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Animal conservationist promotes awareness for bonobos

ENCINITAS — Animal conservationist Claudine André sits on a balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Cardiff. 

André was allowed the simple luxury of a small break during her weeks-long fundraising and awareness tour along the West Coast.

Days before, André was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it’s known today, where she lives and operates a sanctuary for bonobos.

In a country roughly less than a fourth the size of the U.S., the Congo is often thought of as a place of constant war and struggle.

But it’s also a place where André, who had moved there in 1951 when the country was under Belgium’s control with her family, has experienced emotional peaks and valleys from happiness to sadness.

“What I know, violence entered my life when I was 14,” she said. “Violence is a part of my life…But Congolese people are not violent. It’s always (a) political problem. But it would be not the same if we are in South Africa or in Kenya, where people are really very strong.

“Congolese people are not at all like this,” she said.

Her father, a veterinarian, was a worker for the Belgium administration.

Living in east Congo near Berundi, André developed her love of animals there.

She and her family would remain in Congo until the country received its independence, which became a difficult period for Congo.

About six years later, André returned to Congo.

In 1991 the Congo was entering another difficult time. André was living there with her husband as the country began to enter into more political turbulence.

When the violent periods would subside, businesses would rebuild and life as it was there, would resume.

But in 1993, more political unrest would infiltrate the country, leaving very little behind its destructive wake.

Prompted by a friend, André would go to the zoo in town to see what condition it was in. And there she found a desperate situation — lions starving, leopards, too, including about 30 men there in a similar state.

“We have to do something for the zoo,” she would tell her husband later on. And she still remembers the look he gave her and his reply: “Yes, why not?”

“It was completely irrational,” she said.

A bonobo at the San Diego Zoo rests in the exhibit. The Zoo is one of only a few facilities to keep the apes that share 99.5 percent of human DNA. Photo by Tony Cagala
A bonobo at the San Diego Zoo rests in the exhibit. The Zoo is one of only a few facilities to keep the apes that share 99.5 percent of human DNA. Photo by Tony Cagala

Still she began collecting trash from around the destroyed city; she would accept stale food and bring that to the zoo for the animals and the men.

“We survived all, during this bad time,” she said.

For several months this went on, until a man would come to the zoo with a bonobo. She didn’t know what to do with it. It became a second challenge for her — the first to save the zoo — the second to save this bonobo.

This bonobo she nursed back to health, eventually giving him the name, “Mikeno,” the name of a local volcano.

As word got out, more and more bonobos would be dropped off under her care.

Ten years later, André would create Lola ya Bonobo, which translates to “paradise of the bonobo.”

She’s cared for 80 bonobos to date, trying to return as many to the wild as possible.

Their funding comes from 75 percent grants and 25 percent fundraising.

During her West Coast tour, André visited the San Diego Zoo, one of few facilities that house the bonobos.

“A lot of people — the average person — doesn’t know what a bonobo is,” said Michael Bates, a bonobo keeper at the Zoo. “There’s not a lot of awareness there.”

“They’re our closest living relative. If you look at genetics – 99.5 percent is the same DNA as us,” he said.

The Zoo has housed the bonobos since the ‘60s and was one of the first zoos to have the animal, Bates explained.

Why so few zoos house the apes has a lot to do with the economy, Bates said.

“We were breeding bonobos very well in the U.S. and in Europe and we wanted new zoos to come online and build exhibits — it’s expensive to house these animals.

“It’s expensive to build the exhibits – a proper exhibit for them, so at the time when our economy started declining, we had several zoos…all wanting to build exhibits and house bonobos, but that’s not possible at the moment.”

According to André, it costs about $5,000 to treat and care for bonobos at her sanctuary.

The total amount of bonobos that are left in the wild is still unknown, but André said that it was probably ranged from around 5,000 to 10,000 to 15,000.

Their biggest threat comes from the industrial bush meat market.

Snares left in the bonobo’s habitat, a small portion of Congo, catch the apes, oftentimes leaving the baby bonobos orphaned.

“We are not really against the bush meat, if it’s for the village,” André said. “In each village, its hunter (is) very clever. They know if they kill too much animal, they have to work to find the next time.”

What she and other conservationists are against is the industrial form of the bush meat market.

“We are the last step in the chain of this bush meat,” she said.

“Bonobos have done really well in captivity, I think, because of their personalities, their social structures,” Bates said. “You need appropriate facilities to house them. I think every bonobo should be in the wild; we all think they should be in the wild.

“But we, as stewards for that species, we’re keeping what’s left of the bonobos in the wild, educating people and hoping people like Claudine can protect bonobos in the wild. That’s where they should stay.”

(André) has bonobos that were raised from almost dead and are now making more bonobos, Bates said.

André said there have been 12 births at her sanctuary, including three births in their release site.

“One thing you can’t miss from the bonobos, any of the apes, but especially the bonobos, they’re a lot like us,” Bates said. “Most people like people, and it’s kind of like looking in the mirror at times.”

But Bates was clear to point out that they are very unique in their own right.

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