Conservation groups and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have announced the establishment of a new reserve to protect the endangered bonobo, a great ape found only in the DRC's vast tropical forests. "This is a monumental step towards saving a significant portion of the world's second largest rainforest, of critical importance to the survival not only of humankind's closest great ape relative, the bonobo, but to all life on Earth given the increasing threat of climate change," said Sally Jewell Coxe, president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), a partner in creating the new reserve.
The Sankuru Nature Reserve, at 11,803 square miles (30,569 square kilometers), is larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts and lies in the heart of the Congo Basin, Africa's largest rainforest. The recent war in the DRC claimed some four million lives (more than any war since World War II) and severely affected the Sankuru region, creating a humanitarian crisis as well as serious environmental challenges. "The people of Sankuru rely on the forest for every aspect of their livelihood. Helping them to develop economic alternatives to the bushmeat trade is one of the most urgent priorities," said Coxe. Organized hunting in bonobo habitat to supply the commercial trade in monkey, antelope, and other wildlife meat amounts to what the Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature terms "ecocide."
Bonobos, classified as endangered on the World's Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species, are the most recently discovered great ape and are native only to the Congo Basin. They are known as being peaceful, cooperative, and remarkably intelligent. They have a matriarchal society and are the only primates other than humans known to have sex not only for procreation, but also for pleasure and conflict resolution, and with members of either sex. In addition to the bonobo, the Sankuru Reserve is home to the okapi (an exotic short-necked forest giraffe), elephants, and at least 10 other primate species.
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Preserving the region's vast tropical forests can also protect wildlife by helping to mitigate global warming. If deforested, the region would release as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions of 38 million cars a year for 10 years, says the BCI. In 2006, as many as 16,118 species were threatened worldwide from climate change and other dangers, according to the Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs 2007-2008 report. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 Synthesis Report, the current rise in global greenhouse gas emissions must stop within seven years to avoid wiping out up to a quarter of Earth's species.
"This is a huge victory for bonobo and rainforest conservation," Coxe notes. "However, our work has just begun. Now we need investment to successfully manage the reserve. And, other areas need to be protected to ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo and the integrity of the Congo rainforest."
This story was written by Alana Herro for Eye on Earth (e2), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e2 provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.