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The money for such development came once again from donors, and since local workers and materials were used, even a little revenue could go a long way. What's more, the old top-down method of letting the government distribute the funds was done away with. Instead, conservation groups would ask the villagers what they wanted, deliver it themselves and make conservation a condition of that delivery. BCI's ultimate aim is the creation of a Bonobo Peace Forest, a series of linked preserves covering a great swath of central Congo.
Closer to Utopia
If that goal sounds utopian, it nonetheless came closer to being realized last fall. Even as Kokolopori sought the government's formal designation as a protected nature reserve (a move that may come as soon as June), Tusumba was leading the charge to apply the new conservation techniques more aggressively still to a third place: the Sankuru area. So convincing was he that President Joseph Kabila allowed the nearly 12,000-sq.-mi. (31,080 sq km) region to jump the queue and earn the reserve designation first. Adding that to the 95,000 sq. mi. (214,000 sq km) the country has already declared reserve land means 10.5% of the D.R.C. is now under protection, more than two-thirds of the way to the government's long-stated goal of 15%. When I join Coxe, Mehlman and Tusumba, they are touring the Congo Basin, spreading their conservation message in the hope of adding that final third.
If the new model of conservation is so smart, why did it take bonobos to push us there? There's no denying that human beings are powerfully drawn to other high primates--and to bonobos perhaps most of all. Depending on which lab report you use, bonobos vie with chimpanzees for the title of man's closest relative, with a 98.4%-to-98.6% DNA match. As a result, says Coxe, understanding the bonobo is "fundamental to our understanding of ourselves."
Still, it was an understanding we came to late. Bonobos were recognized as a separate species only in 1933, less because of their subtle physical distinctions than because of their peaceable, highly sexual ways. The bonobos' best-known champion is Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University. De Waal argues that bonobos overturn established, bloody notions of the origins of man. So popular has this idea become that for humans, bonobos are now cultural--and commercial--darlings. A raw vegetarian restaurant in New York City calls itself Bonobo's. California sex therapist Susan Block has developed a conflict-resolution protocol dubbed the Bonobo Way. (Sample dictum: "You can't very well fight a war while you're having an orgasm.") But do bonobos deserve their gentle rep?
In a July 2007 article in the New Yorker, writer Ian Parker reported a bonobo pack aggressively pursuing a baby duiker--a kind of small antelope. Coxe admits that her Kokolopori researchers reported troubling behavior in one bonobo group after a female gave birth to a stillborn baby. "The other adults let her keep the dead baby for a day," she says. "Then they ate it." These reports have given rise to a prickly cultural debate, with the unknowing bonobos being recruited into America's political wars. bonobos' genteel qualities may be overstated, said a headline in the Wall Street Journal after Parker's piece appeared. De Waal shot back in eSkeptic magazine, accusing Parker of being a "revisionist." Says Coxe: "The right wing doesn't like bonobos, but open-minded liberals love them."
On my second day in the forest, a group of 21 bonobos, oblivious to the political silliness an ocean away, oblige the liberals by showing us their gentler side. A baby kisses its mother. A group of females shoo an unpopular male away with matriarchal authority. A bonobo couple, apparently enjoying a kind of ape honeymoon, share figs, nuts and shoots and hang out in the trees with moonfaced expressions before copulating twice high up in the canopy.
The truth is, of course, that 1.4% to 1.6% of DNA and millions of years of evolution equals an evolutionary ocean. Even the most liberated humans would hesitate to have sex in front of complete strangers. And bonobos aren't likely to harness fire or invent the wheel or the Internet soon. Still, for too long the study of nature has been the study of zero-sum savagery--a universal bloodlust that allows us to shrug at our own brutality, reckoning that mere animals like us can hardly be expected to do better. Discovering such close genetic cousins who behave themselves so well--even sometimes--ought to give us pause. There are already plenty of reasons to save the Congo Basin, but teaching the highest species on the planet the value of a little peace and love is one more very good one.
ENDANGERED SPECIES For more photos of the bonobos, go to time.com/bonobos
The original version of this story omitted primatologist Patrick Mehlman current position and title. He is the senior director for Central Africa programs at Conservation International.