History with Bonobos
In 1986, the Milwaukee County Zoo became the fourth zoo in the United States to receive a group of bonobos. Exported from the Netherlands, these seven new arrivals provided much-needed bloodlines to the tiny U.S. population of only 22 bonobos. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of this founding population, two years later the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) helped to form the Bonobo Species Survival Plan, or Bonobo SSP - a captive breeding and management program for bonobos in North American zoos. Development of the SSP marked the beginning of ZSM’s involvement in bonobo conservation. However, growing concerns for bonobos in the wild led the SSP and ZSM to look beyond the needs of captive bonobos and toward the survival of bonobos in their natural habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
First Bonobo Action Plan
In collaboration with bonobo field scientists from around the world, the ZSM published the Action Plan for Pan paniscus: Report on Free-Ranging Populations and proposals for their Preservation in 1995. The Action Plan was the first published analysis of the threats to survival and strategies for conservation of wild bonobo populations. The plan identified major gaps in our knowledge about conservation of the species, including the need to determine where bonobos occurred and how many still existed in the wild. One survey area identified of eminent importance was the vast Salonga National Park where, it was rumored, no bonobos likely existed.
Into the Field
Surveys in 1998 confirmed the presence of bonobos in the Salonga.
Responding to the Action Plan, the ZSM extended its conservation efforts to DRC in 1997 with the creation of the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI) – a program to census and study bonobos in the Salonga National Park. That year we launched the first scientific mission to Salonga’s remote northern block in over a decade. During this mission, BCBI researchers verified the existence of bonobo populations and laid the foundation for further surveys and study in the park. Based on their discovery of resident bonobos, we planned a full-scale survey of Salonga to begin in September 1998. Suddenly, however, the Congo civil war broke out. The front line of combat came to lie only 150 km northeast of the park’s boundary. Surveys and all conservation activities in DRC did not resume until 2000.
During the five-year civil war, the DRC’s national parks, including Salonga, suffered from lack of funding to protect them from being ransacked and pilfered. While the war raged on east of the park, the BCBI field team, with the help of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was able to deliver emergency aid donated by UNESCO and the United Nations Foundation to the Salonga park guards. Moreover, the guards helped the field team resume the search for bonobos in the park. By the war’s end in 2003, BCBI had surveyed 15 different areas across the park in conjunction with delivering aid. During this time, we also established the Etate Research Station and Patrol Post as our base of operations in the northern block of the national park.
Our research and conservation work in the Salonga has expanded over the past decade. Today it includes support programs that increase the park’s law enforcement and anti-poaching capacity and provide educational opportunities in villages along the park’s northern border.
A Timeline of Success
Click a year above to view the timeline.
BCBI conducts initial exploratory survey in the northern sector of the Salonga to determine if bonobos reside in the park and if surveys are feasible and worthwhile. In August 1998, civil war erupts in the Congo, ravaging the country and halting conservation work in the Salonga until late 2000.
BCBI sets up an office in Kinshasa and a research station called Etate in the northern sector of the Salonga. BCBI continues to conduct small surveys at key sites across the national park.
Working with ICCN and the Salonga guards, BCBI's research team discovers five populations of bonobos in the northern and southern sectors of the Salonga. While the civil war in Congo continues, BCBI provides salary supplements and distributes emergency supplies to ICCN/Salonga guards (thanks to grants from UNESCO, the U.N. Foundation and USAID-Kinshasa Mission).
BCBI increases anti-poaching support and sponsors the first formal paramilitary training for 60 Salonga guards. In 2005, guards confiscate 3,500 metallic snares and 2,500 nylon snares, plus shotguns and spears. BCBI begins community outreach activities with villages bordering the park, providing supplies and teacher salaries for two primary schools in communities bordering the park.
BCBI receives the Ambassador's Self-Help Grant from the American Embassy in Kinshasa to implement a regional agricultural cooperative to reduce local reliance on hunting and improve nutrition. With a target of 30 households, BCBI hires an expert horticulturalist to teach villagers near Etate better farming methods. BCBI starts guard-based biomonitoring at Etate.
BCBI starts a literacy program at Etate to train guards to read and write. At the request of local community leaders, BCBI also begins a literacy program for nearby villagers.
In collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, BCBI survey teams temporarily relocate to an area near the Lomako Yokokala Faunal Reserve to survey a community-owned forest. BCBI trains 20 villagers in wildlife monitoring and discovers a core bonobo population under severe hunting pressure.
BCBI receives a prestigious grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) under its new Ape TAG Conservation Initiative for survey and park support programs in DRC. The ZSM receives AZA's International Conservation Award for BCBI's work in habitat preservation, species restoration and biodiversity conservation in DRC. BCBI begins intensive surveys of Watsi Kengo sector.
BCBI secures funds for the construction and establishment of a new guard patrol post to reduce large-scale elephant poaching on the Yenge River.
BCBI launches an exploratory mission to the upper reaches of Yenge River, an area in the park known as Dar Dar, and finds significant human/poaching infiltration. BCBI later receives a grant from the Felburn Foundation (FL) to support long-distance river patrols to Dar Dar.
Under the umbrella of World Wildlife Fund, ZSM becomes a beneficiary of new USAID funding to protect Central African forests. This program, called Central Africa Forest Ecosystems Conservation (CAFEC), will help BCBI expand their conservation efforts in the Salonga National Park and contribute to meeting USAID carbon-sequestration goals.
With BCBI support, ICCN conducts ground-breaking patrols from January to February into the previously unknown and unpatrolled Dar Dar region in the heart of the Salonga. This vast, lawless no-man's-land is home to a highly threatened elephant and bonobo community. The patrols arrest 13 poachers, destroy 59 camps, confiscate 5 automatic guns, and seize 8 elephant tails and 2 ivory tusks.
Together with local contractor Jean Mbangi, BCBI constructs an elevated wooden house at Etate. After shipping 15 tons of a prefabricated building by pirogue along hundreds of miles of river, we erected the first permanent structure at Etate. This house is designed to withstand periodic flood conditions and will serve as a headquarters for research activities. To local communities, the house symbolizes the permanence of BCBI's support to ICCN and our investment toward long-term conservation in the park.
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