“It is a mainstream movie, so we cut out the sex scenes,” says Claudine André at the U.S. premiere of “Beny: Back to the Wild.”
The film, screened Thursday at the French Embassy by the Environmental Film Festival in the District, is not a Hollywood love story. And the red-haired André, who plays herself, is not an actress. She is a conservationist, the founder of Lola ya Bonobo, the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, based in Central Africa.
The documentary is intended to raise awareness for our endangered and lesser-known cousins. Bonobos (pronounced “buh-NO-bos”) are often confused with chimpanzees, and until 1933 they were considered the same species. They are our closest simian cousins.
But they behave very differently.
Instead of resolving conflicts aggressively as chimps do, bonobos mostly use diplomacy — and sex. Instead of being dominated by an alpha male as chimpanzees are, bonobo groups are governed by an alliance of females.
“We can think of chimps as our soldier cousins, while bonobos are our hippie relatives,” André says.
The film explains that bonobos are endemic to the rain forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. The narrative is provided — in a surprising show of anthropomorphism — by the young ape Beny, who explains that he doesn’t know who his father is and that neither does his mother. But this, Beny explains, is a fact of life for bonobos. The story takes a more serious turn, as Beny’s mother is killed by poachers and sold as “bush meat” — food.
The movie is staged, yet its central story is true, André tells the audience. Bonobos are threatened by hunters and by the destruction of their habitat. Apes have been a traditional part of the menu in some regions of the DRC, but the situation has gotten worse as war has ravaged the region. “Poverty is a huge issue. There are places where people have absolutely nothing,” André says. “And now people go hunting for bonobos with the assault rifles they got in the war.”
While adult apes are killed for meat, the orphaned young are exported as pets fetching prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. André has made it her mission to confiscate orphaned bonobos and give them a home. On the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital, and with the help of government and foundation funding, she runs the sanctuary Lola ya Bonobo, meaning “bonobo paradise.”
André says she started it partly “out of a sense that I have to pay something for my happiness, and to help save my country.” Born in Belgium in 1946, she has lived in the DRC since she went there as a child with her father, a veterinary surgeon.
While the bonobos’ and André’s following is relatively small, it is a devout one. In the United States, the nonprofit group Friends of Bonobos is collecting funds for Lola ya Bonobo. Charity Oetgen, an art student from Laguna Beach, Calif., and a volunteer for the organization, flew to the District for the premiere and to meet André.
“She really inspires me,” says Oetgen, whose arm and leg are decorated with tattoos of the gentle apes. She plans to do a major art project on Lola ya Bonobo.
André has 200 apes in her sanctuary. In the past three years, in two experiments, one of which is detailed in the movie, she has released 15 individuals to the rain forest. It is normally difficult to release captive apes, because they tend to be ostracized by their wild mates. But André is hopeful, partially because of the bonobos’ peaceful nature. She and her colleagues are tracking their former proteges by Global Positioning System, and 13 of the 15 seem to be doing fine.
Yet the outlook for the apes is dire. André is worried primarily about the country’s poverty. “You cannot separate conservation from politics and economy,” she says. An additional threat is the rapid population growth in the region, which is expected to double in 20 years, endangering the great apes’ habitat.
“If we can’t save our closest cousins,” André says, “whom are we going to save?”