Why we should care more about bonobos

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We have more in common with these lesser-known apes than we might assume, and we should do more to look out for them, says Jacqueline Conciatore

Among our closest genetic relatives, the bonobo should be as familiar and iconic as its great-ape cousin, the chimpanzee. Bonobos are fascinating — affectionate, empathetic, extremely social, playful, keenly observant, and intelligent.

Expert Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, argues that we humans have a lot to learn from these intriguing apes, who live in societies led by females and are mostly peaceable.

So why aren’t bonobos as widely known as the other great apes — the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan?

One reason is that they live in only one place, and it is remote: the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another is that there are just not that many of them — perhaps as few as 10,000.

Human sensibilities are a factor, too. As Woods put it, bonobos aren’t entirely family-friendly. They frequently use sex as a social tool. They engage in sexual acts for everything from casual ‘hellos’ to alleviating tension or resolving conflict.

This behavior and their comparative nonviolence have earned bonobos the nickname ‘hippie chimp’ — the primate which makes love, not war. Copious sex is not the usual stuff of nature documentaries or official appreciation days.

And so bonobos have remained obscure — “locked in the cupboard,” says Woods, “like an embarrassing relative.” (In recent years, the public has become more aware of bonobos; in the U.S., for example, a House resolution recognises February 14 as World Bonobo Day.)

Bonobos certainly merit our attention. Like chimpanzees, they share more than 98 per cent of DNA with humans. Studies of both captive and wild bonobos are extending the ladder of insight into human evolution and the cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals.

Captive bonobos demonstrate cooperation, sharing fruit treats and helping other bonobos access treats for no apparent reason beyond helpfulness. Such findings teach us about ourselves, since we share an evolutionary ancestor with the apes.

Bonobos are fun to observe because they love to play. Their games include tickle, chase, solitary play in which they explore their environments, and many others. “When you watch bonobos play,” primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo said during a 2015 TED talk, “you are seeing the very evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual.”

The famous primatologist Frans de Waal suggests bonobos may have the most considerable empathy of all great apes. And their intelligence ranks them high with other species such as chimpanzees.

Can you tell the difference?

Bonobos weren’t acknowledged as separate from chimps until the 1920s. To an untrained eye, it can be hard to distinguish between them. But there are recognisable differences.

Bonobos are slender, with longer legs. Their faces are usually black and their lips are bright pink as opposed to dark. Their hair is relatively long and often frames their faces from a natural middle part. Bonobos’ vocalisations are unique, too — high-pitched ‘peeps’ and ‘peep yelps’.

The most significant differences are easy to remember: chimps are larger, heavier and more aggressive than bonobos.


Even as scientists are learning more about bonobos, these intelligent apes are in trouble.

People who live in the Congo Basin, struggling to provide for their families, slash and burn the forest to convert it to farmland. The resulting habitat fragmentation heightens bonobos’ vulnerability to hunters and also isolates bonobo groups that must interbreed to remain viable.

Conservation organisations are implementing creative solutions. In the DRC’s Lomako–Yokokala Faunal Reserve, a bonobo stronghold, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is helping to habituate bonobos to the presence of people as groundwork for possible eco-tourism.

AWF also established two reserves where bonobos live and supports the work of park authorities to protect the animals. To further strategic conservation, AWF uses satellite imagery and GIS software to map and predict trends in habitat loss and fragmentation as well as human encroachment.

Integrating ground-survey data with satellite imagery helps identify forest areas likely to support other bonobo populations and to define potential linkages between major bonobo habitat blocks.

This information can inform collaborative land-use planning with communities and the park service. The result should be new or improved protected areas for the great apes along with zones for livelihood uses such as smallholder farming.

Measures such as these are critical and help ensure that the world can continue to learn about our lesser-known ancestral cousins.

Jacqueline Conciatore is AWF’s writer and editorial manager. For more about AWF visit www.awf.org

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Why we should care more about bonobos