History with Bonobos

In 1986, the Milwaukee County Zoo became the fourth zoo in the United States to receive a group of bonobos. Exported from the Netherlands, these seven new arrivals provided much-needed bloodlines to the tiny U.S. population of only 22 bonobos. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of this founding population, two years later the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) helped to form the Bonobo Species Survival Plan, or Bonobo SSP - a captive breeding and management program for bonobos in North American zoos. Development of the SSP marked the beginning of ZSM’s involvement in bonobo conservation. However, growing concerns for bonobos in the wild led the SSP and ZSM to look beyond the needs of captive bonobos and toward the survival of bonobos in their natural habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Action Plan for Pan paniscusFirst Bonobo Action Plan

In collaboration with bonobo field scientists from around the world, the ZSM published the Action Plan for Pan paniscus: Report on Free-Ranging Populations and proposals for their Preservation in 1995. The Action Plan was the first published analysis of the threats to survival and strategies for conservation of wild bonobo populations. The plan identified major gaps in our knowledge about conservation of the species, including the need to determine where bonobos occurred and how many still existed in the wild. One survey area identified of eminent importance was the vast Salonga National Park where, it was rumored, no bonobos likely existed.

Into the Field

Bonobo surveys
Surveys in 1998 confirmed the presence of bonobos in the Salonga.

Responding to the Action Plan, the ZSM extended its conservation efforts to DRC in 1997 with the creation of the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI) – a program to census and study bonobos in the Salonga National Park. That year we launched the first scientific mission to Salonga’s remote northern block in over a decade. During this mission, BCBI researchers verified the existence of bonobo populations and laid the foundation for further surveys and study in the park. Based on their discovery of resident bonobos, we planned a full-scale survey of Salonga to begin in September 1998. Suddenly, however, the Congo civil war broke out. The front line of combat came to lie only 150 km northeast of the park’s boundary. Surveys and all conservation activities in DRC did not resume until 2000.

During the five-year civil war, the DRC’s national parks, including Salonga, suffered from lack of funding to protect them from being ransacked and pilfered. While the war raged on east of the park, the BCBI field team, with the help of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was able to deliver emergency aid donated by UNESCO and the United Nations Foundation to the Salonga park guards. Moreover, the guards helped the field team resume the search for bonobos in the park. By the war’s end in 2003, BCBI had surveyed 15 different areas across the park in conjunction with delivering aid. During this time, we also established the Etate Research Station and Patrol Post as our base of operations in the northern block of the national park.

BCBI Today

Our research and conservation work in the Salonga has expanded over the past decade. Today it includes support programs that increase the park’s law enforcement and anti-poaching capacity and provide educational opportunities in villages along the park’s northern border.
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A Timeline of Success

Click a year above to view the timeline.

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