Friday, April 16, 2010

Bonobo Business

Do you know what a bonobo is?

Only about 10% of people do, according to Duke evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare. By comparison, roughly 90% of people know what a gorilla is.

Bonobos have many remarkable qualities, including the fact they “are the only really peaceful ape,” according to Hare. “They don’t kill each other.” Bonobos are more closely related to humans than any other kind of ape or monkey. However, bonobos are frequently hunted for pets and for bushmeat.

Hare gave the bonobo primer to introduce renowned conservationist Claudine Andre, widely known as the Jane Goodall for bonobos. Andre spoke as part of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology's Lemur Center's Primate Palooza event.

“Let me bring you in my country,” Andre began. She then described the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the only country bonobos call home.

When Andre and her husband lived in the Congo in the early 90s, their town was looted. Many shops and homes were destroyed, but Andre decided to stay. Someone asked her to visit the local zoo and, says Andre, “I opened the door and my life changed.” She found over 200 animals -- lions, bears, chimps. And no food. “I said to my husband, we have to do something. I have to try to save the zoo.”

Andre managed to find food for the animals and she saved the zoo animals, including a baby bonobo named Mikeno. Eventually, more and more bonobos found their way into her care, and Andre expanded her efforts to protect them.

She discovered that education was her most effective tool. At first, poor orphans who lived in the zoo were very rude to the animals. But with Andre’s positive example, the children grew to respect the animals. Andre has built a bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo, which is visited by 30,000 children a year.

Bonobos are only found in the Congo, and Andre has successfully established this as a national point of pride. Awareness about the importance of bonobos is spreading; this year, Andre received 50 bonobos from people who bought them as pets and were convinced by area children that they had made a mistake.

“The education is worth it. I’m sure of this.”

Caring for so many animals is not an easy task. Andre has returned some to the wild, and says that it is very difficult to do. Certain guidelines must be followed, and she wants to make sure that the animals are happy in their new surroundings. She maintains that communication with surrounding people is critical.

“It is 25% about the animal and 75% about contact with the local population.” Andre had to meet with traditional chiefs and ask them not to hunt in the areas where bonobos are reintroduced, in return for help for their villages.

Andre described how it felt to return one of her bonobos to the wild: “It was a fantastic moment for me. So many emotions.” She likened it to a father walking his daughter down the aisle.

Andre and her organization decided not to use collars to track the released bonobos because they are heavy and can get caught on branches. Instead, trackers sit below the nests night and day and monitor the bonobos’ movements from tree to tree.

Currently, sanctuary visitors do not have many opportunities to observe the animals. Andre eventually hopes to purchase a small island, “a new sanctuary where people can go around and see the bonobos.” Bonobos are becoming recognized as an important part of Congolese culture and biodiversity, and it is in large part because of Andre’s efforts.

“I’m so proud to be a symbol of peace for the people,” Andre said.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bouncing Off The Walls

Guest post from Cara Bonnett, Office of Information Technology

No, it’s not your imagination: Those clouds really are following you, and the sunflowers are waving.

Students walking past the huge media wall at the Link in Perkins Library may not realize that the tiled display is responding to their movements. But thanks to Duke researchers and computer science students, they now can interact with the wall to play with the weather, generate their own poetry and navigate through a collection of ultra-high-resolution “gigapixel” images.

“The challenge is getting people to notice that the display is interactive,” said Robert Duvall, a computer science professor whose students designed the weather simulation. “How do you draw people in, help them understand what’s going on and get them playing with it?”

The media wall – built by Duke’s Visualization Technology Group as part of the Visual Studies Initiative – includes 48 computer screens, six Web cameras and a set of directional speakers, all driven by a 104-core computing cluster. The cameras, positioned on the ceiling, are programmed to detect viewers’ positions or movements and use that data to determine what’s represented on the screen.

Students in Duvall’s advanced graphics class designed the weather simulation to be useful as well as fun. The display, based on real-time data from an online weather site, features cartoonish rainclouds or clear blue skies (depending on the forecast), with sunflowers that “wave” when a viewer steps up to the screen.

“After you’ve been in the Link for a couple hours, you might not know what the weather’s like outside,” Duvall said. “On the wall you can see it at a glance.”

Another display – “Passage Sets,” created by visual studies professor Bill Seaman and programmed by research associate Todd Berreth – includes an interactive poem generator that allows as many as four viewers at a time to choose words or phrases from four lists that then flow in a line of text across the bottom of the screen. An opening for the exhibit will be held Friday, April 16.

Berreth and a committee of faculty, staff and students are seeking new ideas for exhibits on the wall. Students in future classes could help with the programming, and developers can test their programs on a smaller-scale version of the wall at Smith Warehouse.

The only caveat: No marketing allowed.

Faculty and students are invited to submit project ideas to Berreth’s group at Find out more information about developing projects for the Link media wall on the group’s wiki.