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Award winning author on great apes and Congo at SOEI
October 30, 2013
To listen to Eliot Schrefer's 30-minute interview with WRNC go here.
The more Eliot Schrefer learns about bonobos, the more he falls in love with their species. “It doesn’t hurt that they’re so darn adorable,” he said.
Schrefer will be at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute (SOEI) Tues., Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. to speak and to show video footage about bonobos — one of the great apes — in their home of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. The SOEI will be awarding Schrefer the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA) for Children’s Literature for his young adult book, “Endangered,” about a 14-year-old girl who becomes a surrogate for a bonobo.
Schrefer discovered bonobos, oddly enough, through shopping. He saw an ad for Bonobos-brand khaki pants on the back of a New York taxicab and ordered a pair. “I thought it was a nonsense word,” he said in a telephone interview.
But then he did an Internet search and discovered the peace-loving apes living in war torn Congo. He spent his afternoon watching YouTube videos of bonobos playing Pac-Man and making spaghetti.
He then ordered Vanessa Woods’ “Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo,” and never looked back. The bonobo and its great ape relatives are among the most intelligent life forms on Earth and yet their survival, say researchers, is uncertain due in part to a lack of international awareness, political unrest, and insufficient resources.
Bonobos are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making them particularly vulnerable. The bonobo is in the center of what has been called Africa’s First World War, displacing over millions of people, causing them to seek refuge in Congo’s forest.
Schrefer was particularly intrigued by the paradox of the human conflict in Congo, and in the middle of the conflict, live bonobos, known as the most peaceful of all the apes. “Bonobos are a great access point to talk about the conflict in the Congo,” Schrefer said.
Schrefer has traveled to Congo and visited the Lolo Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, located outside the capital city of Kinshasa. It is the only bonobo sanctuary in the world. Tribal taboos against killing or eating great apes have traditionally protected bonobos — it would be like cannibalism, Schrefer said.
But with the war, the taboos have eroded and adult bonobos are being hunted for meat their young sold for $25—more than twice the average monthly income, Schrefer said.
These orphans end up at the sanctuary. Schrefer has a favorite story and video footage he plans to share with students and the Northland community of a bonobo that played with his shoes and untying them. Schrefer expected the bonobo to run off with his shoes, instead the bonobo attempted retying them. “They’re always surprising,” he said.
Schrefer has taken such a liking to apes that he’s now writing a quartet of young adult book about apes. His next one, “Threatened” about chimpanzees is due out in February. “It’s been a happy accident,” Schrefer said. “If I’d bought Gap khakis instead of Bonobos, who knows?”
The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute since 2004 has recognized a children’s book of literary nature writing —fiction or nonfiction — that captures the spirit of the human relationship with nature and promotes the awareness, preservation, appreciation, or restoration of the natural world for future generations, said Lisa Williamson, who serves on the award committee.
“’Endangered,’ captures the spirit of humanity’s relationship with nature through the eyes of a young girl,” Williamson said.
“It’s a great award and I’m honored to be a part of it,” Schrefer said. “It’s a shared goal of using language to expand our moral imagination to extend ourselves beyond our own lives.”
The SONWA for Children’s Literature winner is selected by a committee of eight avid readers including children’s librarian Chris Lindsey of Washburn, bookstore owner Bev Bauer of Cable, grant writer and editor Lisa Williamson of Ashland, Jan Penn of Ashland, Professor of Education Hilary Pollack of River Falls, community leader Bobbi Blaskowski of Janesville, teacher Eileen Van Pernis of Ashland, bookstore owner Demaris Brinton of Bayfield, Barbara James of Baldwin City, Kans. who recently retired.
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