In June 2023, we experienced two weeks of violence and insecurity around the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve - the only place in the world where bonobos are released into the wild. Although these events are deeply upsetting, we know conservation work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is subject to forces we cannot control and is always very challenging.
Our resolve is as strong as ever. We are committed to bonobo survival and protection, rainforest protection, and strong partnerships with local communities living near the reserve.
Given the favorable response from authorities at all levels and from several communities that are partners in management of the reserve, we are confident that - with the help of our supporters all over the world - we will emerge from the crisis in a stronger position.
Please read on to learn what happened and how Friends of Bonobos of Congo and our partners are responding.
A group of young men went up and down the river bordering the Ekolo reserve attacking our installations as well as homes in nearby villages.
After the attacks began, staff of Friends of Bonobos of Congo (ABC) were able to withdraw much of our hardware and equipment from our Ekolo base camp at Elonda before retreating to safety. But all the structures there were burned to the ground.
The perpetrators also burned homes of people in the adjacent village of Elonda, along with homes of other villagers living on the eastern perimeter of the reserve.
We are thankful that no human beings were hurt in these attacks. However, we are heartbroken over the loss of two male bonobos, Tembo and Kole.
Tembo was returned to the wild in 2011 and Kole in 2022. Photographs of these horrific, criminal murders were shared widely in the local area, giving us hope that the perpetrators will be prosecuted.
Our installations on Totaka Island, the site that serves as a quarantine and staging area for rewildings, were attacked, but most of the bonobo transport crates and tunnels are still usable. The unrest culminated with a group of armed men protesting in the streets around ABC’s office in Basankusu.
Police and DR Congo military forces were sent to control the unrest, and the situation has remained stable since then.
VIOLENCE ALSO OCCURRED ELSEWHERE IN EQUATOR PROVINCE
Elsewhere in the province, violence during the same period led to the deaths of at least four people.
In DR Congo, the months leading up to elections - which are set for December 2023 - can be volatile with candidates sometimes instigating conflicts to serve their own political ends. As a result of the tensions in Basankusu District, the national military has kept a force in the province since June to buttress the local police.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
We've learned at a group of young men from the Ilonga-Poo community -- a willing partner with Friends of Bonobos of the Congo since the very beginning of the Ekolo project -- were behind the series of attacks.
Although these young men are part of the Ilonga-Poo, their actions do not represent their community as a whole.
Further, the Baenga and Lisafa (other communities involved in Ekolo Community Reserve) remain steadfast in their support of our shared bonobo conservation project. The same is true of the Bokakata community, whose traditional lands are in the area now being mapped for Ekolo expansion.
Since the attacks, ABC has convened our standing Conflict Resolution Committee - a mechanism for airing concerns. Although this resource existed prior to the attacks, the perpetrators failed to take advantage of it before resorting to violence.
Community partners, the judicial prosecutor, and representatives of the province, army, police, the Catholic Church, and the ICCN (a division of the DRC Ministry of the Environment) all attended the meetings.
Members of Ilonga-Poo community initially refused to attend, fearing reprisals, but finally came in large numbers. Some among them believed that ABC had not lived up to some aspects of agreements as they understood them. But after reviewing the agreements together, it became apparent that many members of the Ilonga-Poo community were not familiar with them.
As a result, ABC has committed to running workshops on forest conservation and increasing communication efforts in all the areas around Ekolo. Furthermore, ICCN and other local representatives requested reparations from the Ilongo Poo, perhaps in the form of a traditional ceremony.
Conversations are continuing and there is much more to work out. We will share detailed updates with our email subscribers, as well as on this blog.
WHAT THIS MEAN FOR REWILDING?
Due to this wave of violence around Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve, the next rewilding of bonobos must be postponed. Meanwhile, the poaching crisis continues in Sankuru Province. We have received five bonobo orphans at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary since March - Ikoto, Osanga, Bola, Ikau and Djeke.
We are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support we've received and request your understanding as we navigate this difficult situation.
We remain committed to doing everything we can - with support from people like you - to save bonobos from extinction and protect their home in the rainforest.