Bad omen. Infant bonobos like this one appearing in Kinshasa are a sign of increased hunting in the DRC's interior.

War in Congo Threatens Great Apes

Great apes are being hit hard in the war that has gripped the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the past 18 months. The front lines cut through the heart of the range of bonobos, the so-called pigmy chimpanzees famous for their complex social behavior. Data are scarce and largely anecdotal because most researchers fled the country, but local conservationists have been warning in e-mails over the past few weeks that both bonobos and eastern lowland gorillas are severely threatened.

Hungry troops and refugees are hunting both species for meat. And national park guards who might otherwise protect some animals have been disarmed by government and rebel forces.

In late February, conservation worker Claudine Andre-Minesi reported a sharp increase in the number of bonobo orphans arriving in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC. Andre-Minesi, who runs a sanctuary for young bonobos confiscated from illegal traders, told colleagues in an e-mail that during January and February, she confiscated eight orphans. In all of last year, she received only two.

Jo Meyers Thompson, head of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project in central DRC, says the increase is an ominous sign, because to capture an infant, hunters usually kill several group members. Conservation workers fear that if hunting continues at these "catastrophic levels," the species could be wiped out.

Further east, gorillas face a similar threat. Workers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, on the DRC's eastern boarder with Rwanda, report that poachers have killed more than half of the 240 eastern lowland gorillas known in one study section. More than 80% of these gorillas live in or around the park, and the animals "are now in critical danger of extinction," says primatologist Juichi Yamagiwa of Kyoto University in Japan.

Conservation groups have negotiated with rebels to re-arm park guards, who could then protect at least some of the gorillas. But it is more difficult to protect the bonobos, says Lanjouw, as most live outside official parks. One of the best deterrents to poachers is the presence of researchers, who can help persuade the people living in the area to protect the animals. Several groups are considering returning to the DRC in spite of continued fighting. "The civil war might take several more years," says bonobo researcher Ellen Van Krunkelsven of the University of Antwerp. "We cannot just sit and wait" she says, because bonobos might not have that long.