Nestled on the banks of the Tshuapa River, Lilungu is a special haven for bonobos. The Bakela people maintain traditional beliefs honoring bonobos and are actively working with BCI to establish official protection of their forest.
With the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve to the north and the Sankuru Nature Reserve to the south, Lilungu links a critical wildlife corridor in a key area of bonobo habitat. BCI and Congolese partner Centre de Recherche en Écologie et Foresterie (CREF) have been working together with the local community at Lilungu since 2005, conducting surveys, monitoring the bonobos, and establishing cooperative conservation and community development programs.
A History of Bonobo Protection
University of Barcelona scientists Jordi Sabater Pi and Magdalena Bermejo established Lilungu as a study site in 1989-1990. Unfortunately, their efforts were disrupted due to political instability and the Congo war. Conservationists feared that the bonobo populations had been destroyed by the war, but in 2005 and 2006, BCI discovered that bonobos remain in Lilungu and that the local people still protect them. This work was made possible thanks to grants from the USFWS Great Ape Conservation Fund and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. We are thrilled to announce a new partnership with Proyecto Gran Simio of Spain, which is working to build further support for Lilungu.
Since 2005, we have been working in partnership with the community to establish comprehensive conservation programs. Today, three groups of bonobos are habituated to human presence and are monitored daily by local tracking teams, supported by BCI.
Progress toward long-term conservation
A recent grant from the Great Ape Conservation Fund enabled us to:
- Identify high priority conservation areas
- Document the widespread presence of bonobos and eight other endangered species
- Confirm that threats to bonobos in the broader region around Lilungu are, sadly, consistent or increasing. Previously observed bonobo groups in the north have disappeared.
- Create a local association for an official nature reserve at Lilungu
Lilungu residents recently chose to banish prospective diamond miners from their territory, a powerful testament to their commitment to conservation.
Our site in Lilungu is a great example of Information Exchange (IE) in action. The local Bakela community has longstanding taboos against hunting bonobos, even in the most trying times. When asked why they don’t hunt bonobos, they explain that bonobos are related to their ancestors. They feel a kinship with the “people of the forest.” However, not everyone in the broader region shares this belief; traditional practices have been diluted by the war, immigration of displaced people, and the lure of the commercial bushmeat trade, which threatens all wildlife. BCI surveys show that, in general, bonobo populations are lower where traditional taboos are absent.
BCI and partners collected social data from the area, including presence or absence of the hunting taboo and openness to conservation, and used GPS and satellite images to create maps of local beliefs and attitudes. These maps help BCI target priority regions and develop conservation strategies, including the revival of traditional hunting taboos. Information about local beliefs also helps BCI and its collaborators approach future community partners.
Lilungu Women Unite for Bonobos
We often worry about humans encroaching on bonobo territory, but every now and then bonobos return the favor. After bonobos pilfered their cooking pots on two occasions, the women of the Merci Bonobo cooperative actually planted crops for the bonobos! These crops serve as a buffer zone, which provides a food source for bonobos, protects crops cultivated by villagers and generally diminishes human-bonobo conflict.
Creating the Lilungu Nature Reserve
Because Lilungu residents recognize the importance of bonobo protection, they have signed community accords to create a nature reserve as part of the Bonobo Peace Forest network. None of the progress in Lilungu would be possible without the full participation and leadership of local communities—and they need your support.
Donate today to help us make the Lilungu Nature Reserve a reality!