JANUARY 2011. KINSHASA AND POINTS EAST

David Quammen and Christian Ziegler on the outskirts of Kinshasa.Lots of field time in the Congo for me this year.  The forests are wonderful; the people are likable; the cities, the logistics, and the politics are . . . ugh, challenging.  As you probably know, there are two countries known loosely as "the Congo":  the Republic of the Congo, north of the big river, with its capital at Brazzaville; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), south of the river, with its capital at Kinshasa.  In past years, during the Megatransect and later outings, my Congo travel has always been north of the river.  This year I've spent seven weeks south of the river, getting a taste of DRC.  My main purpose has been to research a story on the bonobo, Pan paniscus, a species of primate sometimes (misleadingly) called the pygmy chimpanzee.  That's a work in progress for National Geographic. I've spent time in the forest with several bonobo researchers, including Gottfried Hohmann (who has studied them for decades) and Tetsuya Sakamaki, following wild but habituated groups.  In such situations, we've kept a respectable distance (ten yards, at least) from the animals and, when relatively close, worn surgical masks to lessen the chance of infecting them with some human bug.

If you've ever worn a surgical mask while trying to run through an equatorial rainforest, get air to your lungs, and keep your glasses from fogging up, you'll appreciate how much Gottfried and Tetsuya and their colleagues care about these creatures. 

I also spent a day at the Lola yaDavid Quammen and Christian Ziegler on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Bonobo refuge on the outskirts of Kinshasa.  It's an orphanage and halfway house for bonobos that have been captured, or grown up in captivity, and been rescued by an extraordinary woman named Claudine Andre, who runs the place.  Some of those animals are now being released to the wild—under carefully restricted conditions, into habitat empty of other bonobos.  The Lola bonobos are quite familiar with human contact.  My photographer colleague for this assignment, Christian Ziegler (that's him in the olive fatigues), had spent a week at the refuge before going to the wild and so, by the time I arrived, the more forward animals there were used to him.  I was the new guy.  They inspected me carefully and then, generously, groomed me.  Not even my faithful dermatologist, Brian, has ever looked at my skin more closely.

The pants legs are up, by the way, not to display my nice tan but because the bonobos were curious about my kneecaps.

While delayed in Kinshasa between fieldtrips, I got the chance to add a few crucial pieces to the story of HIV/AIDS for my book on zoonotic diseases. 

Professor Jean-Marie Kabongo, head of pathology in the Department of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Kinshasa.This is Professor Jean-Marie Kabongo, head of pathology in the Department of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Kinshasa.  I called on him in order to trace an important piece of evidence back to its source.  The evidence is a small block of paraffin-preserved tissue, a biopsy specimen that was sliced from a lymph node of a Kinshasa woman in 1960, and stored thereafter at the pathology lab.  Almost fifty years later, a molecular biologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Michael Worobey, screened that sample (among many others) and found it to be HIV-positive.  Let me repeat: an HIV-positive woman in Kinshasa in 1960.  Worobey sequenced the genome of the sample's virus and named it DRC60.  Its existence, its date, and its genetic relationship to other HIV strains have all added surprising new elements to our understanding of how and when the AIDSProfessor Kabongo's lab still contains many paraffin-embedded pathology samples. pandemic began.  Worobey's work is part of a complicated tale that I'll tell in the book.

Professor Kabongo's lab still contains many paraffin-embedded pathology samples, though none has so far been revealed to have such significance as DRC60.