The Bonobo Factor

Elephant charge

crashing through the forest came a mature female. All Helen saw was the enormous grey ears flapping like flags on a windy day…



In late 1976, Dr. Helen Robinson undertakes a field study trip in the Zaire. Gerald Smelzer, a young adventurer is having an affair with a beautiful researcher at the Zaire research station, Salumbobo. As storm clouds brew in post-colonial Africa, their paths bring them face to face with Elakat Wangombe who is leading a pre-emptive rebel strike to free Katanga, now known as Shaba, and make it into an independent state….

Opening Chapter here

Chapter 1


April in Oxford is a cheerful time. Cherry and apple trees sprinkle pink and white blossom over the warming soil, tractors drag gang-mowers around the lush green grass of the Parks preparing cricket wickets and tennis courts, and the hedonistic students return after their Easter break ready for a summer of drinking on the river and of dancing in summer balls in college quads, pushing the reality of examinations to the backs of their minds.

However, Helen Robinson was anything but cheerful. She was racked with indecision about her life and what to do for the best. She paused before the door of Xavier Rossotti’s study. Then after telling herself for the umpteenth time that she needed his advice, her knuckles struck the mediaeval oak door. Xavier would help her, he must help her.

She heard the familiar cry ‘Come,’ and opened the door.

Framed by the leaded Oriel window through which the evening sunshine full of dancing dust motes streamed, making a criss-cross pattern on the Persian carpet, the bespectacled professor looked up. He greeted his visitor. ‘Helen, how nice to see you. Come in. My, my. You look glum. Are you all right? Take a seat.’

She entered the familiar room into which she had first stepped as a fresher six years ago when she first arrived aged nineteen. The wide bald swathe of his head surrounded by black bushy outcrops of wiry hair over his ears reminded Helen of tumbleweed on a dusty street in a black and white B-movie western.

As she sat in one of the comfortable, but worn chairs, Helen’s black hair fell over her eyes. She swept it back with a quick movement of her hand. She looked at the owl-like Xavier blinking through his round glasses which had intimidated her at first, but over the years she had come to know him as a friendly and wise professor. She smiled wanly. Her lack of make-up and dull blue clothes made her look even less happy, more severe.

‘I’m OK, thank you,’ she replied, her voice redolent with nerves and uncertainty.

Ignoring her unusual diffidence Xavier, her former tutor, said in his usual clipped style, ‘Well, what can I do for you, Helen, or perhaps I should say, Doctor Robinson?’ A smile widened across his face.

Helen shifted in her seat and crossing and uncrossing her hands said, ‘It’s that I am not sure what to do next, Professor.’ Helen had never graduated from calling Xavier Rossotti anything other than ‘Professor’ in her six long years of association, although outside, with the undergrads and later the graduates, she used a wide variety of names for him, but names that were always respectful.

‘Well, that’s not unusual after finishing a complex and demanding course.’

‘But where do I go and what do I do now?’

‘So, you are naturally worried about your future,’ said Xavier using his psychiatrist-on-a-couch tone.

‘Yes, I don’t know what to do,’ she repeated with a hint of desperation in her voice.

Her studies, which had run straightforwardly, railway fashion, looked to be at the end of the line and there was no clear next station. Since the age of five, she had progressed along a path mapped out by her proud parents, in particular, her father. Now she had to decide by herself where to turn next and although she had recently been awarded her doctorate after three years of study, Helen did not feel confident as she pondered her future.

In the time-honoured fashion, as if it would help the discussion, Xavier said, ‘Well, let us see if we can’t give the matter some thought. Drink? Dry or is it Amontillado?’

‘Amontillado, please,’ said Helen.

He rose and walked across the cramped, book-lined study to a selection of bottles and a half-full decanter of whisky on round table in the corner of the room which had not changed in the slightest degree in her experience. He filled two cut-glass glasses with sherry. With his black gown trailing behind him, he carried them to Helen on a small silver tray. He smiled at her through his thick-rimmed tortoiseshell reading spectacles and placed one glass to Helen’s left on a silvered coaster. His easy, paternal manner helped her relax; a flow of air eased from her lungs. He raised his small glass towards Helen and nodded his head. ‘Cheers.’

As the first droplets of sherry tickled down her throat, Helen relaxed. Over the years, she become more and more comfortable in his study. She knew the room well: its threadbare armchairs, the gas fire inserted into the old fireplace with its the boot-blacked, oval-topped, Victorian surround, and above it a narrow mantelshelf stacked with old and current invitations. And the same old silver-framed brown and white photograph of his grandfather and books. Books everywhere, in the bookcases, in small piles on the another corner table, even some on the floor.

Outside the colleges’ bells struck six times, ringing the passing of another hour. For a few minutes, Oxford was alive with the sound of bells. It was a world apart, and for those brief moments, and Helen was taken back to Sundays with her parents, and older sister Samantha on a morning visit to church in Moreton in the Marsh.

Her pulse slowed, but the thought of Gus’ rejection still coursed through her veins.

‘What is it you are looking for now. A continuation into academia or a move into the outside world?’ asked Xavier, placing his half-full glass precisely in the centre of his coaster.

‘I’m just not sure,’ said Helen hoping she would not have to mention her relationship with Gus. No, this was about her and her next step and Xavier knew her as well as anyone.

‘Perhaps I could make a suggestion.’ His unexpected words startled her, but she nodded her head in agreement without finding a word come to her throat. ‘Have you ever thought about post-doctoral fieldwork?’

‘Yes a bit, but I’m not really sure.’

‘Of course.’ His gentle voice could even be her father’s. ‘Many post doctoral students follow that path as it is a natural continuation of their studies. And a good way into academia. You are an academic type. I think it might suit you.’

Helen self-consciously reddened and she looked away from Xavier’s kindly gaze.

‘A month or so ago, I spoke with Franz Hohenloher of the Max Planck Institute at an environmental conference on deforestation of the equatorial jungles and its impact on the humans and the animals of the forest. In response to my tentative enquiry, Franz told me about the Namoko Project saying that Salumbobo was an ideal location for field research on a wide variety of animals including the bonobo. Tourist numbers, while still small, were up by two or three hundred per cent, and it had its first researcher from Heidelberg University investigating the okapi. ‘

Helen’s eyes widened. Africa to her was the dark continent, remote, mysterious, but was it interesting? Unsure she listened.

‘If you successfully complete a one-year’s fieldwork programme your career prospects will be wonderful. Ethology is a new, and upcoming science. You are young. You have impeccable credentials right now. But fieldwork would mean most of the time abroad on location. What would your young man – Augustus, isn’t it – say?’

Helen mumbled that didn’t matter. She couldn’t bring herself to admit publicly that her three-year relationship with Augustus Arnold had soured. It was still too raw. She swallowed hard although she wanted to say words like ‘It’s all over’ and ‘He’s moved to London’ nothing came out of her mouth, nothing. The shame of her relationship’s failure was too much. Nor could she reveal the deep hurt he had caused when he told her on the phone from his city office that they were history. Now, he had a new love in his life, money. The bright city lights blinded him. Flush with money at his first job, he yelled buy and sell orders, in a blue and green striped jacket on the packed floor of the London stock market. He embraced the new buzz and met other hedonistic chaps, who swept him up a whirl of drink, and cheap thrills, no doubt. He had found other distractions. Their intimate and impecunious student days at Oxford were for him a thing of the past.

It was difficult for Helen to admit that she had lost her long-term partner, that she could not hold the affection and love of a man who for only six weeks had lived away in London. ‘It’s not important,’ she murmured as if it were a throwaway remark and took another sip of the light brown sherry. She said nothing more, but sensed Xavier understood her loss and desolation.

Softly, he said, ‘Look, I know this is a difficult time, perhaps it is the moment to cut your ties with home and fly the nest. What would your parents think?’

Helen pondered his question. Groomed to become an academic from an early age, in an ambitious, paternally-dominated, middle-class household, her progress had been smooth: ‘O’ Levels, ‘A’ levels with impeccable grades, a bachelor’s degree, ironically termed MA at Oxford, one of the best universities in the world, and finally her doctorate. There was, however, a hitch in her problematic Gordian knot. Her father, after years of smoking his briar pipe, a constant companion which he continued to suck after any smouldering tobacco had long since burnt away, had been diagnosed with aggressive, stage-four, lung cancer. He had been given only a short while to live. The transformation from a healthy middle-aged man to a hairless, lightweight weakling in a few months had been startling. Now her lifelong guiding light was fading, like a guttering candle almost out.

She said, not wishing to expose her worries, ‘I haven’t spoken about it much with them.’

As if to distance herself from the realities of rejection and potential loss, she gazed at Xavier’s desk where the apricot evening sunshine made an ever-changing criss-cross pattern. Memories of her house and the evening sunlight slanting across the lawn and into her bedroom flashed across her mind.

‘Well…’ said Xavier. Helen almost jumped. ‘…have you ever thought…’ and with his usual easy manner, making his points clearly as if he were giving a tutorial on the structure of viruses, Xavier elaborated his simple suggestion, ‘…of the bonobo, a little known great ape, that offers an opportunity for study. Documenting the behaviour patterns of one of man’s closest relatives would be of obvious importance to the academic world.’

He raised his glass as if in salutation and finished with the final words, ‘It would be seriously career enhancing.’

For the last three years, she had benefited from Xavier’s wise and softly spoken advice. With wide ears and sitting more upright, she listened and warmed to his suggestion. She felt comfortable with his words.

He continued, ‘The bonobo was discovered in 1927 by Ernst Schwarz and officially classified by Harold Coolidge in the early thirties, who assigned its Linnean name Pan paniscus.‘ He rose and walked to the bookcase opened a glass-panelled door and slid his finger along the spines of the multi-coloured hardback books. His finger stopped and he a pulled a tome from its resting place.

‘It has been little studied since White and Halliday wrote their authoritative book on the bonobo, and that was ten years ago.’

He waved the book at her and resumed his seat flicking through the pages.

‘Rumoured to be man’s closest ancestor this could be an ideal opportunity for you, and I have an excellent contact in Franz Hohenloher. He is the head of the Primatology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig. Recently, as I said they have started to fund the Namoko Project.’

‘Ah, here it is.’ he said exultantly, ‘Salumbobo, in the Salumbobo National Park in Kasai-Oriental in the heart of the equatorial jungle, is the third biggest National Park in Zaire at 12,300 square kilometres. Its vegetation is home to an extensive list of Zaire’s most endangered species, such as the bonobo, the okapi, the Dryas monkey, the list is quite long…’

Helen’s mind drifted to a Tarzan film. An image of Johnny Weissmuller swimming and calling ‘Jane’ flashed across her mind.

‘…in collaboration with the Zairean Government and the African Protection Fund.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ said Helen despite missing the last few sentence.

Remember, Helen, there’s a mass of information on the chimpanzee yet nothing, apart from the White and Halliday study, on the bonobo. In addition, time is running out. The survival of all great apes is threatened, their habitats are being destroyed and the bushmeat trade has increased substantially.

He moved back to the bookcase and replaced White and Halliday and selected a red covered book: ‘On Aggression’ by Konrad Lorenz.

‘Do you know this man’s work?’

‘Yes, I have read a little of it.’ Helen muttered, concerned by her ignorance of Lorenz. She always felt she knew so little compared to the Professor.

‘It was written in 1963. Three years ago he was awarded the Nobel Prize, for discoveries concerning organization and the elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns. Food for thought, Helen. The world would be your Ostrea edulis,‘ – he had to have his little joke – ‘if you were to do well and make a success of studying the individual and group behaviours of the bonobo in its natural habitats.

‘After all the work you did on captive gorillas, studying behaviours in the wild will give your work additional relevance. You would become an expert on the comparative behaviour of primates in captivity and the wild.’

Two months ago, an abridged version of her fifty-page thesis entitled: ‘Effects of offspring on social interactions among adult captive lowland gorillas’ had been published in the Journal of Zoology. It had received favourable reviews. She had made her small first mark in the world of academia. Her research, circulating in the scholarly libraries of universities and zoological institutes, gave her name some small prominence. She was well aware of the value of a live field research project allied to the theme of her doctoral studies.

Inspired by the journals of Dian Fossey’s work with the lowland gorilla in the mountain forests of Rwanda, Helen pushed her indecision away, and in the comfortable study had visions of a successful project with an appointment in a senior role at a university. She realised that if she could replicate similar studies on another primate such work would be “seriously career enhancing”, to quote her professor’s words.

Her drive for success and recognition took over. Spurred on by her competitive nature – she had always attempted to match the achievements of her two-year-older sister, Samantha: Cambridge rather than Oxford, economics rather than zoology, yet envied her successful sister. Would she ever match being married and to a successful and attractive banker, would she ever be pregnant?

Nevertheless, the idea was attractive.

Spurned by Augustus, and with scant thought for her father, she accepted Xavier’s suggestion. She would make a complete change, and travel abroad away from family problems and places which could remind her of Augustus, she would turn a new leaf in her book of life and be done with him.

Along with the small financial inducement, the Namoko Project in Salumbobo National Park would be the next step on her career path, but if she had known of Zaire’s recent troubles, she might never have accepted the post.

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