On International Women's - a day set aside to recognise women and their contributions - Friends of Bonobos has a lot to celebrate, a whole lot, in fact! Like the matriarchal bonobos we protect, our organisation is female-led.
In the day-to-day activities of our conservation organisation we take our lead from bonobo characteristics - sharing, caring, and cooperation. Read on to learn more about amazing women across three continents who are dedicating their lives to bonobo conservation.
A courageous woman founded Friends of Bonobos
Back in 1994, whilst running a boutique and raising five children in Kinshasa against a backdrop of political unrest and violence, Claudine André founded Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC) to support orphaned bonobos. Claudine fell in love with the beautiful ape whilst volunteering at the city’s zoo.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) created extreme poverty. Zoo animals were unlikely to be fed while much of the human population starved and many people of DRC were turning to wild animals, such as bonobos, for food. More and more bonobo babies were orphaned and in need of intensive care. Claudine was desperate to save them.
Claudine recalls: “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.”
With compassionate mothering, the baby lived
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, vulnerable to stress, 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.
ABC’s education efforts now reach more than 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.
You must never lose hope, because there is always a solution.
--Claudine André, founder, ABC
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).
Today, we also recognise Claudine Andre’s compassion, the importance of mothering and female relationships in the evolution of the bonobo - our closest genetic relatives - and the contributions that women bring.
Like mother, like daughter
Although Claudine is still very active in ABC, the baton of running the charity today has been passed to Claudine’s daughter, Fanny Minesi.
I believe a better future is possible for bonobos and Congolese people, and that these goals are inseparable.
-- Fanny Minesi, General Director, ABC
As general director of ABC, Fanny manages every aspect of organization, from the sanctuary (Lola ya Bonobo) and the release site (Ekola ya Bonobo), to 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.
In 2021, Fanny received the McKenna-Travers Award for Compassionate Conservation
from the Born Free Foundation in recognition of her leadership and "outstanding conservation and animal welfare achievements." She also was recognized in 2021 for her conservation leadership as a Femme de Valeur (Woman of Honor) by Nyota Africa.
More strong women leaders
Conservation success requires building a strong team, and ABC's team is primarily Congolese. Women direct and lead key activities, including the human foster 'mamas' for the bonobo orphans and Suzy Kwetuenda, Coordinator of Bonobo Wellness.
Suzy studied biology and ecology at Kinshasa University, and came to work at Lola ya Bonobo in 2005, starting as an intern.
Suzy wears many hats at ABC. She manages all aspects of bonobo life at Lola ya Bonobo, from nutrition to intergroup social conflict, and is a key member of the bonobo rewilding team. Over the years she has worked on numerous bonobo behavioral research studies.
With more than 15 years of experience, she is the chief ambassador at Lola, welcoming students, school groups, researchers and other sanctuary visitors and helping them learn about bonobos.
Lead surrogate mother
Yvonne Vela is lead surrogate mum to the orphan bonobos at Lola sanctuary, and directs 7-8 other surrogate mothers caring for bonobo orphans in Lola's nursery. This is the most critical stage for rehabilitation. This is where a baby's second chance at life begins, determining whether he or she will survive early childhood trauma and be able to thrive, adjust to bonobo society, and eventually be returned to the wild.
Originally training as a biochemist, Yvonne fled the war in Angola and taught at the Swiss school in Kinshasa, where she met ABC founder Claudine. Claudine invited her to come and work at Lola. Yvonne quickly fell in love with bonobos, considering them to be nearly the same as human children, just without the written or spoken language.
"We are all here for the bonobos. I tell everyone to be dynamic, to be courageous, alert."
-- Yvonne Vela
Women run Friends of Bonobo, USA, too
Meanwhile, from her base in the USA, Ariel Rogers and her team of mostly women board members, staff and international volunteers, run Friends of Bonobos, which raises funds for all of their sister organisation’s conservation activities in the Congo and ensures more people know about bonobos.
Integral to this group of dynamic women is Dominique Morel, chair of the Friends of Bonobos board. She spent seven years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she met Claudine and fell in love with bonobos. She was instrumental in helping Claudine establish Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary and Ekolo ya Bonobo reserve and has served on the board of Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo since the early 2000s.
With Claudine, she also co-founded the US sister organisation in 2003 and has been its president ever since. Dominique volunteers tirelessly to raise funds from foundations and governments for bonobo protection.
"The bonobos are like my children."
-- Dominique Morel, President, Friends of Bonobos
Women in ape science
Dr. Cintia Garai - Hungarian zoologist and wildlife filmmaker - directs the 120,000-acre Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve and is scientific advisor to ABC.
At the start of her love of bonobos, Cinita spent five months tracking bonobos for LuiKotale bonobo research station. Later, after animal filming all over the world, she studied with Takeshi Furuichi, one of the best bonobo researchers in the world, earning her PhD in primatology at Kyoto University.
Cintia began her involvement with ABC in 2010, making a 5-minute film after a day spent at the Lola sanctuary. In 2014 she came back to make an educational film for Congolese children. In 2017 Cintia became scientific adviser and, in 2021, the director of Ekolo.
"If you want it badly enough, you can always cling to some small support to keep you going."
-- Cintia Garai, director of Ekolo ya Bonobo
"My job is to coordinate activities and, together with my colleagues, protect the area from illegal activities, monitor biodiversity to assess the effectiveness of our work, see what needs to change, and get a better picture of the natural assets.
"We help and build good relations with local communities and involve them in management. It is, after all, a community reserve ..."
Overseeing the recruitment of reserve rangers is essential to protect bonobos from poaching, their biggest threat. All recruits undergo "a very serious ecological and military training," says Garai.
In the UK, another important contributor is primatologist Zanna Clay, associate professor at Durham University, a long-term scientific consultant to Lola ya Bonobo, and a go-to bonobo science spokeswoman for the UK media.
Zanna compares great apes and young children in social situations, focussing on empathy, language and social learning. The bonobo is still a relatively unknown species and the ongoing work by scientists such as Zanna and Cintia is critical to helping us understand this wonderful great ape.