conserving resources for future generations. Conservation and anti-poaching efforts should engage with these communities.”

Headquarters of Action Communautaire pour la Protection des Primates du Kasai (ACOPRIK), the local Sankuru NGO that spearheaded creation of the Sankuru Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Sally Coxe.

Salber says that to ensure effective engagement, indigenous forest-dwelling communities should be granted proper security of tenure over their lands, and community-managed forests should be set up and funded around the perimeter of the park. Hart appeared to agree, saying that Sankuru should pursue a “series of community conservation projects around specific points of importance” in order to pull the brakes on deforestation and bonobo habitat loss.

The 2013 book Of Bonobos and Men by Deni Béchard details a history of clashing approaches between Sankuru Nature Reserve and Lomami National Park, which both aim to protect the same particularly biodiverse area, home to large bonobos and okapi populations, near the Lomami River. In the book, Coxe reportedly said that conservationists dedicated to saving the great apes need to work together more, “to be more bonobo-like about conservation” because “there is a huge challenge saving the bonobos and very few people are available to work on it.”


Update (October 30, 2019): After this article was published, Terese Hart (American director of the TL2 Project) and Jo Thompson (Lukuru Foundation President / Executive Director and Lukuru Project Director) reached out with more information. Hart refutes Rainforest Foundation UK’s account that the Obenge community was forced out of Lomami National Park, while Thompson lends her comments regarding the difficulties surrounding the training of Lomami park guards and the efficacy of the Community Concession conservation strategy.

Hart: “Contrary to the information you have, the Obenge community chose its own relocation site. Among themselves there was no immediate consensus for a single site, but internally they came to an agreement to use the past site of Bangaliwa (abandoned village location) which was in the same groupement and maintained the advantage of relatively “easy” communication to the east (Mituku sector) where many have relatives. We had actually favored the option, promoted by another faction, for a more distant site (also abandoned village) that was closer to markets, but when there was general agreement for Bangaliwa we all tried to make the new Obenge2 possible. A couple years ago, before the creation of the park, we wrote a fairly detailed history of Obenge before and during its move. The community has not forgotten perceived “promises” made by World Bank and others. Our own FZS-TL2project has limited means to satisfy these, but construction with metal roofs is underway, thanks to materials donated by GIZ for that purpose. The advantage that Obenge has in its current location is that many of its citizens have regular work through the park. Some are Park Guards and others work part time or full time with our own project.”

Thompson: “There is little evidence that community reserves conserve bonobos.  At this point there are few (if any) examples to indicate that Community Concessions will have better success than National Reserves at protecting bonobos and controlling natural resource exploitation.  In some areas human population pressure is high, in many areas resource exploitation is the only means to acquire cash despite the fact that populations are rising.  So how would individual communities deal with this? What needs to be written into each management plan?  What outside support needs to continue to be available to these communities?  We actually proposed in 2012 that a halo of community concession (communities with land tenure) be created around the Lomami National Park.  Our expectation is that they might be a first step towards improved ability for stewardship.  But it is only a small first step.
The current Head Warden of the Lomami National Park is very much in favor of training guards in human rights and respectful law enforcement.  The warden before him was as well.  The problem (as mentioned by Sally Coxe) often comes down to financing.  The trainers must be brought in.  The guards must all cycle through.  Logistics, rations, evaluation all must be paid for.
We are very much in favor of a more professional and humane park guard force, but that will be a small part in the huge reinforcement needed for a lawful and humane society at all levels.  The solution we hope for and most of us who live and work here, Congolese and non-Congolese alike, hope for, is a strengthened and expanded Judicial system, a re-trained and better-supported police force deployed throughout the territory and a smaller focused domestic role for a more restrained military.  That is a problem of finances and political will.  We don’t get discouraged — the stakes are too high — but there is not one simple solution and long involvement and commitment is needed on the ground to understand and support the human communities and the incredible wildlife diversity of this country.”


Banner image by DORIS META F via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Data citation: Hansen, M.C., A. Krylov, A. Tyukavina, P.V. Potapov, S. Turubanova, B. Zutta, S. Ifo, B. Margono, F. Stolle, and R. Moore. 2016. Humid tropical forest disturbance alerts using Landsat data. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (3). Accessed through Global Forest Watch on October 23, 2019.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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