- The IUCN estimates that as few as 15,000 bonobos remain in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Bonobos, unlike chimpanzees and humans, live in matriarchal societies and have never been observed killing a member of their own species.
- The California Senate passed a resolution stating that Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) would also be known as World Bonobo Day beginning in 2017.
- Bushmeat hunting, habitat destruction and the wildlife trade are the greatest threats to the survival of bonobos.
The world’s most peace-loving apes will be getting a little love themselves this Valentine’s Day, as the California Senate recently passed a resolution to create the first World Bonobo Day today, Feb. 14.
Scientists figure that as few as 15,000 bonobos (Pan paniscus) might still live in the wild, and they’re listed by the IUCN as Endangered. Though more could be hiding in distant pockets of rainforest in the Congo, conservationists worry that continued pressure from agriculture, hunting and the wildlife trade are driving one of our closest cousins toward extinction.
According to the website of the conservation group the Bonobo Project, board member and State Senator Isadore Hall introduced the resolution with the goal of educating the public about “these uniquely matriarchal, loving and endangered great apes.”
Famous for favoring sex over conflict, bonobos remain one of the more mysterious great apes. These forest-dwelling apes are found only in the conflict-prone Democratic Republic of Congo and nowhere else. And they’re cut off from their closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) by the arching Congo River – which touched off about 2 million years of diverging evolution when it formed separated the two species.
Both – along with humans, for that matter – share about 99 percent of their genomes. But the superficial similarities between chimps and bonobos – which used to be called ‘pygmy chimpanzees – bely social structures that differ widely. Chimps, for example, live in male-dominated societies, while among bonobos, females wield the power.
DRC’s frequent conflicts and the remoteness of their habitat has mad Studying bonobos in the wild difficult. But in recent decades, researchers and conservation groups have worked together to learn what we can about these phylogenetic cousins of ours and how we might be able to save them.
Primatologists have discovered that they retain a sort of adolescent pacifism, prompting leading bonobo expert Brian Hare to call them “Peter Pans” in a 2010 interview with the New York Times. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, shrug off this docility once they become adults, and, like humans, they kill each other when caught up in political disputes.
While bonobos pose little threat to each other, their remote existence in the rainforests of the Congo hasn’t been enough to keep them out of reach of humans. Their habitat is dwindling: A 2013 study revealed that less than 28 percent of their range is still suitable to support them. Increasingly, international investors look to DRC for timber and oil palm production.
Even minor shocks to their environment are enough to drive bonobos away, according to on-going research by a team of Japanese primatologists. DRC’s human population is currently around 77 million in 2015 based on World Bank figures. Clearing forest for farmland – even a small plot – can disrupt bonobo communities. And sources of protein can be hard to come by in the forest, tempting people living there to go after bonobos when they find them.
All of that adds up to a future that doesn’t seem particularly bright for these great apes.
But conservation groups have taken a multi-faceted approach to changing that. Lola ya Bonobo, 30 hectares (75 acres) of tropical forest near the capital of Kinshasa in DRC, serves as a rehabilitation center for rescued bonobos, many of them orphans of the bushmeat trade.
Founded in 1994, this “paradise for bonobos” (the Lingala translation of Lola ya Bonobo) provides these social animals – about 70 at any given time – with a safe haven, veterinary care and a surrogate family. The center has also successfully reintroduced two groups back into the wild, the first in 2009, and the center’s staff are preparing for a third reintroduction this spring.
A centerpiece of the sanctuary’s focus is its education program. Lola ya Bonobo hosts some 30,000 visitors a year to help them better understand this relative of ours and what we need to do to save them, and many of them are school children from DRC.
As the organization writes on its website, “They are the future decision makers, and if anyone can save bonobos, it will be them.”
Video by Kim Harrisberg, with music (“Warmer” by Andy G. Cohen) released under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Thumbnail in video by Jutta Hof, courtesy of the Bonobo Project.
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