Bonobo: Messenger of Peace, Victim of War
May 22, 2014
Sally Jewell Coxe / Bonobo Conservation Initiative
Is physical affection the answer to world conflict? The bonobos, a matriarchal tribe of apes in the Congo are the antithesis of loud, aggressive chimpanzees. These peaceable primates would rather make love than fight. When two bonobo trines confront each other in the jungle, they wind up exchanging food instead of exchanging blows. Humans have traits traceable to both chimps and bonobos. Modern consumer societies promote aggression. Maybe it's time to channel our "inner bonobo."
(May 21, 2014) -- Deep in the heart of the Congo, legends linger about an elusive, "almost human" shadow, an ape so much like us that some indigenous people believe it is trying to become human. This mysterious ape has been shrouded from the allure accorded its cousins, the chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. In fact, most people do not even know it exists.
Witness the bonobo. Bonobos (Pan paniscus) were the last great ape to be studied by modern scientists and unless protections are enforced immediately, they could be the first to go extinct. These rare apes inhabit the central Congo Basin, the second largest rain forest on Earth and the area of greatest biodiversity in Africa.
Found only in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a resource-rich region now ravaged by civil war and foreign occupation, bonobos face an ironic fate. Distinguished by their peaceful, matriarchal society and loving nature, bonobos have become victims of human violence.
Bonobos are being hunted in greater numbers throughout their habitat, and little is being done to protect them. The population, small to begin with, is fragmented and decreasing. No one knows how many bonobos survive. Estimates range between 5,000 and 20,000, but there is insufficient evidence to support any claims. We do know that bonobos have disappeared from several areas where they formerly lived unthreatened.
Traditional taboos, which once protected bonobos, are breaking down in the face of economic desperation and human population pressure. More and more bonobos are being killed, both for sustenance and for profit in the commercial bushmeat trade, which is ravaging wildlife across central Africa.
Unlike their close relatives, the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) who have a male-dominated, competitive society and actually wage territorial wars against each other, bonobos have a matriarchal culture, bound by cooperation, sharing, and the creative use of sex. Bonobos live in large groups where peaceful coexistence is the norm. Females carry the highest rank and the sons of ranking females are the leaders among males. Alliances among females are the central unifying force.
Bonobos show how a complex society can be ordered successfully by cooperation, rather than competition. They demonstrate many qualities we humans need to emulate to ensure our own survival, and that of our planet.
Dubbed "the sexy apes," bonobos truly exemplify the 1960s credo, "make love, not war." They make a lot of love and do so in every conceivable fashion. Sex transcends reproduction in bonobos, as it does in humans. Bonobos are bisexual, or as psychologist Frans de Waal contends, "pansexual."
Sex permeates almost all aspects of daily life. Encounters, both with the same and the opposite sex, serve as a way of bonding, sharing, and keeping the peace. When neighboring groups of bonobos meet in the forest, they greet one another sexually and share food instead of fighting. Unlike other apes, bonobos frequently copulate face to face, looking into each other's eyes.
Bonobo anatomy is strikingly similar to that of our early human ancestor, Australopithecus. Bonobos walk bipedally more easily and more often than other apes. The Mongandu people of the Congo forest tell a story that goes like this: One day, all the animals went to God to ask him to give them tails. God said that the animals to receive tails are those who don't stand upright.
The bonobo, along with the other animals, respected this law. When they were coming in line to take their tails, the bonobo felt the need to scratch his back. He forgot God's law and walked as he was scratching himself, standing up on two feet. Seeing this, God chased him and said, "Go away, because you are not an animal that can have a tail. Indeed, you are a man."
The uncommon social structure, sexual behavior, and intellectual capacity of bonobos reveal compelling clues about the roots of human nature. Highly compassionate and conscious beings, bonobos blur the line between animal and human. Much of what we know about the bonobo mind and emotion is thanks to two very special individuals, Kanzi and his sister Panbanisha, who currently live at the Georgia State University Language Research Center near Atlanta.
Under the tutelage of Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, these bonobos have learned to understand spoken English and they can communicate using a sign language. The bonobos speak by pointing to lexigrams or symbols on a keyboard that correspond to words.
Kanzi and Panbanisha have certainly been my best teachers, and they have inspired my work for bonobo conservation more than anything else. Getting to know them has been one of the most exhilarating and humbling experiences of my life, and I will always be grateful to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh for opening her door to me. The first day I had direct contact with Panbanisha several years ago, we went for a walk in the forest surrounding the lab. Panbanisha loves to play hide-and-seek, and she wanted to hide with me.
We found a secluded spot on the riverbank and huddled together under a bush. Panbanisha kept very quiet and still. When the researcher on the prowl yelled, "Panbanisha, where are you?" she turned to me, her eyes alert and cautious, as if to say "shhh, don't move!" I experienced the same kind of intimate camaraderie I did as a child, hiding out in the woods with my best friend avoiding imaginary foes.
When we stopped to rest and have a snack, Panbanisha began to groom me, combing my hair with her fingers, inspecting the contours of my face. When she discovered a cut on my wrist, she pointed to it, furrowed her brow and made soft "whu" sounds with a doctorly air of concern. Then she said "hurt" on her keyboard. Once she was convinced that this "hurt" was not "bad," she proceeded to bite off all my fingernails!
Quite the manicurist, Panbanisha peeled a twig making a sharp point, then used it to clean under what remained of my nails, carefully attending to each finger, one by one. This is bonding bonobo-style. I was awed and honored to be accepted by Panbanisha and as happy as she was to have made a new friend.
Now, Panbanisha has reached maturity and has two babies of her own. The depth of her consciousness and intelligence is palpable; you can sense it merely by looking into her eyes. It is clear to all who know her and Kanzi well that they are capable of much more than they have demonstrated so far, even in ground-breaking scientific tests.
Likewise, in the wild, it is clear that bonobos have a complex communication system, which they use to coordinate their movements through the forest, breaking into small groups for foraging during the day and then regrouping at night. When bonobos gather in the trees to make their night nests, they fill the twilight with a symphony of soprano squeals.
Their high-pitched vocalizations sound like the voices of exotic birds, compared to the more guttural hoots of chimpanzees. Indigenous Mongandu people who live among bonobos at the Wamba research site still use a whistle language in the forest that is eerily reminiscent of the bonobo calls.
We can learn much from bonobos, and we stand to lose enormously if these loving, intelligent apes are allowed to disappear.
Thankfully, there is hope. After six years of civil war, the peace process is finally moving forward in the DRC, and it is now possible to resume conservation work in the bonobo habitat. There is an urgent need to raise awareness globally and mobilize conservation in the DRC. As the Congo War abates, concerted efforts can begin to protect bonobos and their habitat and to position the apes as a national treasure and icon of peace.
You can help:
The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) is a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. In partnership with other groups, the BCI is launching a major international campaign to save bonobos before it's too late. BCI works on in-situ conservation efforts such as a coordinated bonobo survey, establishment of new protected areas, community conservation and female empowerment, and an "Adopt-a-Bonobo" Campaign to support orphan bonobos.
BCI promotes education and awareness through our website, www.bonobo.org, a multimedia awareness campaign, digital radio in DRC, and the hosting of an International Bonobo Summit and Bonobo Peace Concert. We continue to work with the DRC government and UN agencies to enforce laws against hunting and to position bonobos as a flagship for the Congo and icon of peace.
Your contribution will help to protect bonobos in their natural environment and raise awareness about these amazing apes worldwide. Every project that the BCI undertakes benefits not only bonobos and the biodiversity of the Congo Forest, but also the local people and prospects for peace.
Every donation makes a difference. Please contact the Bonobo Conservation Initiative: 2701 Connecticut Ave., NW #702, Washington, DC 20008, (202) 332-1014.