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Into the Congo: saving bonobos means aiding left-behind communities, an interview with Gay Reinartz
September 23, 2010
Gay Reinartz will be speaking at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd, 2010.
"From a place of privilege, I have had the opportunity to look upon a society essentially reduced to its simplest, most fundamental term—survival. In Congo, I have witnessed wider extremes of cruelty and kindness, exploitation and generosity, revenge and forgiveness," Gay Reinartz told mongabay.com in an interview. While developing and directing BCBI—a program established through the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM)—Reinartz has spent years working closely with Congolese communities in order to improve lives and, hopefully, ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo.
"Bonobos have a playful nature. The idea that bonobos are a peace loving society is true—but to a certain extent," Reinartz explains. "This trait is relative and must be seen in comparison to other great ape species. The media have overplayed bonobos as peaceniks. While it’s true that bonobos show less aggression, that they have less big-male domination, that 'wars' have not been observed, they do fight. […] Nevertheless, the bonobo has evolved ways to deal with social tension and reduce aggression or conflict—that being social sexual interactions—having intimacy and intercourse for reasons other than reproduction—and empathy."
To save the world's least known great ape, the BCBI has developed a number of initiatives. The organization has trained Congolese field workers to survey bonobo and other large mammal populations in Salongo National Park, providing baseline data for before and after conflict erupted in the region. The surveys are also studying different bonobo densities in a number of sites in the park, variously affected by poaching.
BCBI has also established programs to support protective measures in the park, including setting up an anti-poaching patrol, training park guards, and coming through with supplies and funds for park guards in emergencies. Reinartz says the situation is incredibly difficult for park guards, and often dangerous especially when facing elephant poachers.
The biggest current threat to bonobos and most of the wildlife in the park is hunting: the great apes are killed for bushmeat as well as trapped in snares meant for other big mammals. Given the poverty of the region, and few ways to make money, the bushmeat trade has boomed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"So, how do we convince them not to hunt? We have to give communities incentives to do something else and begin to build greater awareness. At the same time then, the park guards have to do their job in law enforcement. The two approaches must work from either side simultaneously—one with the other," says Reinartz.
Giving communities incentives not to hunt includes working on providing new economic and education opportunities, both of which are basically non-existent in the region. BCBI has established a farming cooperative with a local NGO, helping villagers can learn to grow their own food and hopefully start up markets to sell the extra. The organization has also set-up primary schools, including providing materials and paying local teachers, and adult literacy courses. In such a region, if conservation is to succeed, conservation programs have to become humanitarian programs, filling in the role of a crippled government, a battered economy, and a region still suffering from bouts of violence. Part of the battle, says Reinartz, is convincing people that conservationists can be trusted, that BCBI won't abandon communities if times get rough again.
"For many people, even though they might understand why and regret that elephants, bonobos and other animals have vanished from their communal forests, they consider conservation efforts as just another way they are being cheated and neglected. To change these attitudes will take a long time and program consistency to overcome generations of negative conditioning and hopelessness," she says, adding that "what surprises me is that they aren’t more cynical than they are."
Even in the face of war and poverty, Reinartz is clearly amazed at the generosity and strength of many of the Congolese people.
In a September 2010 interview Gay Reinartz spoke about the uniqueness of the bonobo, the challenge of saving a species in one of the world's most forgotten places: the Congo, and of combining conservation work with humanitarian programs.
Reinartz will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd, 2010.
INTERVIEW WITH GAY REINARTZ
Mongabay: What is your background?
Gay Reinartz: I have been working for nearly 30 years in different capacities with bonobo conservation. I became acquainted with bonobos in the line of my work with the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. In 1988, I established the Bonobo Species Survival Plan (SSP, AZA) and coordinated it since, and I have been working in DR Congo since 1997. My training is in population genetics and evolutionary biology and my entire professional career has been focused in wildlife conservation. I obtained my PhD studying genetic variation in the bonobo. I developed and currently direct the Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI)—a field conservation program that helps protect the bonobos in the Salonga National Park.
Mongabay: What drew you to bonobos?
Mongabay: What are the major differences between bonobos and chimpanzees?
Gay Reinartz: There are many differences. From a conservation standpoint there is one major difference: bonobos are found only within the political boundaries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their future depends on what happens in this country. Physically, the bonobo is a slimmer, more refined and gracile chimpanzee. They have black skin, a hairstyle that parts in the middle and fans out sideways from their round head, and large side-whiskers. From a biological and a behavioral standpoint, studies suggest that bonobo society is more matriarchal than chimpanzee. Bonobo females tend to be more cohesive, and their cohesiveness can be a formidable force in calling the shots in everyday bonobo life. Yet bonobo society is flexible and dynamic, males often trump, depending on circumstances. We are still learning about these differences, and study of wild populations is extremely challenging for both species. Certainly one characteristic they share is that they are both endangered and both need our attention.
Mongabay: Are bonobos truly as peace-loving as their reputation suggests?
Gay Reinartz: Bonobos have a playful nature. The idea that bonobos are a peace loving society is true—but to a certain extent. This trait is relative and must be seen in comparison to other great ape species. The media have overplayed bonobos as peaceniks. While it’s true that bonobos show less aggression, that they have less big-male domination, that "wars" have not been observed, they do fight. Conflicts and attacks happen, and they can lead to some pretty serious injuries. My image of bonobos is not one of utter passivity. Crimes take place, and the guilty are severely punished! Nevertheless, the bonobo has evolved ways to deal with social tension and reduce aggression or conflict—that being social sexual interactions—having intimacy and intercourse for reasons other than reproduction—and empathy.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about your first encounter with these apes in the wild?
Mongabay: What threats are bonobos facing in Salonga National Park?
Gay Reinartz: The greatest threat to any animal in the Salonga is hunting. In places, bonobos are pursued by hunters using guns and in other places bonobos succumb indirectly in snares and traps.
Mongabay: Are bonobos still threatened by the pet trade?
Gay Reinartz: Yes. As long as bonobos are hunted, babies will be taken alive. People will try to sell them in the hopes that they will bring a greater amount than they would as a small parcel of smoked meat. We continue to hear about or run across an orphaned bonobo about every two years—mostly while in major cities like Mbandaka and Kinshasa. If possible we intervene and work with authorities to send the bonobo to the sanctuary in Kinshasa, Lola ya Bononbo.
Mongabay: How imperiled is this species worldwide? How many survive in captivity?
There are about 231 bonobos in captivity; this includes approximately 50 that are kept in a sanctuary in the DRC. There are approximately 180 bonobo in zoos in North America and Europe. There are 81 in the US and Mexico.
SALONGA NATIONAL PARK
Mongabay: What makes Salonga National Park unique? What other endangered species are present there?
Gay Reinartz: Salonga is one of the world’s largest tropical forest parks; it is about 36,000 km2 covering a surface area larger than the country of Rwanda. The Salonga is the only national park that harbors bonobos. It was also once a regional stronghold of the endangered forest elephant, although their populations have been greatly diminished over the past couple of decades. The Salonga represents a whole ecosystem and the headwaters of some major rivers that feed millions of people. For this reason, because of the bonobo, and because of its legal status, I consider it the most important conservation site for the bonobo. It is important too for the forest elephants, at least six other primate species, rare ungulates such as the bongo, sitatunga, and the tiny water chevrotain, and the Congo Peafowl, a bird endemic to the region. The Salonga is also the only national park that protects part of a unique equatorial forest type—the one of the Cuvette Centrale or the central basin of the Congo River.
Mongabay: Has logging impacted the forests of Salonga National Park? Is it primarily locals for agriculture or industrialized logging?
Gay Reinartz: No. The forests of Salonga are virtually intact with the exception of some limited areas (southern sector) where different groups actually live in the park.
Mongabay: Is there enough funding and staff on the ground to adequately protect the wildlife and ecosystems in Salonga National Park from poachers and other human disturbances?
One of our programs in BCBI is to train the guards in navigation techniques so they can literally find their way around the forest, leave trails and bushwhack to given destinations. We provide the maps, the training and instruction, equipment, and the follow-up. The guards use the maps and GPS to plan their patrol routes. As they go on patrol, they mark their path, mark the places they see bonobo nests, human signs and other wildlife. Later we download the data from the GPS. We can then tell where the guards actually went, what day, whether it corresponds to their data sheet, and where they observed key species. We make a map of the whole thing, and then the park wardens can direct anti-poaching activities to the most vulnerable places. In absence of this technique, guards must stay on trails, go places they know, and there is no way for them to pinpoint animal sightings. In this way, the guards make regular and systematic patrols, and we can verify their routes and locate places where bonobos congregate and where poaching might occur.
Mongabay: How dangerous is being a guard in Salonga National Park?
Mongabay: You traveled to Salonga during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Has life for local residents significantly improved since then?
Gay Reinartz: No. These people have been deprived long before the civil war. This is an area where no roads exist, the agricultural sector has collapsed, and virtually all trade but fishing and hunting has disappeared. The villages might have a few more francs circulating among them, but if anything, their conditions are worse because of higher prices internationally. Still they face unimaginable poverty; few schools exist and they can not afford the fees; virtually no health care programs reach them, and they have no money for medicines; and they have little economic opportunity or trade.
Mongabay: How do you tell some of the poorest people in the world and in some cases literally starving that they shouldn't kill bonobos or other endangered species for food?
Mongabay: What projects have the Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI) set up with local villagers in the region?
Gay Reinartz: Over the years, we’ve set three programs based on many meetings with the local communities and their leaders.
The second project involves revitalizing primary schools in villages surrounding the park. Most villages surrounding the park do not have primary schools and children must either live in the village or travel many kilometers to go to school. Most villagers cannot afford school fees which pay teachers salaries. So BCBI works with the villages to pay 7 primary school teachers, and annually we furnish school books and materials.
The third and most recent initiative is adult literacy. Over 90% of the adults in this area cannot read or write. This also includes the park guards. Originally, BCBI began a literacy program for the guards so that they could document patrols, but to our surprise most of the students were fishermen who stopped in from the local villages. So we expanded our outreach to hire two teachers to travel among the villages and give literacy classes. Today we have over 180 students, mostly women.
Mongabay: Why is it important to improve local lives when trying to save species on the edge like bonobos?
Mongabay: How has working with the people of the Congo changed you?
Gay Reinartz: I hope I have a better sense and understanding of humanity. (I don’t think I ever wore rose colored glasses, but if I did, they were long discarded.) From a place of privilege, I have had the opportunity to look upon a society essentially reduced to its simplest, most fundamental term—survival. In Congo, I have witnessed wider extremes of cruelty and kindness, exploitation and generosity, revenge and forgiveness. Extremes exist, and all too often violence has Congo by the throat. Yet, I think at their core, an individual prefers peace. I recall one voyage upriver and being so sick with food poisoning that I cold barely climb out of the pirogue. We had to stop at a small fishing camp because it was raining. When I had found my feet (with some help), I, a complete stranger and white person, staggered into the first hut, looked at the woman squatting by the fire, and immediately collapsed on her only bed. I watched her for awhile too weak to speak. She kept on cooking like this intrusion was normal. I slept on her bed all night. She kept the fire going. In the morning, never saying a word, she presented me with tea and an egg—all she had in reserve. That’s Congo.
To find out more about BCBI's work: The Bonobo and Congolese Biodiversity Initiative
Large mammal survey by the ZSM research team in tandem with Etate guards - crossing an elephant bai. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
ZSM's supply of elementary school books, notebooks and ballpoint pens for the village school of Tompoco. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
ZSM's Etate research site andICCN patrol post. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
Etate park guards in a formal ZSM training session. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
ZSM's supply of patrol equipment for the Etate guards. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
Rub-marks of a forest elephant against a tree in the Etate sector of Salonga National. Photo courtesy of Gay Reinartz.
Original source: http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0923-hance_reinartz.html
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