My flight leaves tomorrow morning, so this will most likely be my final post from Congo.
Some more pictures with Ombwe, as a send-off. We just spent the morning eating red pears together. Should it be any surprise that we have the exact same expression at all times? We’re just a couple of bonobos, after all. I’ll miss them all quite a bit.
After humans, the bonobos are the most voluptuous of the great apes—some of the females, especially those with young infants, look straight out of a renaissance painting.
Here we have the posse of Enclosure #2, striking a brilliant triangle composition. Poussin couldn’t do better. Notice one of my favorites, Sake, on the right and contemplating the ground beneath her feet with her usual sweet frankness.
In the next picture you might notice an infant taking advantage of everyone’s calm serenity to make a run for the hills.
All is not idyllic in Enclosure #2, however. Right after I arrived, Makali, a 25 year-old male, was discovered with a badly wounded thumb. The bone was sticking out, and the finger had to be amputated. He’s never been able to socialize well with the group, since he spent 15 years in a medical research lab in Kinshasa, closed in a cell with no windows, before being rescued and coming to Lola. He’s frequently “corrected” by the females, and apparently they got rough with him.
Now Keza, another adult male, has taken sick. He’s been avoiding the night cages, and sleeping on his own in the forest, keeping away from the other bonobos. In order to keep him healthy, the keepers have given him a cloth to sleep on and a box of passionfruit juice, from which he takes periodic sips. Here you can see him reclining, avoiding the dominating females and waiting for his upset stomach to get better.
What the bonobos have in cuteness, the Congolese insects have in ferocity.
When I first came across ants on the path, I thought it was a fallen branch. But then I looked closer, and saw that it was in motion—very fast motion. The ants here form streams to get where they need to go, with large guys with big claws guarding the edges while the smaller ones move along in the center. In my book I have my protagonist sleeping out in the open, and I’m realizing how much of a menace the local ants would be for her. I also realize why the bonobos will eat them. They’re plump, and look like they’ve almost got muscles.
Then there’s the termites, which form these massive hives. They’ve got little fangs, too, and these sacs of venom on their rears. Antoine, a Frenchman who’s volunteering here to build the new nursery, got a few nasty bites from them when he was taking down an old wood structure.
Praying Mantises. Very frequently seen here. I was marveling at how still this guy was until I realized he’d gone too near the fence and been electrocuted.
And, if only because they’re so awesome, I’m closing with a bonobo picture. This is in the adult enclosure, where a high ranking female is spending some time with a young male in the late afternoon. She’s pulling hard nuts away from a cluster, placing them on the stone, and then crashing another stone into them to break the shell. The famous tool use of the great apes. The male’s just along for the grub, which I guess he gets to do because he’s so handsome.
In the wild, bonobos generally have thick coats of hair. In the sanctuary or in zoos, since they don’t have to spend all their time foraging, they have a lot more social time. For a bonobo, that means grooming, and the overgrooming is why some of the bonobos, especially the popular ones, are bald. I think it takes some of their dignity away, but they don’t seem to mind one bit.
I knew bonobos were smart, but on this trip I’ve been consistently surprised by just how smart. In reviewing one of the videos from my time in the nursery, I discovered something amazing. I had sensed a baby bonobo was playing with my shoe, but since at that point i had three bonobos on my head, I couldn’t really see what was going on.
Looking back at the video, I can see that one of the more impish young ones was untying my shoelaces (successfully, I might add, even though I’d triple-knotted them). But then, once finished, he didn’t try to remove my shoe. In stead, he took the laces in hand and proceeded to try to retie them. He didn’t get the knot just right, but when I came out my shoes had a loose cross knot in them. I’ll upload the video once I’m home and the connection is better.
The other amazing thing is one of the male bonobos from the adult enclosure, who has a favorite rock he likes to lie on in the afternoon, right in the middle of the river. Water bottles periodically blow into the enclosure from outside, and he had one in hand yesterday. Instead of drinking from the river, he preferred to fill the bottle and drink from that. It was funny to see a bonobo do that, in what otherwise looked like wild forest. But then, even more amazingly, he’d recap the bottle! He’d gone to the trouble of filling it, after all, and didn’t want the remains to spill out.
It’s not a feat of intelligence, but the award for the cutest so far goes to Ombwe, a two year-old who loves to get a big handful of dirt, sprinkle it liberally over his body, and lick it up. He made up a new variation when we were hanging out this morning–he’d get a handful of dirt and then release it into my pants pocket. He also loves to have his mouth blown on, which makes him pucker his lips and make kissy kissy sounds.
[P.S.: It's the weekend now, so there are day visitors about, but once it's Monday I'll be able to enter the nursery. Photos (and, if the state of the Congo internet miraculously improves, video) to come!]
We’re all happy to discover that Jan’s cat has been located! She must have been poking around the admin offices a couple of days ago, and was locked in. Since the administration was on vacation until today, it was a very hungry and worried cat that wandered out this morning.
But, as they say in Cat, better worried and hungry than roasted and eaten.
This morning I sat down with Claudine André, the charismatic founder and director of the sanctuary, who is the bonobos’ answer to the chimps’ Jane Goodall and the gorillas’ Diane Fossey. She has this amazing red hair that is unendingly fascinating to staff and bonobos both.
In any case, she was telling me this afternoon about her cat, Lola (pictured), who is the undisputed queen of the sanctuary. Everyone speaks to her in the vous (formal) form, rather than the tu (informal). Claudine is very attentive to Lola’s whiskers, as apparently a few years ago some of the day laborers took to abducting her for an hour or two and trimming off her whiskers, bundling them up and selling them in town as sorcery ingredients.
[Above: Jan from Senegal, very happy to have her cat back safe and sound.]