Monday, November 27, 2017

The Bonobos: Your Cousins You've Never Met

Annamaria on Monday

Most likely, you have never heard of them.  But it’s important that we learn of their plight.  Hopefully, we will understand enough to inspire us to try to save them, for they are close to disappearing completely.

Allow me to introduce you to this fascinating species:  Relatives of the common chimpanzee (and therefore closely related to us), their official designation is Pan paniscus.  They used to be called pygmy chimpanzees, but now usually bonobos—to make an important distinction between this threatened group and our other, more common great ape cousins.

Bonobos are found only in Central Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They live in forests south of the Congo River.  Biologists believe that they may have become a distinct species once the river formed about two million years ago and isolated them from their more common relatives up north.

Adult males grow to around four feet, females around three and half.  Gestation is about seven and half months.  They feed on fruit.  They live forty to sixty years in captivity.  No one knows how long in wild.

In the wild they are threatened.  For a bunch of reasons.

One is that, like most threatened species, such as pandas (and totally unlike us humans), they are not fecund reproducers.  Females begin to reproduce at 12 years but they give birth only once every five or six years.  This is not fast enough to grow their current population of fewer than 100,000, especially considering what else is happening to their habitat, only a small portion of which is protected.

The Congo has been unstable politically for more than a decade.   With factional war frequently breaking out, the local population has no motivation to worry about a threatened species.  Deforestation is one killer.  But there are many others: The local populations and the logging company employees depend on bushmeat for their protein.  So bonobos are hunted for food, and also for body parts thought to have magical powers.  That perennial favorite of poachers, sexual drive, for instance.  All I can say about that is, UGH!

Bonobos are worth our concern.

Their plight was brought to my attention by a friend—Sibylle  Westbrook, whom I met at Icelandic Noir a few years ago.   She recounted to me the following experiment into the behaviors of bonobos:

The laboratory contains a group three rooms with locked glass doors.  In one is a bonobo named Semendwa.  In a second Kikwit, Semendwa’s bonobo friend.  They can both see, in the third room, a mound of a favorite food—green apples.  The investigator opens the door so that Semendwa can get at the apples.  But before she touches them, she opens the other door so Kikwit can also eat.   This tells us something about bonobos' attitudes.

But then the experiment is repeated with Semendwa and, not a friend this time, but a bonobo who is a complete stranger to her.  Still, when she gets access to the food, before eating, she opens the door for a hungry stranger so they can both eat.

So you see, bonobos (though they share 98.7% of our DNA) know something that many human beings do not know about altruism.  (Cf. Jeff’s post this past Saturday about the rich EU countries and the poor refugees flooding into Italy, Greece, and Spain.)

In Sibylle’s words, “We cannot afford to let our lesser-known cousins go extinct.  We are too similar and need them to recover what is buried in us.   We might consider ourselves superior in knowledge.  But they know one thing we don’t.  They know how to live in peace."

The African Wildlife Foundation is trying to help.  You can find out more about how you can pitch in here:

Addendum:  Sibylle asked me to further explain:

The experiment described above took place at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary.  You can find out more about them and how to help here:


  1. Very interesting piece. Is that behavior different from 'ordinary' chimpanzees?

    1. Michael, Everything I've read says it is. But I have not seen a species to species study of the same behaviors. And it is certainly different from a goodly percentage of humans! Perhaps I should have said a "badly percentage."

  2. And bonobos are matriarchal and the females do the problem-solving and conflict resolution. Not by violence.

    Yes, they differ from other chimps.

    1. Kathy, Sibylle wrote me to say that Semendwa is a female, so I had to change the post bit. Sexist as it is to say so, I find the result less surprising now that I know it was a female. That we female primates are better at sharing has been obvious to me my whole life.

  3. I've loved bonobos ever since I heard about them for the first time, many years ago. It makes me so sad to see any creature go extinct - we truly need to start loving our planet at least as much (and probably MORE) as/ than we love ourselves.

    1. Susan, they are relatively new to me. I learned about them thanks to Sibylle, a fellow Californian of yours! It is incomprehensible to me that so many powerful people in our country can't seem to absorb the fact that this sacred planet is the only place we have to live. How can that be such a difficult concept?? Beats me!

  4. Some women friends used to have articles about and photos of bonobos posted on their bulletin boards at work as they were so fond of them.
    I like it that the females deal with conflict resolution without violence.

    The idea of them becoming extinct is horrible. What is happening with this planet and its creatures and ecology?

  5. The plight of the bonobos puts them right up there with that of a lot of their neighboring Africans. Take a look at this report from International Organization for Migration if you want to be truly depressed at just how thin is our veneer of human compassion.

  6. Yes, I notice. I had put another message up under your post about this after I saw a photo on facebook of three African men upside down tied by their feet to a pole and just holding themselves up by their elbows or hands.

    That's when I went off ranging about where is the humanity? Where is the U.N. The Hague? The U.N. Human Rights Commission? Anyone out there paying attention to this horror?

  7. And today #45 sends out fake tweets that are anti-Muslim and untrue, even angering 10 Downing Street. Sure doesn't help the U.S. reputation in the world and doesn't help anyone except #45's base.

  8. Kathy, our troubled world at this moment feels the same way to me. But with all the chaos and confusion, violence and madness, it also feels as if humanity is going through something transformative. As if we are experiencing the death throes of the status quo. I have no idea how long our tribulations will go on or what is next. My faith and hope are in the young. All that I know personally are splendid, with souls and hearts that glow, with heads that are screwed on right. I long for their survival. For their triumph.

  9. Yes, I think the young people out there organizing and speaking out for social justice are the future. I know some fine younger folks out there in different cities. And many more want to make change.
    But here with are with this danged tax gift to the 1%, which will hurt health coverage, and so many other social programs and will end up taxing the people who need all the income they can get.
    There have been protests. There must be much more.

    1. Kathy, YES! we need to speak up and fight back. First of all because the power of the people can make a difference. We the people brought about the Civil rights legislation. We stopped the war in Vietnam.

      And we also need to do it as an example and inspiration to keep that next generation engaged. To make them want to make a difference. Because they are critical right now. Without them, I would be among the desperate.

      We have to show them what faith, hope, and charity look like.

  10. And big protests in the 1930s got a lot of New Deal legislation, social programs.
    And the women's movement made gains and the LGBTQ movement, too.

    Yes, right. Need enormous protests in Washington.

    The future of young people is at stake, too. Someone wrote an article that if this tax fraud goes through, millennials will be hurt worse than our generation. And so on.