Our Founder, Claudine André

A hero for bonobos

Behind every species of wildlife, there are heroes who risked it all to make a difference. Against the odds, these individuals secure land, clear legal hurdles, and generate global support for animals who have been harmed by human actions.

For bonobos, Claudine André is that hero.

And she accomplished it all in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the violent, horrific civil wars that shook the world. Her inspiring story serves as a reminder to us all: even in the worst possible circumstances, one person with enough drive, commitment and compassion can help save a species, a country, and even the planet.

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“My first school was the forest. I arrived in Congo with my father who was a veterinarian. He valued the chance for me to discover harmony with nature -- the balance between earth, humans, and animals.”

Responding to Crisis

Born in Belgium, Claudine moved to the DRC with her family when she was just three years old.

Years later, Claudine was living in the capital city of Kinshasa with her husband, Victor. She ran a luxury boutique while raising five children. Political unrest began to envelop the nation. Looting and extreme poverty were the norm. At the Kinshasa Zoo, the animals were neglected and at risk of starvation. Claudine was a volunteer there.

One day, Claudine learned the zoo had taken in a sick, baby bonobo. Driven by deprivations of war, people were hunting adult bonobos for meat, leaving the babies as orphans.

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“The zoo director warned me not to pour my heart into it. It’s not an easy animal to keep in captivity. But it was like a second challenge to me – not only to save the zoo, but also to save this bonobo.”
 
“It was Mikeno, my first bonobo.”

Love is the Secret

Every bonobo orphan before Mikeno had died at the zoo. But Claudine stayed with the infant, held him, played with him, and reassured him he was safe. With Claudine’s compassion, mothering, and determination not to lose Mikeno, the little bonobo survived.

 

In the years since, studies have shown bonobos are extremely affectionate and dependent on physical contact. The secret Claudine uncovered was that nutritious food and medical care are not enough to save an orphan. Baby bonobos need affection to thrive.

Claudine Andre’s compassion and insight is why we know this, and why Lola ya Bonobo became the success story it is today. 

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“Baby bonobos refuse to survive without the mother - they have only one goal - to die, because they cannot live without love.” 

The Bonobos Find Her

Word spread of Claudine’s gift for saving bonobos, and people from all over began bringing orphaned bonobos to her. She founded the nonprofit Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC) in 1994 to give people a way to help support orphaned bonobos. She opened Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in 2002.

 

In the early years, Claudine recalls a scientist asking her: “You realize these animals grow up? They are so complicated, and dangerous in captivity. What are you going to do next?”

Like other apes, bonobos can easily live into their 40s in captivity. Their longevity creates a long-term commitment. Claudine quickly realized she needed to find a way alleviate the pressure placed on the sanctuary. She would need to do something that had never been done before – reintroduce bonobos to the wild. 

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“I can still hear myself saying, ‘I don’t know yet, but I know I will never abandon them.”

Searching for a Refuge

While the country’s civil wars raged, Claudine kept her pledge to bonobos, and kept moving toward her goals. She slept with the IUCN’s Guidelines for Reintroduction of Great Apes on her pillow. Despite the risk to her personal safety, she traveled by canoe to remote locations, searching for a suitable refuge. Looking back, she says, “It was crazy!” 

 

Meanwhile, she worked tirelessly to address the root causes that bring bonobo orphans to Lola sanctuary, educating the Congolese of the preciousness of the endangered great ape and the danger and cruelty of eating bushmeat. ABC’s education efforts now reach over 50,000 people a year. Bonobos have gone from being totally unknown to one of the most beloved animals in the minds of the Congolese. 

 

Claudine also reached international audiences through books about bonobos for children and adults, documentaries, and a feature-length film. Globally, she became a highly respected conservationist, recognized with honors including the Badham-Evans Award for Women’s Commitment to Wildlife (UK), the Prince Laurent Foundation Prize (Belgium), and the National Order of Merit (France).

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Content included with permission from Wildlife Heroes

Resilience & Commitment

With her optimism, her fierce ability to push through obstacles, and incredible coalition-building skills, Claudine always believed she could accomplish what she set her mind to. When she was told ‘no,’ which was very often, she kept looking for the solution that was a ‘yes.’ 

 

Claudine faced many difficult hurdles in her mission to save bonobos from extinction. Each time she came to a crossroad, she says, “There was always something that told me: “This is the way, this is what you need to do.”

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“There was always something that told me: This is the way, this is what you need to do.” 

A Conservation First – Rewilding Bonobos

Claudine finally found the right place, and in 2009 she led the first successful rewilding of bonobos. Since then, more releases have taken place, each requiring years of planning. More than 30 bonobos are back in the wild where they belong because Claudine promised she would never abandon them.

 

Now, after starting with a handful of bonobos and 35 acres, more than 60 bonobos of all ages wander, eat, and play on 75 acres of forest at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary.

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“It has been a gift to dedicate my life to conservation. Conservation is the work of everyone. We are all responsible for our planet. We have just one planet and it is so beautiful.”
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The Legacy Continues

Claudine’s work became a family affair. After dedicating more than 30 years to bonobo conservation, Claudine passed the reins of ABC to her daughter, Fanny Minesi. 

As General Director of ABC, Fanny runs the sanctuary and the release site, and oversees the growing educational programs and visitor services. Through ABC's efforts with Fanny at the helm, Ekolo ya Bonobo has grown to encompass more than 120,000 acres, a special place where bonobos are thriving and protected and baby bonobos grow up comforted by their mother’s love.

Founder Claudine André with daughter Fanny
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Just as formidable as her mother, Fanny is the force behind the expansion of Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve into a nationally recognized forest reserve almost four times its original size.

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Claudine's message for today’s young conservationists? “You must never lose hope, because there is always a solution.”

We gratefully acknowledge Natasha Tworoski, author of “A Reflection on Claudine Andre, a Hero for Bonobos,” from which parts of this narrative were drawn, and Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.