Bonobos, like Chimpanzees, are the closest relatives to humans. We share up to 98% of our genome. Surprisingly, they’re closer to us, genetically speaking, than to gorillas, even if they’re physically more similar. Bonobos are famous for tolerant female relationships and non-reproductive sexual behavior between partners of all ages and sexes.
Who are the bonobos?
They can be found in the Congo Basin, the second largest rainforest in the world, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fruit make up half of their diet; the other half is composed of vegetation and occasionally insects, larvae, earthworms, eggs, and even small mammals.
Bonobos live in large matriarchal communities, where female form tight bonds against males. This is heaven on Earth for feminists! Bonobo females seem to know that strong solidarity keeps the males from being dominant.
Bonobos can be confused with Chimpanzees, as they are very alike in the eyes of non-specialists. Bonobos and Chimps separated around 1.5 million years ago, when they took different ways, on each side of the Congo River. Bonobos are slender, have pink lips and black faces. Chimps, however, are robust, with black lips, and their face color changes with age. Plus, they’re composed of 3 subspecies found across Africa while bonobos are only found in the Congo basin.
Make love, not war!
There are well-known for their very active sexual lives. It plays a major role in Bonobo societies: sex is used as for social bonding, pleasure, and conflict resolution, in a large variety of position. They’re not monogamous, and won’t discriminate partners for their age or gender, except for avoidance of relations between a mother and her adult sons.
To Brian Hare, professor and anthropologist at Duke University, this is not the most interesting thing in Bonobos. What’s fascinating about them is their pacifism. They don’t kill each other, contrary to their closest ape cousins, the Chimpanzees, who are particularly violent, dominant and even xenophobic. Bonobos are frequently referred as the “Make love not war” primates. Richard Wrangham, Hare’s doctoral thesis adviser at Harvard believes it is due to their habitat: in the Congo basin food is abundant and Bonobos never have to fight for it. As competition for resources was not an issue anymore, Bonobos had the opportunity to develop communities with weak hierarchy – male’s rank is often defined by his mother’s. Aggression was not necessary anymore, and males stopped forcing females into sex. They were free from the genetic need to ensure the survival of their species, since they were no longer living in such a threatening and competitive environment. This also led to less competition between the males.
Still, conflicts exist, if not, there would be no need for “peacemaking sex”. All animals are competitive by nature. But as we just saw, Bonobos, by being at the right place at the right time, found a good way to soothe their problems.
Bonobos are natural sharers, Hare found in his research. He did an experiment where a group of Bonobos were in an enclosure with a large pile of food that they could have kept to themselves or could share with other Bonobos by opening a one-way door to let them in the enclosure with them. They always chose to open it. Still, the apes have a limit — they would not share their own food when no social interaction was involved. They were, however, willing to help a stranger get food even without social interaction. Mr. Tan, another researcher and colleague of Brian Hare at Duke University, compared this to certain human acts of kindness: “It’s like when you donate money and you don’t tell people, so there’s no way for you to get any benefit. This may shed light on the origins of altruism in humans.”
In another experiment, which goal was to compare Chimps and Bonobos, Hare found out at young Chimps were eager to share when little, but became more selfish while growing up. “It seems like some of these adult differences might actually derive from developmental differences,” said Victoria Wobber, a Harvard graduate student who collaborates with Hare. “Evolution has been acting on the development of their cognition.”
Bonobos are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, facing a very high risk of extinction in the near future. Around 10.000 Bonobos remain in the wild, but since they live in a very wild area, only accessible by boat of plane, it’s difficult to go and count them.
Apart from poaching, Bonobos are threatened by civil unrest, habitat degradation and disease transmission.
In the Congo, there is little agriculture, so the local population relies on the wildlife to get meat. Bonobos are easily hunted because they live in communities; you find one, you find the whole group. Because Bonobos only have babies every 4 to 5 years, they’re very slow to regenerate. It is crucial to set up an agricultural plan to feed the 68 million Congolese, for their own sake and for the Bonobos survival.
Uncontrolled agriculture and logging
Farmers rely on slash and burn farming which leads to a reduced habitat for the Bonobos and so does industrial logging, legal and illegal, despite of moratorium of the government.
Fortunately, the Bonobos weren’t too impacted by the Civil War that ended in 2003, but extreme poverty has led to increased pressure on wildlife and natural resources.
Gorillas and chimpanzees have been severely hit by the Ebola virus, and so are the Bonobos.
But here is still hope. Despite the difficulties the Congo has endured, the Congolese government and many communities are dedicated to preserving the beauty and abundance of their country. The government has committed to set aside 15% of their land for conservation.
And Bonobos are not alone! Founded by Claudine André in 1994, Lola ya Bonobo is the sanctuary of the NGO, Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo (ABC) – Friends of Bonobos in English. Since 2002, the sanctuary has been located at Les Petites Chutes de la Lukaya, just outside of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lola ya Bonobo means ‘paradise for Bonobos’ in Lingala, the main language of Kinshasa. Nothing prepared Claudine for her role as a bonobo guardian. ‘My first school was the forest,’ she says. ‘I arrived in Congo with my father who was a veterinarian. He valued the chance for me to discover harmony with nature, the equilibrium between earth, humans, and animals.’ In 1993, a baby bonobo changed Claudine’s life forever. Mikeno arrived at the Kinshasa zoo where she was a volunteer, without much hope of surviving. Claudine was determined to save him and was thrown into an adventure which has never stopped. The sanctuary is unique. It is the only one in the world dedicated to the Bonobos, and Claudine is fully committed to do everything in her power to keep it going. She frequently presents at conferences all over the world, raising awareness for Bonobos and ensuring the protection of their future.
If you are interested in joining our private trip visit Claudine and the Bonobos in the Congo please email us directly at Yappy@animalfair.com with all your contact information! Thank you!