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Author Deni Béchard comes face to face with the endangered ape who shares 98% of his DNA

This fall on Canada Writes we're bringing you excerpts of new work from emerging and established Canadian Writers. This week is an excerpt of Deni Béchard's nonfiction work Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral, available in bookstores this October.

“Just seeing photos of bonobos made a strong impression on me. They have lustrous black skin and red lips, black hair neatly parted in the middle and descending like mutton chops, flaring out proudly in the style of Martin Van Buren.”

Interested in climate change and current conservation efforts, author Deni Béchard found his attention drawn to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to some of the world’s most important rain forest. Through his research into a group called the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, Béchard found himself seduced by the bonobo, an endangered species of great ape which shares over 98.6 % of its DNA with humans.

In Empty Hands, Open Arms, Béchard takes us with him on a journey to understand the plight of the bonobo and the challenges facing the people who are working to save the species and its habitat.  The book is vast in its scope. Béchard covers everything from aspects of the biology and behaviour of bonobos to the history of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative  and its conservation projects and the military conflicts that have taken their toll on the region. 

Out of these details, grows a complex story rich with characters, not the least of which are the bonobos themselves and the conservationists who are fighting for them. 

Empty Hands, Open Arms
by Deni Béchard

Though slow to reveal themselves, the bonobos began to make more appearances, peeking down through the foliage with curious eyes, red lips vivid in their black faces. They had the taut, muscular arms of athletes, and their bodies were particularly graceful. As they studied us, they curled their long fingers around branches and tree trunks. We crept through the foliage, trying to see them more closely.

The large infant I’d noticed earlier hung for a while in an opening in the branches, eyes laughing, clearly entertained. He was suspended with his potbelly protruding as he examined us: strange creatures, our faces lifted. He glanced around with fascination, then disappeared into the foliage, and moments later an adult male swung to a nearby tree, one hand holding the trunk. He watched with the same curious and pleased air as the infant, lowering his eyebrows and pushing his lips forward, then faintly, sweetly simpering, as if unable to decide what face to show us. The black hair on his chest and the insides of his arms was thinner than that on his head and back, and his large pale testicles and thin pink penis showed between his thighs.

He studied us for a long time, occasionally glancing off, presenting his profile. He was an adult, but there was something particularly youthful about him, light hearted, as if he hadn’t taken on responsibility for his group yet, or simply knew that we were no threat.

The light through the clouds brightened, glittering against the moisture in his hair and fur, giving him a silver nimbus. He seemed so pleased looking at us that if he’d broken into laughter, I wouldn’t have been surprised. He shook his head and reached up, his body not much smaller than a human’s but more pliable and dynamic, and then he climbed out of sight.

These bonobos had been habituated by trackers who monitored them daily, but they were far from tame. I had observed chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island sanctuary in Uganda, and their muscular presence and aggressive gazes gave me little inclination to go near them. Signs warned that if one of them escaped the enclosure all visitors should stand in the lake, since chimpanzees are afraid of going into water. Alan had told me that chimps made him feel as if he were passing a street gang and had to avoid eye contact. This aggressive, dominant attitude appeared absent in bonobos, only the older females somewhat authoritative. They showed little interest in us even as the adolescent males watched us with wide eyes.

Following the Ekalakala group, named for a nearby stream, we wandered through the forest, taking pictures. Léonard knew their patterns. Each time he took me aside and told me to wait somewhere, I didn’t know what to expect. I sat and watched the forest. Nothing moved. The others had wandered off, and I became convinced that Léonard was mistaken, that he was telling me to sit there for no good reason. Then, sometimes fifteen or twenty minutes later, a bonobo appeared almost directly before me.

At one point, Léonard suggested that Alan and I wait near a fallen tree, which had created an opening in the undergrowth where the sun shone into the forest. We crouched for at least twenty minutes before two bonobos came through the canopy. One swung himself down to the log and scampered across. But the other made a more dramatic entrance. He hugged the top of a thin tree and let it bend under his weight until he was upside down and his head was almost to the log. Then he flipped himself to his feet and released the tree, letting it snap back up. He sat, assuming pose after pose, looking at the sky, the ground, over his shoulder and back, then just stared off as we clicked photos.

He appeared deep in contemplation, though I had the sense that he knew exactly what we were doing, and wanted to be seen in his best light.


Deni Y. Béchard, from Empty Hands, Open Arms (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Deni Y. Béchard. Shared here with permission from Milkweed Editions.

Deni Béchard's first novel, Vandal Love, won the Common- wealth Writers’ Prize. He has also authored a memoir, Cures for Hunger, and written for a number of magazines and newspapers, among them the LA Times, Salon, Outside, the National Post, VQR, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir, the Harvard Review, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has been a fellow at MacDowell, Jentel, the Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig House, the Anderson Center, and Vermont Studio Center, among others. He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan, and he has traveled in more than fifty countries. 


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