Ape and Essence:
Coxe of Asheville steps up as leading bonobo befriender
by Rob Neufeld
Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 17
THE EVENT: Sally Jewell Coxe presents, “Peace, Love and Bonobos: How an Ape Can Lead Us to a Better World,” in Broyhill Chapel, Mars Hill University, 6:30 p.m., Thursday.
Event Facebook page, with link to trailers.
Visit the Bonobo Conservation Initiative website.
For Sally Jewell Coxe, it was the bonobos, endangered apes whose peaceful nature counters notions of innate human violence; and whose welfare is linked to saving the Congo rainforest—one of the two “lungs” of our planet—and trusting the village concept of progress.
Coxe, president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), the leading bonobo NGO in terms of effectiveness, grew up in Asheville.
She speaks at Mars Hill University Wednesday night.
Asheville and family
From Greenleaf Circle in North Asheville, Sally, as a child, ventured out with friends into the woods that were close at hand in the new subdivision. Her father, Joseph Co
xe, a psychiatrist, and her mother, Jane Coxe, an NSA cryptologist, had moved their family to Asheville in 1962 for his job at Highland Hospital; and to provide relief to poor people.
“Nature was my solace,” Sally states. The woods were also the place where she and her friends could connect with history in fantasy reenactments of American wilderness adventures.
When she visited her mother’s mother, Sarah “Sally” Jewell, in Wellesley, Mass., she made another connection with history.
Grandma Sally owned a diary that had belonged to her grandmother, Sarah Conger, who had been the wife of the American ambassador to China and had “forged,” Coxe says, “an uncommon friendship with the last Empress Dowager of China.”
“I came to think about the connection more when I met the writer, Grant Hayter-Menzies, who wrote this book about Sarah, ‘The Empress and Mrs. Conger,’” the cover of which features “the only photograph of the Empress Dowager touching a foreigner.
“The more I read about Sarah Conger,” Coxe says, “the more I feel an affinity with her…She bucked the system. She was looked down upon by some of the Victorian foreigners in China at the time because she made an effort to understand and respect the Chinese culture, and that’s what I’ve been doing with the Congolese.”
Heart of enlightenment
“When we were in Kinshasa,” Deni Béchard recalls about his time with Coxe while writing, “Empty Hands, Open Arms,” his book about the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, “I had seen a book on Sally’s desk: ‘The Empress and Mrs. Conger.’”
By that time, in 2012, Coxe had been at work for 20 years with bonobos, having discovered them while writing promotional copy for a National Geographic Society book about great apes. She’d founded the Bonobo Conservation Initiative in 1998.
Bonobos are the last apes to have been discovered, after anthropologists had formed their opinions about humans, the “naked apes,” based on our next closest relative, the chimpanzee, a violence-prone primate.
“Like most people,” Coxe told a National Geographic interviewer in 2008, “I’d never heard of bonobos, so to find this ape that was female empowered (matriarchal), highly sexual, and that didn’t wage wars intrigued me. I have a degree in psychology, and all my interests coalesced…if there’s such a thing as fate, this was it.”
Bonobos are the only mammals besides humans to engage in sex year-round, and they look into each other’s’ eyes while in the missionary position. They also use affection as a way to soothe frayed nerves.
Coxe went to work with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, where she met the bonobo sister and brother, Kanzi and Panbanisha.
On Coxe’s first day with Panbanisha, they went for a walk in the forest surrounding the lab, Coxe told an Animal Welfare Institute reporter. They played one of Panbanisha’s favorite games, hide-and-seek.
“When a “researcher on the prowl yelled, ‘Panbanisha, where are you?” Coxe says, Panbanisha “turned to me, her eyes alert and cautious, as if to say, ‘shhh, don’t move!’ I experienced the same kind of intimate camaraderie I did as a child, hiding out in the woods with my best avoiding imaginary foes.”
One of Coxe’s newer friends is Sara Gruen, the Asheville author who wrote the novel, “Ape House,” based in part on her time with the bonobos in Atlanta. Coxe has a photo of her and Gruen, crossing arms at Stoney Knob Café in Weaverville, feeding each other food.
They had the photo taken to show Panbanisha and Kanzi, who enjoy photographs as well as the notion that humans can be like bonobos, for whom food-sharing is a custom.
Gruen’s novel imprinted on the public mind indelible accounts of how bonobos sometimes surpass humans in humanity.
A TV reality show crew comes to the bonobo home in the novel and, to make their segments more exciting, introduces provocative objects. The producers turn the TV to war footage and deliver cap guns. The bonobos throw food at the TV and dump the guns over the courtyard wall. A blow-up sex doll, introduced into the domicile, becomes an object of pity. Bonzi, the matriarch, puts it in a corner and covers it with a blanket.
There are only about 10,000 to 20,000 bonobos left in the world, and they all live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a war-torn country.
The wars slowed down deforestation, but it has restarted at a frightening pace with a few countries, led by China, looking to make hay with rainforest trees.
Infrastructure destruction—do you call that infradestruction?—has sped up another big threat, the bushmeat trade, as criminal hunters seek animals they can butcher, smoke, and carry on long journeys to market.
One of the many types of workers BCI has to hire is eco-guards.
Local trackers had been the first employees hired by BCI in 2002; and surveying had been the first task. The group had to hold off its efforts until the cessation of the Second Congo War, which had been fought to exploit the forest’s coltan, a mineral that makes cell phone batteries last a long time.
When Michael Hurley, BCI’s executive director, went with his team into bonobo territory to gain trust with their subjects, the bonobos hurled sticks and feces at them from treetops.
“Soldiers had hunted bonobos,” Béchard notes, “and the great apes wouldn’t be quick to forget how dangerous people could be. Most of them had seen members of their family killed.”
After two years of “habituation,” BCI, working with the local conservation group, Vie Sauvage, began establishing the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, not only a protected area more than twice the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but also a model local economy.
Hurley’s background in ethnobotany had fit perfectly with BCI’s approach. “The ethnobotanical approach,” Hurley explained in a National Geographic interview, “draws directly on local wisdom: you ask the shaman about the properties of the sap of a certain tree, and most likely, he’ll also tell you about 20 other properties in that tree.”
The giving goes two ways. The Congolese accept help when there is a respectful balance.
“One of our first interventions, and one of our most successful,” Sally said in the same interview, “has been introducing disease-resistant cassava,” which had been ruined by a virus during the unattended war years.
When Michael met Sally
Indigenous knowledge had been the spark for Sally’s and Michael’s collaboration.
A colleague of Michael at a conference he’d organized had told him about Sally. “They met at a gallery opening in the spring of 2002,” Béchard reports, “and talked all night, discussing their travels, folklore, and different worldviews.”
We can imagine some of their talk.
When Sally had joined pioneering Japanese bonobo researcher Takayoshi Kano on his trip to the Congo in 1999, she had supplemented her folklore studies by latching onto his oral history collection. She had also learned the common Congolese language, Lingala.
The Congolese in Kokolopori believe in the concept of a sacred forest, called Engindanginda, which makes one think of the movie, “Avatar.” It is one of the most ancient, unchanged places on Earth, believers vow, and the bonobos are distant cousins who must be protected along with the environment.
The folklore, Coxe says, “has to do with how bonobos helped people, taught them what foods to eat in the forest, and how they saved a man who was stuck up in a tree.”
An origin myth evokes the Cherokee story, “The Origin of the Bear,” as well as the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden.
“Why did bonobos go to live in the forest forever?” Coxe begins her retelling. “It’s because a raffia charm came into the village one day when a bonobo was out in the forest, and it wove a charm. It wove the raffia cloth, and everybody in the village got the cloth. When the bonobo came back to the village, there was none left. He said, ‘I can’t stay in the village and be naked,’ and he went off to live in the forest forever.”
Coxe had gained a glimmer of the mythical stature of the Great Smokies’ bear when she’d been a teenager.
“I did a lot of backpacking during my high school and college years. I love being in the mountains,” she relates. “At Asheville School, we learned rock climbing with Pop Hollingsworth.”
“One time I went backpacking with a girlfriend,” she recalls. “We had ridden our bikes around Cades Cove, and camped out (there) during bear cub season. As we were walking, we kept hearing something in the woods. We turned a switch back on the trail, and sure enough, there was a mother bear standing on her back legs, looking at us. We froze in our tracks. Luckily, after what seemed like a long time, the bear loped off.”
Working with Hurley and several Congolese partners, Coxe developed BCI’s vision, based on listening to and working with the Congolese and addressing economic as well as religious and ecological needs.
“Other NGOs,” Béchard quotes a Congolese official talking to Sally, “they do their projects, and when they finish, they leave, and that’s it. But BCI has given us a lot. You have made people’s lives better. You are a part of us.”
While gearing up for the move to the Congo in 2001, Coxe’s collaborative networking reached a high point. She met Zihindula Mulegwa, called “Z,” at the Congolese Pentacostal Church in Arlington, Va.; and when Z was called back to the Congo to serve as spokesperson for the new president, Joseph Kabila, he gained an audience for her with the president.
Z, by the way, had come from a poor family, and had attended Montreat College on scholarship.
Kabila believed strongly in supporting self-sustaining businesses for his people; owned a pet chimp; and wanted to create the Peace Forest.
“We’re at a turning point right now,” Coxe says about BCI. “Our work has grown so exponentially, we’re striving to grow our organization accordingly.”
Looking back at the last decade, one can appreciate the tremendous accomplishments.
BCI has established two nature reserves spanning 12,000 square miles of vital rainforest, and seeks to connect them with corridors, thus avoiding bonobo inbreeding. They have also created additional sites for bonobo protection and hired 250 conservationists and eco-guards.
It has instituted community development programs, including a health clinic, sustainable agriculture programs, a college for sustainable rural development, and scholarships and microcredit for women.
The Peace Forest encompasses the Sankuru Nature Reserve, the largest contiguous protected area on earth for great apes; the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve; areas where no-longer-exploited logging concessions are being committed to conservation purposes; and sites where local villagers are trying to establish reserves.
Coxe has worked with Congolese and international pop music stars; and is looking to launch a fundraiser called Live ApeTM.
Threats are increasing—not only bushmeat hunting and foreign exploitation, but also money-hogging by larger NGOs.
BCI’s budget grew from $100,000 in 2002 to $1 million, and now needs to triple, Coxe says.
The program at Mars Hill College highlights the role of the upcoming generation. Panbanisha has died, and now bonobos have a new generation, too. BCI workers and volunteers have established a trusting relationship with the apes; and Congolese use an age-old practice of communicating in the forest with whistling that mimics bonobo communication.
Coxe splits her time between the Congo and Washington, D.C., but is planning to change that. Asheville is looking good to her as a headquarters. She has roots here and the place has been friendly to humanitarian thinking. She remembers waitressing to The Annex, a restaurant run by Tom Patterson, whose sister, Penny, had done trailblazing work with the conversational gorilla, Koko.
“I miss the mountains,” she says. “I feel that Asheville—besides the fact that my heart is there—is an environmentally conscious community, and it would be a great place to base our efforts. I’m not saying I’d move BCI out of Washington; I just wouldn’t mind moving myself out of Washington.”
Empty hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral by Deni Béchard (Milkweed Editions, 2013).
Bonobo in a Congo rainforest tree
The Empress Dowager of China with Sally Jewell Coxe's great-great-grandmother, Sarah Conger
Sally Jewell Coxe
Sally Jewell Coxe with baby named after her in Congolese community