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"Bililingi na kati ya Zamba"
Shadows in the Forest: Bonobo Lore from the Congo

Sally Jewell Coxe

     This project will investigate indigenous African folklore about bonobos (Pan paniscus), the rarest and least known species of great ape. Hauntingly humanlike, the bonobo is cherished, revered, and even feared by indigenous people of the central Congo Basin, who recognize the apes as relatives from our distant past. Handed down generation to generation through the oral tradition, legends about bonobos have perpetuated traditional taboos against hunting these uncommon apes. However, due to civil unrest, human population pressure, and desperate economic circumstances, the taboos are breaking down and hunting for the bushmeat trade is on the rise. Likewise, indigenous knowledge imbedded in the folklore is on the verge of being lost.
     In concert with collaborators from all four of the field research teams currently studying bonobos, we will investigate, collect, transcribe, and compare folklore from eight indigenous groups in the central Congo Basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We will assess the social context and meaning of the legends, and their relation to taboos against hunting bonobos. The goal is to archive and preserve the indigenous oral histories about bonobos, then to disseminate and apply the information. This project builds on the work of Dr. Takayoshi Kano, who has collected folk tales from Mongandu tribespeople in Wamba since the mid-1970s, in conjunction with behavioral ecology research on bonobos.
     Based on preliminary findings, legends about bonobos are usually sung or told by village elders. They appear to be distinct from tales about other animals and generally involve the relationship between bonobos and humans. The stories relate valuable observations about bonobo behavior, and convey how this information has been interpreted and applied by the indigenous people. This research is ultimately aimed at publishing a book of the stories and using the folklore in a variety of ways to support community-based conservation in the DRC.