When Etumbe was released back into the wild and walked out into the forest for the first time, it must have seemed like a dream. Wild born, like almost all the bonobos at our sanctuary, Etumbe is an orphan of the bushmeat trade. Her mother was killed, but unlike most bonobo orphans, Etumbe was sold to a biomedical laboratory instead of a pet dealer, and sentenced to live in a tiny cage for the rest of her life.
Lola ya Bonobo’s founder, Claudine Andre, worked tirelessly for years to free Etumbe. When Etumbe was finally rescued from the laboratory and brought to Lola ya Bonobo for the first time, she was amazed by the simplest pleasures; walking on grass for the first time, climbing a tree for an afternoon nap, or cracking palm nuts open in the sun. Most of all she was so happy to be together with other bonobos, to be able to touch and groom them, to be groomed in return, and finally, to cradle her own baby in her arms.
Given what she suffered in her laboratory prison, it is incredible how quickly and how well she adjusted to her freedom. But even more extraordinary was how gentle and caring she was toward her human caretakers and the other bonobos. She quickly became one of the most beloved bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo.
Impressed with how Etumbe had become one of the leaders of the bonobos, Claudine had bigger ideas for her future. It was decided that Etumbe would be the lead female for the world’s first bonobo release program.
In 2009, after years of preparation, nine bonobos were released back into the wilderness of the Congo basin, where they had originally come from. The release site, called Ekolo ya Bonobo, or ‘land of the bonobos’, is 20,000 ha, twice the size of Manhattan. With the experience of living in the forests at Lola ya Bonobo, Etumbe led the other bonobos and they quickly learned exactly how to live in the real forest.
Another bonobo in the release site is Lomela, well known to her fans who followed her confiscation from poachers and rehabilitation at Lola through our blog. Lomela has gone on to have one of our first wild born babies, completing the story we hope to tell about all the bonobos we rescue and rehabilitate at Lola – born in the wild and returned to the wild.
With the easy transition of the bonobos, some of our most important work has been with the people in the surrounding areas. We started working with the local people around the release site two years before the bonobos were released. In the nearby city of Basankusu, with a population of 100,000 people, there is no doctor and schools do not have a single sheet of paper or book. We have committed to supporting the local communities who work with us to help protect the released bonobos. We provided equipment for the women’s birthing center, medication for the pharmacy, and educational material for the schools. In return, the people of Basankusu have become ‘bonobo guardians’, protecting the bonobos in their wild new home. They are as proud of the bonobos in the neighboring forest as we are.