The Race to Save the Bonobos

August 27th, 2015 - by admin

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative – 2015-08-27 01:44:58

The Race to Save Bonobos
Bonobo Conservation Initiative

Bonobos are one of humankind’s closest living relatives, yet most people are not even aware that bonobos exist. These great apes are complex beings with profound intelligence, emotional expression, and sensitivity. The most unusual and compelling feature of bonobos is their society–matriarchal, egalitarian, and peaceful.

Bonobos are also well-known for their creative and abundant sexual activity. Their gentle and amorous nature has led some people to call them the “Make Love, Not War” primate. The last great ape species discovered, bonobos could be the first to become extinct unless concerted action is taken now to protect them and their rainforest home.

Discover more about these amazing apes and how we can ensure their survival at

Empty Hands, Open Arms:
The Race to Save Bonobos

A new book by Deni Bechard”

Author Deni Bechard in his book Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral (also available in French under the title Des bonobos et des Hommes). This poignant, illuminating work chronicles Bechard’s travels through the Congo with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

“Bechard’s riveting journey through the ‘dark continent’ provides a surprisingly uplifting story about a radically different and successful conservation program,” writes David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature. Weaving together environmental, political, historical, and anthropological narratives, Bechard captures the challenging context in which BCI’s founder Sally Jewell Coxe, Executive Director Michael Hurley, and their team have worked for many years.

He chronicles how, despite overwhelming obstacles, BCI’s inclusive and participatory approach to conservation has achieved remarkable success. BCI has worked with local leaders to develop the Bonobo Peace Forest, an integrated network of nature reserves that are managed by local communities and supported by sustainable development.

Many are praising Empty Hands, Open Arms, including Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Coles writes, “Here is the matter of conservation given profound explanation — a searching and knowing consideration that enables an important social and political and cultural struggle in Africa to become a needed lesson for us who live elsewhere to ponder, take to heart.”

Interview with Deni Bechard
Bonobo Conservation Initiative

BCI: What inspired you to write the book?

Deni Bechard: A sense of urgency around environmental and conservation issues. I’d read enough articles and books telling me that we are doomed, so I began looking for people whose work might offer us solutions and paths forward. Through writing, I wanted to expand people’s awareness of the ways that we can address environmental issues.

BCI: How did you find BCI?

Deni Bechard: I was asking everyone I knew about conservation and environmental stories that they thought deserved to be written. A friend mentioned BCI to me, and after I spent several months researching their work, I became convinced that I should write about it.

BCI: How is BCI’s model different?

Deni Bechard: BCI’s members make an important distinction — that poverty does not equate to ignorance. This is a distinction that we often fail to make in the US. Many conservationists go to Africa thinking that they know better, and they try to implement plans and leadership strategies devised in Washington, DC. BCI develops conservation strategies based on what its people learn in the field.

They clearly communicate to the people who live in areas important for conservation that BCI wants to learn from them and support them to become conservationists. This exchange builds trust and social capital, so that people in community conservation areas feel invested in projects and are willing to support BCI through difficult periods.

BCI also emphasizes building local leadership. Many NGOs will hire Congolese leaders, but the Congo is a big country, and the people don’t want to be led by Congolese from another province or from Kinshasa.

BCI aims to develop leaders who were born and raised in the areas where conservation is being done. By investing in communities and clearly communicating with them, BCI has created a self-replicating model. It inspires leaders from nearby communities to establish new conservation areas. The people increasingly see the forests and wildlife not as resources to be exploited, but as investments for the future of their communities.

BCI: What do you hope this book will accomplish?

Deni Bechard: I had a number of goals with this book. I wrote it as a journey and in many ways as a travelogue that follows not just my physical journey to the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve but also my process of trying to understand the country, the people, the bonobos, and conservation in general.

I wanted to show readers not only the reality of that journey and that country — the actual challenges of work in a place like the Congo — but also our preconceptions both of how people there think and of how conservation should be done.

I wanted to surprise the readers with the stories of the Congolese conservationists, with their motivations and their ways of seeing conservation and the world in general. If there’s a message, it’s that for conservation to work, the people involved with it need a deep, organic sense of the country where they find themselves, as well as a great deal of humility.

We can’t import solutions to problems; rather, we have to get to the root of the problems in those countries, and that takes time and patience, and a willingness to learn. Ultimately, my goal is to inspire people to get involved in conservation and take more active roles in learning from others and looking for solutions.

BCI: Did anything surprise you as you researched the book?

Deni Bechard: A list of everything that surprised me would be as long as the book. Many of my surprises had to do with my assumptions. I was constantly surprised to see situations from new points of view and to realize how ignorant I was. Also, one thing that I haven’t addressed in the earlier questions — and that I could have — was my surprise at how much bonobos and the other great apes in general have to teach us about ourselves.

Researching and seeing bonobos helped me see myself more objectively. They made me reconsider my assumptions about what it means to be human, as well as how and why we interact the way we do. I spent a great deal of time thinking about evolution and the circumstances that incite creatures to change.

As the human population races toward nine billion, we are at a point when we are desperately in need of change, and thinking about how other apes evolved has allowed me to rethink how we can actively participate in the process of change rather than just waiting for it to be forced upon us by hardship and crisis.

BCI: What has given you the most hope about the future of conservation?

Deni Bechard: The enthusiasm of the Congolese. The Congolese are passionate and knowledgeable about their forests and wildlife, and with support, they are ready to work hard to protect it. I also believe that many of us have forgotten human endurance and our capacity for work and leadership. It is inspiring to see people who are harnessing that strength year after year, regardless of the challenges they face.

ACTION: Sponsor a bonobo or give a bonobo sponsorship as a gift! Your sponsorship will directly support protection of wild bonobos and their rainforest home. It will also enable us to rescue orphan bonobos in need of help. Please sponsor today!

The Bonobo Peace Forest
Sally Jewell Coxe / BCI President

The Bonobo Peace Forest continues to grow! For the first time ever in central Africa, logging concessions are being converted to conservation.

With the support of the Congo Basin Forest Fund and in partnership with Conservation International, the DRC government and local partners, we have initiated protection of more than 2330 square miles of rainforest with this innovative strategy. The Bonobo Conservation Concession links a critical corridor in the bonobo habitat.

Our work in the Bonobo Peace Forest has also inspired local communities. In Likongo, residents have taken the initiative to start their own community-managed reserve, modeled on the nearby Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. They have formed an NGO called Debut Likongo and are already monitoring three bonobo groups.

Djolu Technical College for Conservation and Rural Development, the only institution of higher learning within a 40,000 square mile region, received official accreditation. Founded by BCI and local partner Vie Sauvage, this college provides educational opportunities for future leaders of Congolese conservation.

We’re helping spread the word about bonobos. The first-ever 3D movie about great apes, The Last of the Great Apes, was filmed in part at the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. This ground-breaking film will be released next year.

We are also very fortunate to be featured in award-winning author Deni Béchard’s new book Empty Hands, Opens Arms, forthcoming from Milkweed Press.

Our friends, supporters, and partners made these accomplishments — and more — possible. We couldn’t do it without you.

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