Congo is setting aside more than 11,000 square miles of rain forest to help protect the endangered bonobo, a great ape that is the most closely related to humans and is found only in this Central African country.
U.S. agencies, conservation groups and the Congolese government have come together to set aside 11,803 square miles of tropical rain forest, the U.S.-based Bonobo Conservation Initiative said in a statement issued this week.
The area amounts to just over 1 percent of vast Congo — but that means a park larger than the state of Massachusetts.
Environment Minister Didace Pembe said the area was denoted as a protected reserve last week as part of the administration's goal of setting aside 15 percent of its forest as protected area. The Sankuru announcement increased the amount of protected land in Congo to 10 percent from 8 percent, he said.
The Sankuru Nature Reserve aims to protect a section of Africa's largest rain forest from the commercial bushmeat trade and from deforestation by industrial logging operations in the central part of the country known as the Congo Basin.
Sally Jewell Coxe, president of the Washington-based Bonobo Conservation Initiation, said the group has been working to establish the reserve since 2005, when it started meeting with leaders in villagers that ring the area to persuade them to stop hunting the ape.
Though local lore holds that washing a baby with the ashy remains of a bonobo will make the child strong, Coxe said many area villages have committed to ending the practice.
"We have agreements with many of the local villages that are on the edges of the park, and they will be the managers and be very involved in it," she said.
Bonobos — often lauded as the "peaceful ape" — are known for their matriarchal society in which female leaders work to avoid conflict, and their sex-loving lifestyle.
The bonobo population is believed to have declined sharply in the last 30 years, though surveys have been hard to carry out in war-ravaged central Congo. Estimates range from 60,000 to fewer than 5,000 living, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The Sankuru reserve also contains okapi, closely related to the giraffe, that is also native to Congo, elephants and at least 10 other primate species.
Startup funding has been provided through a grant of $50,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and about $100,000 from private donors, Coxe said.
"We're really thrilled; now comes the hard work of funding it for long term," Coxe said.