Bonobo Diaries: Why I’m Writing a Book about the Congo

By Deni Y. Béchard Jan. 13, 2012

Bonobo

For years, writing fiction, I found it difficult not to feel that I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And yet optimism comes easily for me, if only because I long ago decided it's a better evolutionary strategy than defeatism. Though I've read too much about the environment and listened to too many podcasts from Nature and Scientific American not to feel a little pessimistic, I never saw myself joining the ranks of the nature and science writers who predict our imminent extinction. While such work is necessary, it often fails to harness people's enthusiasm and energy. I'm reminded of this when, over dinner, I tell friends about ocean acidity and fatal PCB levels in newborn dolphins; their eyes glaze over and they reach for the wine.

A few years ago, I decided to write a nonfiction book about environmental concerns, one that might focus concretely on what we can do to make things better. While educating myself on conservationism, I heard about several conservationists trying to protect endangered bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonobos are fascinating creatures. They share approximately 98.6 percent of our DNA, are matriarchal, don't go to war or commit infanticide (unlike ourselves and their cousin the chimpanzee) and even, some primatologists argue, have the capacity for language. In fact, I've now had the pleasure of meeting a few, and they gazed into my eyes with a look of wariness and curiosity that I've seen on many a first date (suggesting intelligence, to me at least). Due to the wars in the Congo, they've been hunted to near extinction, and even if they (alongside the chimpanzee) weren't our closest living relative, I'd advocate for their protection.

However, when I learned about conservation efforts, what most caught my attention was how the bonobo served as a flagship species to protect the Congo's rainforests. The idea of "flagship species" emerged from conservation biology, and works as follows: by elevating the profile of one endangered species, we can protect the biodiversity of their habitat. The importance of tropical rainforests is undeniable. Current estimates suggest that deforestation releases as much carbon into the atmosphere as the world’s transportation combined, and that tropical rainforests absorb nearly 20 percent of the carbon released each year from fossil fuels.

And yet the tropical rainforests are quickly disappearing. In Southeast Asia, where the population is booming, they are being mowed down for highly lucrative palm oil plantations (read the ingredients for everything in your house and you'll see how common palm oil is), and in Brazil, they are being cleared for logging, cattle grazing and soy plantations. In the Congo, which occupies the majority of the Congo River Basin (an area containing approximately 20 percent percent of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest), war kept many logging companies out, though with increasing political stability this has changed. Now, if your eyes are glazing over, bear with me.

The conservationists I have been studying—and with whom I will soon be traveling into the rainforest—have managed to help establish, with minimal funding, two immense nature reserves: that of Sankuru (30,569 square kilometres, larger than Massachusetts or Vancouver Island, and "the world's largest continuous protected area for great apes") as well as the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve (4,783 square kilometres, an area larger than Rhode Island, or more than nine times the Island of Montreal). Go to Google Maps and type "Sankuru Nature Reserve, DRC," and you'll get a sense of the size (and remember that, due to the Mercator projection, countries near the equator appear much smaller than they really are; the DRC is nearly three and half times the size of Texas). Furthermore, the DRC government allocated carbon rights to the reserves, freeing up conservationists to work with international organizations for funding.

After I learned about this, I conducted numerous interviews with Sally Jewell Coxe, the president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, and wrote up a sixty-page proposal that I sent to my agent. My agent then told me that she could probably sell it, but not for enough to make it worthwhile; she conveyed to me that people preferred fuzzy animal stories, and asked for a rewrite. A year and half later, over dinner with my editor at Milkweed Editions, I told him about the project, and within the week, I was under contract.

Finally, after numerous delays due to elections in the Congo, safety concerns and funding for conservationists, I will be going to the reserves with them. Over the next few months, I will write about my travels and research in this blog, and will discuss the following subjects:

—Who the conservationists are and what inspired their work.
—Bonobos and why they are essential to the wellbeing of the rainforest.
—The impact of the wars in the Congo on the environment.
—The ways that conservationists must work both locally and globally.
—How, to save a species, you have to build a local economy to protect it.
—Priests, shamans and Congolese pop stars who defend bonobos.
—Ways that carbon-credit models can help the rainforests.
—The best books on the Congo's history and on conservationism.
—The challenges to researching and writing a book about the Congo.
—What it's like to travel by dugout, and life on the Congo River 110 years after Heart of Darkness.

If you want to learn more about the conservationists, go to bonobo.org. You can also visit my website, denibechard.com, for information about my work, or follow me on Twitter at @denibechard, where I give travel updates and review what I'm reading by quoting the lines I find interesting. Lastly, I will be carrying a satellite GPS tracker that posts my location online. You can stalk me here. I leave for Africa in three days but am currently in France and about to go for a bike ride in la Forêt de Sénart; I will take the tracker for testing.

Deni Y. Béchard's first novel, Vandal Love, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Over the next several months, he will blog for Maisonneuve regularly from central Africa as he researches his new book.

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