Universally recognised as one of man’s closest relatives, these deeply intelligent, sensitive and peaceful great apes are in critical danger. Since the two major threats to bonobos are habitat destruction and hunting, it’s no coincidence that those who are destroying their habitat for profit are also paying professional hunters to kill the bonobo for their meat. The meat is used to feed the workforce who are systematically degrading and destroying the bonobo’s home at the behest of these rainforest profiteers.
Bonobos exist in a peaceful and egalitarian society, which is attributed to their highly complex social system. Their society is matriarchal, but males are far from excluded, and is fission-fusion orientated. This means they live in large groups which split into smaller groups during the day to hunt for food, and reassemble at night to sleep.
Bonobos may look a lot like common chimpanzees, but there are quite a few differences. Bonobos have hair parted down the middle, which partially covers their ears, and they have black faces and pink lips. Their brows are less prominent and their faces a little flatter. Their heads and ears are also slightly smaller than those of the common chimpanzee. Male bonobos weigh an average of eighty-five pounds and females sixty-five pounds. They can grow up to four and three and a half feet tall, respectively.
Bonobos vocalise and gesticulate frequently. Often at the same time. Their voices are melodic and high-pitched with sounds ranging from hooting and barking to grunting. Their gestures are versatile and expressive, reaching out and pointing are just two of them. They also display facial expressions including, a ‘silent pout’, a ‘duck face’, a ‘play face’ accompanied by a ‘panting laugh’, a ‘tense mouth’ and ‘silent teeth baring’.
What do bonobos sound like? Listen to a range of bonobo calls
Bonobos are, by nature, quadrupeds, but they also practise bipedal locomotion. They can either move forward by walking on their knuckles or stand upright and walk on two legs. They are far more adept at this than the common chimpanzee, and tend to do it more often.
Bonobos are highly promiscuous. It is thought males reach sexual maturity around nine years of age. Females do not become sexually mature until they are twelve or thirteen. Then, as is typical, they will mate freely with any member of the group (only relationships between a mother and her physically mature male offspring are avoided). Gestation lasts two hundred and forty days, after which females give birth to a single infant. From data collected, a peak in births seems to occur annually between March and May, the rainy season. There is an inter-birth interval of four to six years. The infants will remain partially dependent upon their mothers until they are five years old. Due to the level of promiscuity, fathers are rarely identified so the care of the infants falls to the mothers.
A survey recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that young bonobos react in the same way as children given the same background conditions. Observations of mother-reared bonobo juveniles and juveniles orphaned at a young age were carried out. Each were put in a stressful situation and observed. Their reactions and emotions were very like those of children in the same circumstances, highlighting the importance of the mother–offspring bond.
The conclusion was “human children who have a stable relationship with their parents learn to control their emotions as they develop, whereas orphans typically struggle to temper their ups and downs.”
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Primary and secondary moist tropical forests and swamp forests.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo – the Congo Basin.
What they eat
Primarily fruit; but leaves, seeds, flowers, bark, small vertebrates and invertebrates are also consumed.
Habitat loss through commercial logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and civil warfare (the past fifteen years have seen some of the deadliest violence witnessed since World War II). The bonobo is also poached for the illegal pet trade and traditional medicine. Furthermore, it is hunted for bushmeat; Military personnel are given the go ahead to hunt at will and logging companies use commercial hunters to supply their workforce with the meat.
The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered. It is also protected under CITES Appendix I. No real population numbers exist, but it is thought between twenty-nine and fifty thousand individuals are still in existence. Any observation of the species has been hampered by the ongoing war in the Congo, so data is a bit thin.
Some of the bonobo’s habitat is protected, but not enough, leaving them exposed to many threats. Added to that, they are slow to reproduce and the population is declining fast.
Their habitat may only be sustainable for another ten years, making the extinction of the bonobo a real possibility.
Regrettably, with over six million people in the Congo in need humanitarian assistance, the eyes of the world may not be on our closest cousin, the bonobo.
“The behaviour of men to the lower animals, and their behaviour to each other, bear a constant relationship”