Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sterling account of conservation effort to save endangered rainforest bonobos

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Briton Jane Goodall and American Dian Fossey became public figures for their scientific and conservation work with chimpanzees and gorillas.

A lesser known great ape, the bonobo, also has a champion: American Sally Jewell Coxe, who founded the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) in 1998.

Like the chimpanzee, the bonobo has more than 98 per cent of its DNA in common with humans.

However, the bonobo is seriously endangered and it is estimated there are only about 5,000 left in the wild; their habitat is exclusively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Africa.

Empty Hands, Open Arms is New York-based Canadian journalist and author Deni Béchard's sterling account of his travels to the rain forest of the Congo to see BCI's operations on the ground.

BCI, under Coxe's leadership, is fostering conservation areas in the DRC disproportionate to the organization's small size and limited funding. In the past 15 years, the organization has helped create three times as much government-recognized protected area as all the bigger non-governmental organizations in the DRC combined.

But it is an uphill struggle.

War and poverty have afflicted the DRC, exerting pressure on bonobo populations and habitat. People displaced by war eked out subsistence in the rain forest, hunting bonobos in order to survive.

There are laws against great ape hunting throughout Africa, but few people know about them, and they are difficult to enforce.

What success BCI has enjoyed can be attributed to its philosophy of conservation.

Rather than entering an area and imposing change, BCI seeks to forge relationships and build coalitions among local people and their leaders.

Encouraging the Congolese to embrace conservation often involves a quid pro quo: BCI provides schools, health care and alternative sources of livelihood in exchange for the Congolese pursuing sustainable development and protecting the wildlife in their environment.

For example, in protected areas, BCI hires local people to serve as trackers and "eco-guards," providing a much needed source of income.

The goal of the BCI approach is to give local people a vested interest in conserving the flora and fauna of the rain forest. It is hoped conservation projects will become self-replicating, with local people increasingly assuming the role of custodianship.

There is also considerable potential for ecotourism, which, if realized, would create a conservation-based economy.

Thus the fate of the bonobo seems to hinge on BCI's success in incentivizing local populations to embrace the value of conservation.

Béchard, by the way, was born in B.C. to a Canadian father and American mother. He grew up mostly in Montreal and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book in 2007, the novel Vandal Love.

It is too early to say if BCI will be able to save the bonobo, but Béchard has depicted its innovative approach in a narrative that illustrates the challenges of conservation in Africa.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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