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Inside Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary's Efforts To Save One Of The World's Greatest Apes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The gentle apes known as bonobos have helped scientists understand how humans evolved and developed traits like empathy. But humans haven't shown much empathy to bonobos. We've hunted them, sold their babies as pets, spoiled much of their natural habitat. But there is an effort to end these practices in the only nation on Earth where bonobos are found in the wild. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: In an outdoor classroom at the edge of the forest, several dozen Congolese schoolchildren are waiting for class to begin. They came on a bus from Kinshasa, the nearby capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

BLAISE MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking French).

HAMILTON: Blaise Mbwaki is today's instructor.

MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Bonobo.

MBWAKI: Lola ya...

HAMILTON: He welcomes the students to Lola ya Bonobo, the bonobo paradise. It's a quiet patch of rainforest where orphaned bonobos are brought to be healed, nurtured and, with luck, returned to the wild. It's also a place where scientists from around the world come to study bonobos. Mbwaki tells the students that humans are just one of the world's great apes. The others are gorillas, orangutans, chimps and bonobos.

MBWAKI: (Speaking French) Bonobo.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Bonobo.

MBWAKI: Bonobo.

HAMILTON: "But our closest cousins," he says, "are bonobos. They have a human character, and they are Congolese."

MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

HAMILTON: "So if you eat a bonobo, you are eating your cousin. It is cannibalism."

MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Non.

MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Non.

HAMILTON: It's a blunt message, but it might just save an endangered species that shares nearly 99% of its DNA with people. In the Congo, it's illegal to kill a bonobo or keep one as a pet. But Dr. Jonas Mukamba, Lola's resident veterinarian, says laws are not enough.

JONAS MUKAMBA: Ya Gwanga (ph)...

HAMILTON: Mukamba introduces me to some of the young bonobos he cares for.

MUKAMBA: (Speaking French).

HAMILTON: "They are all orphans. Their mothers were killed in the forest for meat, and hunters kept the babies to sell."

Lola ya Bonobo was founded in 1994 by Claudine Andre, the daughter of a veterinarian in Kinshasa. Andre has spent much of her life trying to make sure bonobos have a future in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

CLAUDINE ANDRE: This animal is unique in DRC. It's - nobody have a bonobo, only has. It's a treasure of nature in Congo.

HAMILTON: It was the Congo River that probably gave rise to bonobos. More than a million years ago, some bonobo ancestors ended up on the south side of the river. That separated them from their chimpanzee relatives to the north. Neither animal likes to swim, so over time, bonobos became a separate species, one that is smaller, gentler and less aggressive than chimps. There are probably fewer than 20,000 bonobos left in the Congo's central rainforests. But Andre says her effort to protect these animals is about something much larger.

ANDRE: It's not only the way to save one species. Everything is connected on the planet. So the kids have to understand that it's not only the bonobo. All biodiversity is in danger.

HAMILTON: So Lola has brought more than 10,000 school children here to learn about their forest cousins. And Andre says after their visit, students know what to do if they see a bonobo being kept as a pet.

ANDRE: Very often it's one of these kids who come from the school of - one of a kindness club that we create in the school who call us and say, I saw a bonobo.

HAMILTON: The students have moved to the edge of a bonobo enclosure. Blaise Mbwaki begins the introductions.

MBWAKI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking French).

MBWAKI: Bonjour, Elikya.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Bonjour...

HAMILTON: Elikya was born here to a mother who had arrived as an orphan. Now Elikya is raising a baby of her own. But the ultimate goal is to release bonobos like Elikya into the wild. Dr. Raphael Belais, a veterinarian, says that's why Lola has established a second sanctuary hundreds of miles away.

RAPHAEL BELAIS: It's a place where bonobos used to be. But unfortunately, during the war time, the hunting was going quite strong on the area. And so they have no more bonobos in this piece of forest.

HAMILTON: It's called Ekolo ya Bonobo, the land of the bonobos. And Belais says it would be nice if all the bonobos at Lola could eventually go there.

BELAIS: Unfortunately, they won't be, all of them, because some of the orphans are too traumatized or too mutilated.

HAMILTON: Still, more than a dozen animals from Lola have been released at Ekolo, and most of them are doing well. Their future, though, will be determined by Congolese people like the students who came to Lola today. I asked Gaska Basili, who is 10, what he learned about bonobos.

GASKA BASILI: (Speaking French).

HAMILTON: "They are like our brothers," he says. And what would he do if he saw a bonobo being kept illegally?

GASKA: (Speaking French).

HAMILTON: "I would call my teacher, Papa Blaise."

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANATOLE'S "COLOURS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.