17 February 2013
As part of my investigation into the ape trade in DRC, on Friday 1st February, I visited Lola Ya Bonobo a sanctuary of the NGO, Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC). Lola was founded by Claudine Andre in 1994 and is located on Les Petites Chutes de la Lukaya, just outside of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there I would visit Boma, a busy port on the River Congo, to investigate whether sailors on ships visiting Boma and Matadi, ever buy baby apes. Logistically, it was impossible for me to fly so, together with my friend and contact, Evelyne Samu, country director of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, who came to my aid with her driver and vehicle; we travelled through heavy rain and virtually impassable roads for 8 hours eventually arriving at Boma.
On Sunday morning, we visited some of the tourist sites and the bushmeat market where I interviewed the vet who inspects the meat – legal and well organised, no reports of live baby apes for sale. It looked as though my trip was to be in vain until we had a conversation with a security guard at a maritime centre. He explained that I should speak to the ‘Washmen’ who paddle canoes out to ships waiting off-shore, and procure anything the sailors want. He agreed to introduce me to two washmen he knew.
The washmen confirmed that sometimes sailors asked them to get live animals, such as small antelope, snakes, crocodiles (a favourite of Russians they said). I asked if they had ever been asked for baby apes – they said no, sometimes monkeys, but if we were interested they knew where there was a baby gorilla in town. I expressed interest in seeing this, and that my boss might want to buy it (a story I use in such investigations because it explains why I need to photograph the animal, to send the picture to my boss, who of course is fictitious).
Half an hour later, they returned saying yes, we could go and see it and that the price was $450. We all drove to a small wooden roadside shack and met the proprietress, Mme Rebecca, who introduced us to her ‘chimpanzee’ named Mireille, that she had acquired for her two girls, who are aged about 3 and 4. No-one else present seemed to realise it was a bonobo, not a chimpanzee (nor indeed a gorilla) but I went along with the pretence while taking video and photos. I asked Mme Rebecca if the children would be sad if they lost their playmate, and she reassured me “no problem, I can always get another… I know a lady in Matadi who gets them from Bandundu”. Evelyne also had other conversations in Ki-Congo with her in which she learned Mireille was from the Kikwit region.
Saying we would be back tomorrow to confirm whether ‘my boss’ was interested, we left to discuss strategy. I said that, as it was a bonobo, the only option was to confiscate it and bring it to Lola. Some suggested buying the animal to enable it to be quickly taken there, but I said no, that would be illegal, stimulate trade and that we must do this by the book and confiscate it. This, it was said, would take time and paperwork – perhaps we should leave it for the Environment officers to confiscate and send to Lola after a few days. I pointed out that we had a vehicle, we could take it tomorrow, and that if we left her and she died, that would make us responsible, for not acting quickly while we were here. It seemed to me we must stay another night and we all agreed that, inconvenient though it was to our plans, the confiscation and transfer of Mireille must become our first priority. We were then introduced to Claude, another colleague from the Environment Ministry, who had confiscated three bonobos from a house in Boma some years ago and so knew the procedure.
It was explained to me that any confiscation involves legal and veterinary costs, to prepare the documents for seizing the animal and transporting it. These would be in the region of $500. I then rang Will Travers, CEO of Born Free Foundation and he immediately agreed to cover the $500. He also offered – if Claudine agreed, to use the rescue to raise funds for this bonobo’s long-term care.
The next morning the Environment officers visited Rebecca and explained the situation. She agreed to hand over the bonobo, and also agreed to come with her husband and two daughters to Lola to see where their ‘third daughter’ would go to live. All agreed that this was important because the little girls were crying at the prospect of losing their ‘friend’ and we wanted this family to become sensitised to the issues as well as the special nature of their pet, and why it is illegal to keep or buy or sell any apes.
It was 4pm when we finally left Boma and it was 3.30am when we rolled into the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) office in Kinshasa; we had booked a room downstairs for the family and I slept for about 2.5 hours on the sofa upstairs with Mireille in my arms (as she had been for most of the 11.5 hour journey). I found this a very moving experience – and am closer to understanding the passion for bonobos on a deep personal level.
When we arrived at Lola with Mireille, Mme Rebecca handed her to the vet who then gave her a veterinary examination. Before I departed for the airport for my flight to Nairobi, I left money for the family’s journey home and can now only hope that after their experience at Lola, they will now be allies who will help us close down the dealer in Matadi.
The point that this story will illustrate in the UNEP-GRASP report on the ape trade, to be published in March at CITES, is that there is still clearly both a supply and a demand for baby apes, and that the indications are that almost anywhere an investigator starts to dig, he or she will find them for sale.
It is our hope that the report on the ape trade will increase enforcement and awareness worldwide, and thereby reduce both the demand and supply.