FROM THE ARCHIVES: In the summer of 2008, Claudine André, founder of the sanctuary, was preparing for the world's first release of bonobos back to the wild. She was negotiating with the Ilonga Mpôo tribe to secure long-term protection for bonobos and bonobo habitat. She was offering educational materials, health care, and other support, and in exchange, they would agree to protect bonobos on their sacred lands. The first few times Claudine and her team traveled from Kinshasa to Basankusu they ran into some trouble. In the following letter (slightly edited) she shares her excitement as they board their plane.
"This time, it’s no longer just a dream: we're setting off! Finally! Pierrot and I had to be
seated and buckled up in the plane before we really believed it! Keep in mind, we'd already had to endure three failed attempts, one of which we abandoned during the final phase (our bags had even been registered). The crisis and rising fuel prices in the DRC greatly reduced our number of fellow passengers able to pay the $840 dollars for a round-trip ticket from Kinshasa to Basankusu!
On board, we have our precious cargo: all the textbooks, educational materials, and notebooks for the seven schools of the Ilonga Mpôo, the future guardians of the bonobos that will be reintroduced into a part of their forest next year. My first worry had always been to support them in their quest: to educate their children despite their isolation. Our association, ABC, did everything in its power to help this educational dream come true.
The French government responded positively to our request, so the supplies were purchased and we will now be able to ensure a real school year for the Mpôo children! We'll also be giving them blackboards and chalk, and maybe we'll even find a way of making some new school
benches to replace the bamboo ones the children are using now. On board the Filair Antonov-24, our parcels were everywhere, under every seat! I had some under my knees and on my feet ... (Here, everything is possible!)
A big welcoming committee was awaiting us in Basankusu, where we were to finalize the
cooperation agreements with the chiefs of the Ilonga Mpôo. They officially pledged to become the guardians of the bonobos, while continuing to enjoy their full rights in the forest. Only in the zone we're marking off as Ekolo ya Bonobo will there be a total ban on hunting.
We flew over the great Maï-Ndombe Lake, which showed a beautiful contrast between its black waters and white, sandy beaches. All around it, as far as the eye could reach, the impenetrable, dense forest that the bonobos call home stretched out in every direction.