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What About Bonobos

Liz Clift

Bonobos. When you hear that word, what do you think of?

Maybe you’re like me and you listen to a lot of podcasts, and so the word conjures men’s clothing.

In honesty, that association has confused me since the first time I heard it. Why would a clothing company want to name itself after one of the great apes?

In the US, bonobos are the least well-known of the five great apes (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans) despite being tied for our closest genetic relative (98.7% similar, which is the same as chimps). This is perhaps because bonobos live only in the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or perhaps because unlike chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, who engage in activities similar to warfare and thus can be used to justify our own violent behavior, bonobos have never been known to kill each other in the wild, or perhaps because they haven’t had their Jane Goodall moment.

bonobo-pensive-expression

This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

Bonobos are also endangered. Although accounts on exact numbers remain uncertain it’s estimated that as few as 5,000 remain in the wild and their survival is threatened by increasing economic development in DRC. It is threatened, in part, because bonobos spend a relatively long time rearing their offspring, and often go four to six years between pregnancy cycles. This slow reproductive cycle, and subsequently slow increase in population, may put bonobos at additional risk as their populations are threatened by environmental and human stressors.

Unlike other great apes, bonobos live in matriarchal societies, to such an extent that male bonobos’ position in bonobo society is granted based on his relationship with the females around him, especially his mother. In the wild, male bonobos will stay with their mother’s family for their entire life, while sexually mature female bonobos will find another bonobo group—and then focus on developing relationships with the dominant females in the group. In captivity, male bonobos who are separated from their mothers do not have a high survival rate—a fact that zoos and preserves must take into account for species breeding programs. Male bonobos are, therefore, relocated for species breeding programs along with their mothers (and sometimes also young sisters).

bonobo-affection

This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

One of the remarkable things we have learned about bonobos is that, like people, they show strong tendencies toward empathy and altruism. Bonobo research on contagious yawning behavior (the thing where if you see someone yawn, you’re likely to yawn as well) shows that bonobos will yawn even if they are watching a stranger bonobo yawn. In addition, bonobos will also voluntarily help a stranger bonobo get what they want, such as food.

There is only one sanctuary in the world for bonobos, located in the Congo. It’s called Lola ya Bonobo. Here, orphaned bonobos are raised by people in a “nursery” and are then moved into “kindergarten” at five years old, where other bonobos teach these orphaned babies to be, well, bonobos. Several years ago, Lola ya Bonobo released nine adult bonobos into the wild, which so far has proved an overall success.

bonobo-mayele

This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

The bonobo presents many opportunities for conservation and preservation efforts in the DRC, and the survival of this species is critical to biodiversity in the country. The Bonobo Project, a 501(c)3 started by Ashley Stone, seeks to help people become more aware of the bonobo and coordinate activities to aid in its conservation, is a US-based organization that can help move conservation and preservation efforts in that direction.

The Bonobo Project hosts major public events designed to educate the public, network with dedicated bonobo activists, build partnerships with a network of bonobo activists and academics, and raise fund for bonobo conservation. One of their initiatives includes the Bonobo Communications Workshop, which held its first session in mid-September. Among other things, the Bonobo Communications Workshop tackled the problem of raising bonobos in America and on strategies to promote World Bonobo Day (February 14, by no coincidence, since bonobos seem to have “make love, not war” mentality).

Visit The Bonobo Project website to learn more. While you’re there, watch some adorable (and short) videos about bonobos! That’s the best use of five minutes of your work day I can think of!

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