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Bonobos: the Congo Basin’s great gardeners

The survival of primary forests depends on many overlapping interactions. Among these interactions include tropical gardeners, like the bonobo (Pan pansicus) in the Congo Basin, according to a new study in the Journal of Tropical Ecology. Bonobos are known as a keystone species, vital to the diversification and existence of their forests.

Bonobos, which are close relatives of the chimpanzee, service the forest by dispersing a multitude of seeds, thus maintaining rich, diverse forests. Other African tropical gardeners include monkeys, bats, birds, rodents and the African forest elephant. Recent research shows elephants disperse seeds approximately 57km from the parent tree, making the African elephant a powerfully effective “gardener.” But the new study shows that bonobos are also effective seed dispersers.

“APan pansicus
) in the Congo Basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI”>
A bonobo (Pan pansicus) in the Congo Basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI

Following bonobos over a period from September 2009 to July 2011, the scientists recorded the duration of the feeding session, the items consumed and the seeds processing (i.e. spitting, handling, swallowing) and found that bonobos are the second-largest fruigivore, after the elephant. The seeds passed by the bonobos have the proportion of fruit bearing trees germinating at a success rate of 97%.

“If Bonobos disappear from a forest, many plant species must be affected for reproductions (i.e. the seed dispersal provided by bonobos is lacking). In another experiment, we found that several trees dispersed by bonobos cannot reproduce without [Bonobo’s] seed dispersal,” said lead author David Beaune from the Max Planck Institute of Leipzig and the University of Burgundy. During the study, Beaune and his team surveyed 33-35 mature bonobos inhabiting a home range of 40 kilometers. Although bonobos eat a lot of fruit and seeds, their rich diet also includes leaves, stems, bark, gum, mushrooms, honey, soil, and even other animals.

A bonobo infant (<i></img>Pan pansicus</i>). Photo by Terre Sauvage.”><i>A bonobo infant (<i>Pan pansicus</i>). Photo by David Beaune/MPI</i></span></p>
Yet bonobos, which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, remain hugely imperiled by poaching and deforestation.<br></br>
Since 1990, forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo have lost more than six million hectares and deforestation continues to imperil bonobos troops However, deforestation is not the only, or perhaps the most crucial, factor pushing numbers of bonobos to near extinction. Even in the untouched and protected areas of the forests, wildlife species, including the bonobo, are being emptied from these areas for the bushmeat market. The study points to Africa’s “bushmeat crisis,” as creating a cascading effect on the tree-dispersal network by depleting populations of apes (bonobos, chimps, and gorillas) monkeys, bats, birds and rodents.</p>
<img src= width=600 alt=Pan pansicus). Photo by Terre Sauvage.” >
A bonobo infant (Pan pansicus). Photo by David Beaune/MPI

A view of the untouched forest of the Congo basin. Photo by Terre Sauvage.
A view of the untouched forest of the Congo basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI

“With corruption, poaching can continue easily. Only an anti-corruption politic tolerating zero poaching would help the bonobo and all the animal victims of the bushmeat traffic,” Beaune told “Education is also a key. Now we can explain that protecting animal species is also protecting the entire forest. Today many kids in Africa have never met an elephant, bonobo and other creatures but I know that many of them are eager to protect them and are proud of their national species.”

Hadrian Vanthomme who studied the overall effects of the bushmeat trade adds, “When hunters remove big animals, they remove at the same time the ecological functions of the animals. So basically, we expect that if a guild of animals implied in seed dispersal of a plant is removed, the regeneration of this plant species will be compromised.”

Deforestation in the Congo basin. Photo by Terre Sauvage.
Deforestation in the Congo basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI

A bonobo (<i></img>Pan pansicus</i>) in the Congo Basin. Photo by Terre Sauvage.” ><br></br><i>A bonobo (<i>Pan pansicus</i>) in the Congo Basin. Photo by David Beaune/MPI</i><br></br>
<p>David Beaune says there are several ways in which the public can help protect bonobos and other species critical to sustaining a diverse forests.<br></br>
“Many <a href=>NGOs</a> exist on the field for education and anti-poaching actions. We also need to decide on not participate in deforestation by buying only eco-certified wood products. That will be an enormous improvement on forests across the world. Worldwide deforestation is happening too fast! We need to be aware of how our action affects the world. By doing so, hopefully we can start making decisions and implementing changes that are rooted in the awareness of our impact on the word.”<br></br>
<img src= width=600 alt=Pan pansicus). Photo by Terre Sauvage.” >
A bonobo mom and baby (Pan pansicus). Photo by David Beaune/MPI

A bonobo mom and baby (<i></img>Pan pansicus</i>). Photo by Terre Sauvage.” ><br></br><i>A bonobo mom and baby (<i>Pan pansicus</i>). Photo by David Beaune/MPI</i></p>
<img src= width=600 alt=Pan pansicus) enjoys lunch. Photo by Terre Sauvage.” >
A bonobo (Pan pansicus) enjoys lunch. Photo by David Beaune/MPI


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