A new nature reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will become the world’s largest continuous protected area for great apes, particularly the endangered bonobo species, the most human-like of all the apes. Larger than the state of Massachusetts, the new reserve encompasses 11,803 square miles of tropical rainforest, extremely rich in biodiversity and will protect both the bonobo and okapi, a rare forest giraffe found, like the bonobo, only in the DRC.
The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) paved the way for the new reserve by developing a desire for conservation within the local people, who have endured much hardship during the recent war in the Congo, which devastated the local people and claimed four million lives — more than any war since WWII.
"The people of Sankuru relied on the forest for every aspect of their livelihood, said Sally Jewell Coxe, president and co-founder of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. "Helping them to develop new economic opportunities apart from the bushmeat trade was one of the most urgent priorities."
Andre Tosumba, director of BCI’s Congolese NGO partner, ACOPRIK (Community Action for the Primates of Kasai), led the successful local effort to protect Sankuru. "When I saw the extent to which people were hunting bonobos, okapi, and elephants, we began to sensitize them to realize the value of these animals," he said. "Once they came to understand, the people themselves decided to stop hunting these precious species and to create a reserve to protect their forest."
"This is a monumental step towards saving a significant portion of the world’s second largest rainforest, of critical importance to the survival not only of humankind’s closest great ape relative, the bonobo, but to all life on earth given the increasing threat of climate change," said Sally Coxe.
In danger of extinction, bonobos (Pan paniscus) are found only in the DRC. They inhabit the heart of the Congo Basin, Africa’s largest rainforest, which is threatened by the onslaught of industrial logging. Bonobos are distinguished by their peaceful, cooperative, matriarchal society, remarkable intelligence, and sexual nature. Other than humans, bonobos are the only primates known to have sex not only for procreation, but also for pleasure and conflict resolution — and with members of either sex. They serve as a powerful flagship both for conservation and for peace.
In addition to the bonobo, it was discovered recently that the forests contain the okapi, an exotic short necked giraffe not previously found outside their known range far to the northeast. Sankuru 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 and blue monkey.
The DRC Minister of the Environment, who officially opened the new reserve, said, "This increases the total area of protected land in the DRC to 10.47%, bringing us closer to our goal of 15%. We are proud that the Sankuru Reserve is being created in the framework of community participative conservation… and will be zoned to guarantee the rights of the local population."
Initial financial support came from the Great Ape Conservation Fund, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and USAID’s Central African Regional Program for the Environment.
"This is a huge victory for bonobo and rainforest conservation," Coxe said. "However our work has just begun. Now we need investment to successfully manage the reserve. And, other areas need to be protected to ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo and the integrity of the Congo rainforest."
The Bonobo Conservation Initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the survival of the highly endangered bonobo and its rainforest habitat in the Congo Basin. BCI works with indigenous Congolese people through cooperative conservation and community development programs and the government of the DRC to establish new protected areas and to safeguard bonobos wherever they are found. BCI has been selected as a featured charity in the Catalogue for Philanthropy for excellence, innovation and cost-effectiveness. You can help and find out more at their website, www.bonobo.org .