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Bonobos' threat: hungry humans

Though illegal, the trade in bush meat thrives in Congo and is pushing bonobos apes to extinction.

"It's a bit tough, but it is better than cat ... and it is certainly better than nothing," says John, a middle-aged Congolese security guard. He knows that there are laws against eating endangered species like the bonobos apes he is describing, and that he is breaking those laws every time he takes home a bag of the popular bush meat.

But at $7 for a half-ape, the meat is cheaper than beef, easier to get than chicken, and deemed tastier than fish. "We have been eating monkey for years," John says.

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Found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a small region between the Congo River in the north and Kasai River in the south, the bonobos is the last of the great apes to be discovered and yet may be the first to become extinct. The animals are being pushed to the brink by war, encroachment into their habitat, and a thriving bush-meat industry that threatens other species as well.

Living deep in the Congolese jungle, the bonobos were first found in the 1930s. While scientists still debate whether they are members of the chimpanzee family, studies have concluded that the bonobos are the primates closest to human beings, with whom they are said to share 98.6 percent of their genetic makeup.

"The[babies] cry, they need their mothers, they get chicken pox, they look you in the eye and seem to say they understand a whole lot," says conservationist Claudine Andre, who manages a one-of-its-kind bonobos sanctuary on the outskirts of Kinshasa. "And they are being wiped out."

In 1980 there were an estimated 100,000 bonobos populating in the dense Congolese forests. In 1990, fewer than 10,000 were found. Today, after two wars and three years of occupation by foreign militaries and rebel groups, there may be as few as 3,000 remaining, Andre says. Some have fled from the war and into neighboring countries. Most have been eaten.

Because apes have few offspring, hunting has a dramatic impact, and a significant part of the population can disappear within a single generation.

With central Africa's human population expected to double in the next 20 years, and with forests in the region increasingly being cut down for fuel and timber, conservationists say that the bush-meat trade will only grow.

According to the Bush Meat Crisis Task Force, a body created in 1999 and uniting 30 international wildlife organizations in a battle against poaching, a half-century ago 5 million chimpanzees were living in 25 countries across western and central Africa. Today fewer than 150,000 remain, and they have died out in five of the countries where they once were found. Chimps are expected to disappear from five more countries, including the Congo, by the end of the decade.

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The task force estimates that the trade is worth more than $1 billion a year in west and central Africa. Bush meat hunters earn $300 to $1,000 a year in a country where the average family lives on $100 a year.

Roving, unpaid bands of soldiers were the first to begin eating the bonobos, shooting them down along with any other animal they could find - from chimpanzees to antelopes to bats. "The soldiers don't know any better," explains Andre. "They are mostly ... under 20 years old. They are totally uneducated, and of course, know nothing about conservation. It is so very sad."

In time, the original human inhabitants of these forests - the Mongo peoples, who used to consider the primates cousins and had a strong taboo against eating their flesh - broke down in the face of poverty, displacement, and hunger.

Meanwhile, workers for logging companies in the area soon began organizing the practice into a business, driving across the country with the bush meat in the backs of logging trucks and introducing the taste to cities, towns and villages further afield.

In Kinshasa, the meat is offered smoked. Young bonobos, meanwhile, too scrawny to bring a good price at market, are often sold as pets.

Six years ago, Andre, a vivacious Italian redhead who grew up in the Congo, decided to do something to save the hapless primates. It all began when she was volunteering at the crumbling Kinshasa zoo, and was given her first bonobos by a soldier just back from the forests. The young ape was orphaned when its parents were eaten in the jungle. Soon, she had acquired three more orphans. For two years, she kept the bonobos at home, bringing them up together with her five children. But more kept arriving.

In 1998, after the American School gave over a portion of its grounds to the endeavor, and with the help of private donations and the support of several conservation groups, Andre moved the apes out of her living room and into the newly created sanctuary for bonobos orphans. Today, there are 20 bonobos, the largest group in captivity in the world. They spend their days climbing the acacia trees, making friends with visitors, and having their lunch - fruits, vegetables and milk, prepared for them by a staff of four.

Substitute mothers are hired to take care of the young. In the wild, these babies would have remained attached to their mothers' bodies for up to five years. "If we did not do this," says the head substitute mother, Maman Henriette, "they would just die."

The stand-in moms definitely have their hands full. This year, 3-year-old Semendwa and 2-year-old Inongo both became ill. Four-year-old Bukavu fell off a tree and broke two front teeth. And tiny baby clothes had to be bought for year old Nioki because she does not have enough hair to protect her from the cold.

The problem with the bonobos orphanage and other such sanctuaries across Africa, says wildlife activist Karl Amman, is that they deal only with the end result of the bush-meat trade. The orphanages can also play a crucial role in education, he says. "Few humans who have had physical contact with an orphaned great ape will be comfortable eating one," says Mr. Amman.

"Our objective here,"Andre agrees, "is also to educate the public."

Over 15,000 Congolese children visitedAndre's sanctuary last year, playing with the primates and seeing graphic films about the bush-meat trade. "It is too late to educate adults, but the children - when you explain, they get it," says Andre. "And if they get it, then we might be heading in a better direction."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor