In 2001, after the second Congo War, Barbara Fruth and Gottfried Hohmann returned to DRC to restart their Bonobo research which was interrupted by the violent conflict. Their goal was to continue their investigations towards a better understanding of bonobos’ peculiarities. This requires patience, as the most fascinating aspects are only observable once individuals are habituated, that is tolerating being closely followed and observed by scientists and assistants. Salonga National Park was safe, very remote and its limits unknown. With the consent of the local people, and financial support from the German government (BMBF) and the Max-Planck Society (MPG), Barbara and Gottfried opened up their new field site: LuiKotale.
Barbara tells us here, how they went about observing the bonobos. “As bonobo habituation takes three years until individual follows are possible on a day-to-day basis, Gottfried and I started out as follows: Gottfried set up a comparative study, exploring the differences in food habits and preferences among chimpanzees and bonobos across Africa, while together with staff and students from Kinshasa University, I was producing an inventory of the local flora. Focus was on the use of wild plants by humans with the hope to single out candidates worth becoming flag-ship species for sustainable forest use and by that long term conservation.”
An international research site
Since 2002, 160 enthusiasts from 22 different nationalities contributed to the permanent presence of the LKBP on ground. Sixteen years later, researchers at LuiKotale can follow two habituated communities of bonobos consisting of about 70 individuals, all of which are named and known. The apes can be followed on a day-to-day basis and researchers learn how they interact with each other, and with other animals and plants. The role the bonobos play in this complex ecosystem, being predator of animals and plants, forest’s regenerator disseminating over hundred species, and prey of larger carnivores, is fascinating. Despite the many years of observation, their behaviour still brings new mysteries.
Joining forces with local villagers and rangers
Early on Barbara and Gottfried had to learn that this project cannot run with investigating fundamental science alone. As everywhere in DRC, poaching was the major threat not only for bonobos but also for many other protected species. Due to the exposure of bonobos and other local wildlife to snares and machine guns outside the area of their permanent presence, Barbara and Gottfried joined forces with two originally almost adverse parties: local villagers, subsistence hunters familiar with their forest and keen to prevent poachers from afar raiding their wildlife, and rangers of the national conservation authority, ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), equipped with the mandate and power to enforce Congolese law. From 2011 onwards, both parties successfully conducted mixed patrols together to secure the wider surroundings of the LuiKotale study site.
A flight with researchers arrives at the nearby Ipope airstrip and is greeted by the local people.
In addition, the researcher sought to launch a specific education campaign, being aware that conservation education is a priority action for the conservation of Great Apes.
As financial resources allowed, Barbara and Gottfried and their team chose five secondary schools, between 30 and 100 km away from LuiKotale, to complement and change the perception of students, their parents and other community members with respect to wildlife and nature. They adapted a booklet developed for chimpanzee conservation in Ivory Coast to bonobo conservation and to the conditions in the region of Salonga National Park with regard to ecological and social specificities.
In addition, they developed seven large-scale posters with relevant information complementing the booklet’s information, from basics of ecology to peculiarities of the wildlife of Salonga National Park. The LuiKotale team then held workshops to improve the capacity of the teaching staff; taught at secondary schools raising knowledge and environmental perception; and spread environmental awareness to the broader public, organising information days for the local population with contributions from the local schools and educative film-material.
Six months after this campaign the researchers went back and found that the status of general knowledge and comprehension had increased among students and teachers. Key messages were understood and integrated, multipliers became available and community days had proven to be a good tool to sensitize parents and other residents. This pilot made clear that acquired knowledge may become sustainable, once it will become a regular unit in the curricula of the local people.
The community work under the co-management agreement foresees also the establishment of an environmental education plan. The technical management unit of the park is assessing the possibilities to use the materials and continue the efforts of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project in this field.