A MISSION TO STOP EXTINCTION. Fanny Minesi is General Director of Friends of Bonobos – Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC). Her organisation operates the world’s only sanctuary – Lola ya Bonobo – and only rewilding site for bonobos – Ekolo ya Bonobo. Raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), she has been immersed in wildlife conservation since childhood. In November 2023 she was presented with the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa by William, Prince of Wales. Fanny Minesi works to secure the future of endangered bonobos through rescue and rehabilitation, rewilding, conservation law enforcement, education, and economic development.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Fanny Minesi, bonobos are peaceful and cooperative great apes that are genetically very close to humans. Are bonobos like chimpanzees?
For many years, scientists thought that bonobo was a chimp subspecies. But bonobos are a unique species, and there is so much difference: their behaviour, the way they organise their society, everything that makes a bonobo a bonobo distinguishes him from what makes a chimp a chimp. The bonobo is much slimmer than a chimpanzee, and bonobos have this dark black face while chimps can be very pale.
Why are bonobos endangered?
Because they are eaten. They are endangered primarily because of poverty and population growth. People eat wildlife meat, and the demands of the towns are increasing. Commercial hunting puts a lot of pressure on biodiversity and especially on great apes. Adult bonobos are being eaten, and orphaned babies are falling into the traffic of animals for the pet trade.
What can you do about this?
We have developed an intelligence network and, with the national or provincial authorities, we organise the seizure of those orphans. Then we take care of those bonobos in a rehabilitation centre 25km from Kinshasa. The lucky ones are selected for reintroduction to the wild and are transported 800km away from Kinshasa to a protected area. They spend six months in quarantine, and then they are put into the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve and are totally in freedom.
“The only way to survive for bonobos is making a transfer of affection with someone or another bonobo. Love is really important for their survival.”
Nyota and Lobiko at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary. Photo Courtesy Friends of Bonobos
Fanny Minesi, what is the background to your own involvement with bonobos?
My mum Claudine André was involved in bonobo protection since 1994. I was touched by the dedication of my mum and how she built her organisation, but I didn’t really understand what they were doing. I knew that my mum was basically working for the rehabilitation of young orphan bonobos, and trying to reintroduce them to a safe place, but I never imagined how her organisation was building a new protected area management system and how she was involving the local communities with the protected area, and her difficulties also with the national authorities.
How did you become more involved with Friends of Bonobos?
I have a Master’s in research in law, and was very interested about how the juridical system helps the economic system to be efficient. After I was a student, I came back to DRC and for eight years my mum was asking me to get involved in her conservation project and organisation. They had a major problem with the State, which wanted to rent biodiversity to other countries as China is doing with the pandas. They decided to make a workshop with the national authorities to explain scientifically why that should not be a strategy for funding conservation, and I was asked to be the translator from French to English and from Lingala. For three days I was translating, and by the end I started expressing my own point of view, pointing to what should be improved in the juridical system of the country, because the country’s laws didn’t really recognize this kind of organisation and the work they were doing. I didn’t want to be a mini-mum, but, seeing that I could do more, I wanted to help and then I took the lead, jumping to the position of directing the bonobo conservation program. My skills in law helped me to be more creative, especially with the protected areas since we are building a new model of management, and to find good ways of making this model possibly work.
Are there many fewer bonobos today than previously?
It’s complicated to know the truth about this, because they were discovered very late. They live in a very remote place, and their habitat is difficult for scientists to access. The DRC is continental in size, and bonobos live south of the Congo River – you have chimps to the north and gorillas to the east. There is also a population of bonobos south of Lake Tumba, which is mosaic forest. Scientists believe their population is declining quickly but nobody has really counted them. In the 1980s they said we have 100,000 bonobos, but now they estimate from 5,000 to 15,000.
Who are the people who hunt the bonobos for food?
Commercial hunting is organised by wealthy people who send hunters into the forest. Those hunters usually receive less than 10% of the final value of the meat. The hunters live around the habitat of the bonobos, but the meat makes a very long journey to the markets where it is sold, often several hundred kilometres. The demand from the cities for wild meat, and the fact that we are more and more people – the population is growing incredibly fast in Congo – puts pressure on the forest and on all the biodiversity. Bonobos may live for around 60 years but they only make one baby every five years, so it’s difficult for them to resist that pressure.
Is it not forbidden by law to kill and eat the wild animals?
Yes, of course. But the law is just paper.
“What is different about our organisation is that when small bonobos arrive, we give them a surrogate mother who will give them love and affection.”
Fanny Minesi, are there significant societal differences between the great apes in the Congo?
Gorilla and chimpanzee society is organised around one big male. With bonobos it’s absolutely not that schema, it’s an alliance of females leading the group and sharing their authority. Another big difference is that bonobos prefer to, and enjoy to, share food. And chimps hunt, but it’s extremely rare that bonobos hunt. They take advantage opportunistically of, for example, a bird nest, and they take the eggs and then usually share those privileged meals among the females and the young kids. For bonobos there are no territories. Chimps have a territory and they will fight for their territory, and a chimp can kill another chimp; and they also kill the kids if they’re not sure if they are their own kids. This is not something that happens in bonobo society. Nobody has seen a bonobo kill another bonobo. They solve their conflicts without reaching the point of killing each other, and if there is little food in their land you will see different groups of bonobos sharing that food and sharing the territory. You can see three or four groups of bonobos spending time together.
Are bonobo females free to have children with whomever they want?
Yes, because they are the leaders, and your place in the hierarchy as a child is from your mother. If your mother is high in the hierarchy of the female alliance, you’ll be a little prince. If your mum dies, then you go down the hierarchy, but there is no significant infant mortality. There’s no killing. Bonobos don’t kill each other.
Do they have a lot of sexual contact?
They have sexual contact for different reasons, often to reduce stress before having access to food or to prevent a stressful situation for the group. They can anticipate situations that will create stress for group members and they have sexual contact, such as when two female bonobos participate in genital rubbing behaviour. You can see it as a handshake. The females have the same ovulation cycles as human beings and do not have periods in the same way as chimps or dogs. Like human beings they can have sex all the time if they want. All sexual contact is not for reproduction; often it is for reducing stress and keeping peace in the group. This is the difference between bonobos and other species.
This is why some people call them the Love Ape?
Yes, and people try to capture them, but what is very difficult is to keep them alive in captivity because they’re very, very fragile. So usually there’s very few in captivity because they die. The complications due to a normal flu for us can go to pneumonia for bonobos, so they are very vulnerable to transmission of disease and human disease. Unlike chimps, which are resistant and resilient to captivity, bonobos usually just stop eating and drinking and wait to die. The only way to survive for bonobos is making a transfer of affection with someone or another bonobo. Love is really important for their survival.
The real healing of these animals’ trauma is love?
Yes. What is different about our organisation is that when small bonobos arrive, we give them a surrogate mother who will give them love and affection. And this is why they want to survive. And I think it’s the same for our species. When you see the protocols for trauma, what you see is security. This is how you get over the trauma, because you want to trust again, and trusting is coming from a lot of emotion.
How do the bonobos organise their lives in the forest?
They have a home range of around 8 to 12 square kilometres, depending where the food is and the time of year. When the sun goes down, they go up into the trees to make night nests which they construct with branches of trees and that are more sophisticated than daily nests. Their basic day is spent looking for food, and they give a lot of space to games and interaction between members of the groups, and then they make daily nests and move around according to the decision of the females.
Mama Peguy and Owila, Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary. Photo Courtesy Friends of Bonobos
Fanny Minesi Talking to Team. Photo Courtesy of Tusk
Bonobo Eating Fruit. Photo Courtesy Friends of Bonobos
Nursery Bonobos Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary. Photo Courtesy Friends of Bonobos
Fanny Minesi speaks with ecoguard Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve. Photo Courtey Friends of Bonobos
Fanny Minesi & William, Prince of Wales. Photo Courtesy of Tusk
“If we want Congo to value the protection of its natural resources, we will have to show the country that choosing protection of forest and biodiversity leads to development for the people.”
Fanny Minesi, what is your daily job leading this organisation that fights to protect these wild animals?
The problem is 360 degrees, so the solution must be the same. We take care of more than 70 bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo, and have reintroduced more than 30 bonobos back to the wild. Then we educate young children in school, trying to make them understand that our biodiversity has value; and more than the value of being food on a plate. Then we educate the adults, both in Kinshasa and in places where there are still wild bonobos, to try to make them understand what a bonobo is and why they should protect them. We also work with the communities near our protected area who have given land for conservation, betting that they can develop if they protect our forest and our biodiversity. That means including them in the management of the protected area, and developing programs that can reduce their dependence on the natural resources inside the protected area. The population has access to the protected area, so we are ameliorating how they live with the resources of the forest. They collect mushrooms, caterpillars, wood for construction, use different kinds of resources, so we have programs with honey and with planting trees for caterpillars and things like that. We work with 27 schools around the protected area. The Congo authority doesn’t take care of these communities’ education or health so they see conservation as an opportunity to have access to clean water, a health centre that can give you a vaccine, to solar energy. For human beings’ basic development it’s always those three needs: education, health, and access to energy.
Do the bonobos interact with people?
They should not interact with people. Normally bonobos live in the forest and you won’t even be able to see them, so it’s the worst-case scenario when you have interaction between wildlife and human beings The hunters hunt them when they are in their nests. It’s still a wild species with ten times your power, but they are nice creatures. They are absolutely not pets, but you can interact with them. You cannot look a chimp or a gorilla in the eyes (they see it as a threat), but you can do this with a bonobo and have the feeling that you are communicating.
Are bonobos kept in zoos around the world?
In certain zoos that are members of WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, there are bonobos, and they exchange animals to avoid consanguinity. The species is now totally protected, and the zoos in that global alliance are the good zoos, but there are also bad zoos. I’m thinking of in Dubai and the Emirates. Some of them are not in this alliance but they still want to have wildlife, so they send people to capture them illegally in the wild. Bonobos are found in China and in other Asian and Middle East countries, and sometimes private people have their own little zoos.
How is your organisation doing?
Our organisation is growing very fast. A lot of my energy goes into developing the new model of conservation that we want here on the equator, talking with the communities, and looking for financing. If we want the Congo do more conservation, if we want Congo to value the protection of its natural resources, we will have to show the country that choosing protection of forest and biodiversity leads to development for the people. Otherwise, we won’t win the battle against the oil companies, the logging companies and the other companies who want to have access to DRC land and resources The real challenge for the new conservationists is to make sure that economic interests and conservation interests go in the same direction.
Who finances you?
Private foundations and people who think that the last lung of our planet needs their help. I would say our funding is coming 75% from private people and 25% from international organisations.
Has William, Prince of Wales, given great help to your conservation project as a royal patron of TUSK?
Having ambassadors is always good because their words reach a lot of people that you would never have access to. Having a person like the Prince of Wales encouraging his community to get involved in the protection of nature can be a game changer. We need the help of everybody in this. I was in London a few months ago, and the Tusk award ceremony is a big ceremony with more than 300 people there; and I’m telling you, nobody knew bonobos.
Do you also face special issues because of climate change?
Our major problem is not directly with climate change yet. If we continue doing what we’re doing in Congo, we’re going to lose a lot of species and habitat before climate change hits us. Poverty is the major threat to Congo biodiversity, and mining resources. The forest of Congo is still pretty much intact, and thank God, because our land is a huge peatland. Those forests are swamp forests, and the leaves of the trees go down and stay in the soil for thousands of years, so they are a hugely beneficial carbon bank for our planet. But they are also like a timebomb, because, if you destroy those forests, you will release millions of tons of carbon kept in the soil. Protecting those areas is even more important than other lands, but it’s also in those areas that they have found oil. Congo will have to choose between giving their land to oil companies or to protected areas.
Thank you Fanny Minesi.
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