Claudine Andre, a 67-year-old Belgian living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), has dedicated the past 20 years to protecting the bonobo, an extraordinary species of ape threatened by trafficking and poachers.
Walking out of the DR Congo Ministry of the Environment in Kinshasa after lodging a request to rescue an infant ape on display at a local bar, she was worried.
“We must go tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve seen photos — he’s not three years old yet, he’s just a few dozen centimeters in height, his nose is running. He’s going to die.”
To make sure the operation goes off without a hitch — and for her own personal safety — she will not be going herself. The tires on her car have already been slashed twice, but that is not enough to deter “Madame Claudine,” as she is known by the locals.
She has lived in the DR Congo for most of her life, having arrived when she was just four. A married mother of five, she set up her sanctuary, Lolo ya bonobo, or “bonobo heaven,” in 1993.
At her 35-hectare conservation area outside the capital, she saves the animals from the clutches of the illegal animal trade.
Bonobo trafficking is a lucrative business: Andre said an infant bought for 50,000 Congolese francs (US$55) can be resold for as much as US$15,000 on the Internet.
The young apes she rescues occasionally arrive sick and are always traumatized. First, they are handed over to a “surrogate mother,”one of the many Congolese women working at the sanctuary who fuss over their charges. This crucial step in their rehabilitation can go on for weeks or even months until they are able to rejoin the rest of the tribe.
Eventually, they will be released back to their habitat: 275,000km of land at the heart of the DR Congo encircled by the Congo River and the Kasai and Samburu rivers. At the moment, there are 70 residents at “bonobo heaven.”
Estimated to number 100,000 in 1980, today there are just 10,000 to 20,000 bonobos left. Andre attributes their dwindling numbers to poaching, which has gone hand in hand with human population growth.
The DR Congo is a country of 68 million people and is ranked last on the UN development index. Hunger and civil war has driven some to poaching and the sale of bush meat.
Andre said that for every animal she rescues, 10 will have been killed by the poachers who leave only the babies alive — there is not enough meat on a baby bonobo to sell and it far more lucrative to sell them to traffickers.
A species that share 98.7 percent of humans’ DNA, bonobos have long fascinated anthropologists. They live in matriarchal societies and are highly sexual, frequently using sex to express affection and in conflict resolution.
Bonobos are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but, despite this, the outlook is bleak.
Andre is putting her faith in the future in education.
“I have hope that conservation will happen through education,” she said.
In 2006, 26,000 children came to visit her “bonobo heaven.”
“They’re the ones who call me to tell me that there’s a bonobo in chains somewhere,” she said.