ENCHANTED WITH BONOBOS
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Mama Tofuku shows a picture of one her bonobos, and her voice softens with love and caring.
"Look at those eyes," she says. "They're so dark and beautiful. Did you know bonobos are the only species besides man that uses eye contact to communicate?"
Mama Tofuku is Dr. Jo Thompson, wife of Craig Thompson, executive director of the Union County Economic Development Corporation.
She lives in La Grande these days, but thinks often of her other home, the sprawling, equatorial jungles south of the Congo River in the heart of the turbulent, often violent, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Outside of zoos, that's the only place in the world a naturalist can find and study pan paniscus, known commonly as bonobo, the Great Ape with the closest genetic link to man.
Thompson remembers her first trip there, in 1992. She vividly recalls standing alone in the jungle at dusk and hearing a sound she had for years only dreamed of hearing.
"The bonobos were building their nests and vocalizing back and forth and I heard it," she recalls. "It was very exciting. It was confirmation for me they were there."
Thompson, 48, traces her enchantment with animals and nature to participation in 4-H programs in the Ohio of her girlhood.
She had a favorite uncle who worked as an Extension agent, and parents who encouraged her involvement in 4-H.
"I was a 4-H kid growing up in a rural community," she says. "My father was very tolerant, and it's a good thing. Raccoons, skunks, squirrels Â— I brought him every stray animal within miles of the house."
As a teenager, she became involved with the Lions Club-sponsored Pilot Dog program. She was the first person in her county to raise and train a guide dog for the blind, and she excelled at the task.
"My dog was so well socialized, it guided two blind people, a couple," she recalls. "I knew training guide dogs was something I wanted to do when I grew up."
Thompson earned a liberal arts degree from Ohio's Wittenburg University, with majors in psychology and sociology. After that, she spent three years training guide dogs.
Education has been a lifelong endeavor. In 1992, she was awarded a multiple-studies master's degree with animal behavior certification, from the University of Colorado; in 1997 she earned her doctorate in biological anthropology from Oxford University, London, England.
She married Craig Thompson in 1984. He had applied for a job with a company she worked for; she was the one who interviewed him.
"The joke's always been that I really interviewed him for the position of husband," she says.
For many years, she worked and saved money, hoping for a chance to someday go to Africa, study bonobos and do conservation work.
Her interest in bonobos goes back a long time. She has difficulty explaining how it started.
"All I can tell you is, since my earliest memory I wanted to work with them," she says. "I wanted to know their story. I wanted to know what was happening with them."
In the summer of 1992, she was ready to find out. She packed her bags and headed for the African nation known then as Zaire but destined to become the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Her husband was working as as an economic development director in Longmont, Colo., at the time and did not accompany her.
That's the way it has been throughout their married life. Though stressful at times, separate careers is the arrangement that works best for them.
"We have friends who are very good about embracing and taking care of Craig when I'm gone," Thompson says. "He never tells me he is afraid for me, but sometimes he tells them, and I hear about it."
The early 1990s was a time of political upheaval in French-speaking Zaire, but that didn't matter to her; it didn't matter either that officials of her own country had tried to talk her out of going.
"The (U.S.) state department recommended that I not go. They said they couldn't protect me," she says. "But I'm the kind of person who goes after what she wants. The place where I could get information was the forest, so that was where I went."
She traveled alone to the Congo that first trip, and quickly became used to roughing it. It was risky stuff. She had to hire a bush pilot to fly her from Kinsasha to the research site.
"Knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I'd do it again," she says.
She stayed for a time with some missionaries before pushing into the forest to search for bonobos.
She explored an area south of the Congo River, a waterway she knew to be a bio-geographic barrier for the species.
"Bonobos can't cross it to go north, and other Great Ape species can't cross it to come south into their territory," she says.
For a long time after leaving the missionaries, Thompson didn't see another white person.
She did find the bonobos, however. She heard them calling to each other as night fell.
And so she began her years-long study, charting the physical characteristics of the species, its behavior, its habitat, and its interaction with other creatures Â— including Man.
Learning it all was a big job, one she couldn't do by herself.
On that first journey and on subsequent ones, she formed alliances with locals. Some she enlisted for her research team. They helped her learn about bonobos, and about other wildlife in the area.
They named her Mama Tofuku, which in the Ndengese dialect translates roughly to "mother of bonobos."
The Lukuru Wildlife Research Project grew out of Thompson's early efforts. The name "Lukuru" is an an acronym, taken from the names of the Lukenie and Sankuru Rivers, navigable waterways nearby.
The project area encompasses some 8,000 acres. Financially, it is supported by the The Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation. That body was established in 1997 to support research of area wildlife, primarily bonobos, and to support conservation.
In August 1993, Thompson received national authorization to conduct research at the site, and in 1996, the World Conservation Union identified the area in its action plan for African primates.
In many parts of the world, as time went on, Thompson started to gain recognition as a leading authority on bonobos.
Prestigious organizations including the National Geographic Society, the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp, the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation and others stepped up with financial support.
But Thompson's successes in the Congo didn't come easily. Always, her efforts were fraught with risk.
In 1997, Zaire's unstable political situation came to a head. That year, Laurent Kabila led a rebellion against the government of Mobuto Sese Seko. Mobuto was overthrown, and the republic was born.
In 1998, a full scale civil war broke out. More than 3 million people died before it came to an uneasy conclusion in 2003.
Thompson left the country at the outbreak of hostilities, but returned several times before the war's end. The Lukuru project area remained intact.
In 1998, the Lukuru Foundation bought the land that corresponds to the range of Thompson's bonobo study group. Authority over the land was subsequently turned over to the local civilian authority, which protects it.
"That was a very good move. We haven't lost any animals," Thompson says.
To date, Thompson has made 15 trips to the Congo. She regrets that her stays there are shorter than they used to be.
"I go for three or four months, twice a year," she says. "I look forward to a time when I can stay longer."
The republic is still a volatile place, and she knows her presence can have a dangerous impact on her friends there.
"I'm very white, and I stick out," she says. "If I got in trouble, my guys would try to defend me Â— and for that they'd be brutalized."
There have been some hostile encounters, some frightening incidents. Though never hurt, she has been detained and harassed. Once, she was accused of being a spy.
She says she survives by staying alert, and thinking ahead.
"I trust my instincts like you wouldn't believe, and I use my head," she says. "You've got to have a 360-degree awareness, and anticipate what's going to happen. If you can't do both, don't go."
Thompson continues her work on behalf of bonobos, writing, lecturing and reminding the world at every chance of their dwindling numbers.
In some areas of the Congo, bonobos are killed and eaten, though in and around the Lukuru project area there is a traditional taboo against it.
A bigger threat to the species is the killing of females to acquire their infants. The young ones are sold in the live animal trade, Thompson says.
She said she thinks between 20,000 to 50,000 bonobos survive in the Congo, though it is difficult to tell for sure.
"We don't know yet know how many were destroyed in the war," she says.
The Lukuru Wildlife Research Project area isn't the only place where bonobos are protected, Thompson notes. Areas overseen by German and Japanese naturalists are also devoted to conservation.
"In those locations, the bonobos have not suffered," she says. "In other places, though, they have been greatly reduced."