Fascinated by bonobos since her childhood, American Jo Thompson has dedicated decades to conserving these “bewitching” creatures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and to conducting field research and community-based conservation.
The DRC is the only country in the world where bonobos live in the wild. One of our closest living relatives, they have a predisposition for walking upright and communication and share many facial expressions with humans. Considered the rarest of the great apes, they face increasing threats to survival.
It’s the bonobos that took me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo but they’re not the only thing that keeps me going back. The people, their communities, now generally exert a far greater pull because I am, in fact, concerned for the whole environment.
Anthropologist and primatologist Jo Thompson has dedicated her life to helping them. To protect against poachers and habitat loss, she trained local Iyaelima people in conservation and worked alongside Congolese authorities setting up research bases to expand understanding of the apes’ ecology. She initiated the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project in 1992, a programme to safeguard bonobos that has endured despite years of often violent unrest, and in 1998 bought 34 square kilometres of virgin terrain and created the Bososandja Faunal Reserve.
Her efforts to ensure people and apes live in harmony led to a Rolex Award in 2004. Co-habitation by human hunters and endangered animals may sound like a recipe for disaster, but she believes that, far from being their greatest threat, the Iyaelima may be their single greatest hope.
Thompson, who remains Lukuru project director, travels to the DRC twice a year from her Ohio home, where she teaches, writes and raises funds for the project.
Estimated number of bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Bonobos living in the Bososandja Faunal Reserve set up by Thompson in 1998
Age at which Thompson precociously identified a bonobo, incorrectly labelled as a chimpanzee, in a Dr Seuss book