By Ashley Mooney

The bonobos have found their Jane Goodall, and this time she’s from the Congo.

Photo by Ashley Mooney.

Suzy Kwetuenda visiting Duke. Photo by Ashley Mooney.

Although bonobos are native to the Congo, Suzy Kwetuenda is the first Congolese person to study them. Kwetuenda is a Congolese scientist who runs bonobo care and conservation programs at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sanctuary provides rehabilitation and protection for young bonobos who are orphaned by the bushmeat trade.

She was at Duke this semester to work with members of the Brian Hare Lab, with whom she has worked for about 10 years. She also coordinates field research for the Duke students and faculty who study bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo, said Postdoctoral Associate Jingzhi Tan.

“My role is first to learn more about [bonobos]. After that is about my country,” Kwetuenda said. “I want to help bonobos [become] a symbol of my country, just like you can see pandas from China.”The greatest threats to the endangered apes are the bushmeat trade and habitat destruction. Kwetuenda noted that in order to save bonobos, one must first take care of the people who live near them.

“They are still looking for bushmeat, because they are poor and the only big resource is the forest,” she said. “They go in to find any animal they can find, they don’t care about how it is or the population, because they are poor and they need to survive.”

Kwetuenda added that teaching people about bonobos and alternative food sources will help them be more cooperative with conserving bonobos and their habitats.

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

“My concern is really to let people—especially Congolese people—be aware that this is the closest [related] ape to humans and is really endangered,” she said. “They are only found in the forest at the center of Congo, and if nobody takes care of them, they will disappear forever.”

Since she is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kwetuenda believes that her voice will have more power in her country than if a non-Congolese person were attempting to save the bonobos.

“I think as a Congolese woman, it’s much easier to have trust of other Congolese. Because we’re still from the same origin, same root,” she said. “So I think it’s much easier that they can be aware that it’s a local concern and isn’t coming from somewhere else. “

What is a bonobo?

Bonobos are sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees, due to their strong physical similarities to chimpanzees but smaller size. But the small apes are not to be confused with the larger cousins.

Kwetuenda noted that bonobos have darker faces and longer hair “that will cover their small ears,” compared to chimps who have white faces and pink, visible ears. Bonobos also have webbing between their second and third fingers.

Beyond the physical differences, bonobos are much less aggressive than chimpanzees.

“The model they have for life [is] peace and no war,” Kwetuenda said. “So they make a lot of sex to solve any problem, any stress, any dispute. That’s why they are so kind and so social with each other.”

Back to the wild

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

Since 2009, Lola ya Bonobo has reintroduced dozens of bonobos to the wild. The bonobos who were released were picked because of their immunity and independence, Kwetuenda said.

“They are like humans, there are some who are weak and [get sick easily]. The first thing is who has more immunity and will survive the longest,” she said. “The second thing is… who is able to take care of themselves?”

Before bonobos are released, Kwetuenda noted that she wants to be sure that they will not try to return to humans.

“Most of them are orphans, so they really need to trust each other,” she said.

Some of the released bonobos had lived in captivity for up to 10 years, and Kwetuenda noted that how they will adapt to the wild is one of her biggest concerns. One bonobo, however, has stepped up to help newly released ones readapt to the wild.

“We had one teenager in the first group who was like a substitute mother, she was like the angel of the group,” Kwetuenda said. “She was taking care of the new ones, trying to give them food, and teaching them how to look for food on their own.”

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

Courtesy of Jingzhi Tan, taken at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

Kwetuenda described this bonobo’s actions as empathy. When the bonobo first arrived in the forest, it was often lost and got into trouble. She said she believes the bonobo used its own experiences with reintroduction to help the others.

“She understood how it was tough to be wild,” Kwetuenda said.

Saving bonobos

She noted that while Congo and the bonobos seem far away, Duke students can help by joining the research effort.

“We just need to have more studies and try to let people understand how amazing bonobos are, how clever bonobos are,” she said. “Bonobos have different personalities. There are some who are shy, you have kind ones [and] you have bad ones. “

Collaborating with American or European researchers, she added, can also help increase the credibility of her research. This collaboration provides the sanctuary with resources and access to labs, which would be very difficult to get otherwise.  There is currently a large war in another area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kwetuenda said authorizes are mostly interested political problems, not saving bonobos.

“Even though the economy in the world is very tough, we need to help them. We need to find money… to help the orphans,” she said.