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D.C. woman to be honored for work with Congo's bonobos

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; B01

It wasn't long after Sally Coxe started learning about bonobos -- the chimpanzee-like primates that many scientists believe, of all living apes, is most similar to humans' long-extinct evolutionary ancestors -- that she quit her job to try to save them.

Her family thought she was crazy. For years, with a brutal war raging around the bonobos' habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was difficult to find people who worried about the apes as she did, or to raise money and travel there to help.

But somehow, Coxe and the small, offbeat nonprofit group she co-founded in a Woodley Park apartment have done some remarkable things. They forged alliances with villagers and Congolese leaders, and have implemented a grass-roots model for protecting endangered species.

Wednesday night in Copenhagen, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative will be honored by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and conservation groups, along with people such as Jane Goodall, the internationally known primatologist. BCI will announce an experimental effort to protect one part of the rainforest where bonobos live -- an area bigger than Belgium -- supported by the Congolese president and local partners, and financed, they hope, with carbon credits.

Negotiators in Copenhagen are working on a deal that would, in an effort to offset emissions, pay countries for protecting forests.

"Much in the way that Jane Goodall is the chimp lady and Dian Fossey the gorilla lady," said Robert Booth, former managing editor of National Geographic magazine, "I've always thought of Sally as the bonobo lady."

The tale of BCI is a love story. First Coxe fell for the bonobos. Then she met Michael Hurley. In 2002, after a particularly nasty bout with parasites, out of money and wondering how she was going to keep the nonprofit going, Coxe was introduced to Hurley by a friend. He was one of the few to really get the whole complicated, spiritual vision of the thing, she said. He came over and, essentially, never left.

In their living room, decorated with African drums and books, they finish one another's sentences. Coxe, a slight, beaming 50-year-old with long, sun-bleached hair, is the president of BCI. Hurley, leaning forward and talking fast in a Mexican woven hoodie, is the vice president and executive director. They have a second small apartment next door, the BCI office: three desks and a bed where visitors crash.

Hurley's longtime friend Bill Duggan, owner of the Adams Morgan bar where Coxe and Hurley often hold their business meetings, said, "Michael's your swashbuckling Irishman . . . sort of a throwback to the African explorer, charging ahead. And Sally's just an angel. She's so idealistic, she's blinded to the dangers because of her belief."

Coxe long ago exhausted all her savings. The couple sometimes have had to pay fieldworkers before they paid their own rent. They borrowed thousands of dollars recently to help airlift a Congolese employee hurt in a motorcycle accident to a hospital.

They've gotten so many parasites they joke about all the new species they've discovered. They've stumbled on armed soldiers in the forest.

"It is the heart of darkness," Duggan said.

"Obviously they're crazy. But it's not like they can say, 'We want to save [the bonobos] in Atlanta.' "

Bonobos are nicknamed the "hippie apes" because some scientists say they love sex and don't fight like other species do.

"Chimps have a patriarchal, territorial society" and kill other chimps, Coxe said. She believes chimps and bonobos are sort of the yin and yang of human nature. Females bonobos seem to have more power, and there's more cooperation among them.

"It's this amazing ape that's matriarchal, bisexual, peaceful, has all these qualities that I felt humans should try to emulate," Coxe said. While working as a copy writer for National Geographic on a great apes book, "I had this epiphany. All my interests coalesced, I decided to quit my job and follow bonobos."

She volunteered with a professor "and immediately hit it off with them." Something about her body language, or her eye contact. "I was just in their groove," she said.

The bonobos seemed so intelligent and empathetic, she said. She remembers playing hide-and-seek that summer outside the lab with a little bonobo that reached for her hand as though she were the new friend in the neighborhood.

"We went down by the stream and were hiding on the bank," Coxe said. "She was holding me, looking at me. She was playing the game as much as I was."

She met with primatologists and with Congolese living in Washington to brainstorm ideas. She learned Lingala, one of the principal languages spoken in Congo. In 1997, she met a woman at the National Zoo who helped her form the nonprofit group, which now operates on an $800,000 annual budget.

What makes BCI different, said John Scherlis, who worked for years in East Africa linking conservation and development and advises BCI, is that its leaders didn't come in thinking they knew how to protect the animals; they asked local people how to do it. They drew on traditions, asking villagers to help design solutions.

After being told how important music was in spreading ideas there, they recruited Congolese pop stars to record songs about bonobos. With local conservation groups, BCI helped establish protected areas in which people live and work; fieldworkers are paid to help protect the animals from poachers. BCI helps fund projects that provide food and income for local people and paid for a medical clinic.

BCI tries to emulate bonobo society as Coxe understands it, working collaboratively and partnering with local Congolese groups.

"I have learned so much from bonobos," she said.

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