Bonobos: The Coolest Animal You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

I was in the DRC filming a documentary about the ivory trade in late July this year. Getting to Republic of Congo was hard enough, but crossing the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo was on a whole other level (blog post coming soon…). I had no idea when or if I would ever be back in the DRC, so I decided to get away for the weekend and spend a few nights at Lola Ya Bonobo, the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos. Lola Ya Bonobo, meaning “Paradise for Bonobos” in the local language, takes in bonobos whose mothers have been killed for their meat or for the pet trade, as well as “pet” bonobos confiscated by the government.

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The bonobos are placed in large tracts of land enclosed within fences so they are able to live freely and in a natural environment. Here, they learn to live within a bonobo society as well as how to survive in a forest without human help. The ultimate goal is to reintroduce these bonobos in to the wild, although it is not possible for all of the animals.

LLC_1649 - Version 2Bonobos can sometimes come off as a little silly. 

Bonobos are a great ape, along with chimpanzees and gorillas, and are found only in the DRC. When they were first discovered, they were thought to be “pygmy” chimpanzees but they were soon designated to being their own species . Unlike their close cousin the chimpanzee, which have pink faces, bonobos have black faces. They are also slightly smaller. Perhaps the biggest differences however is that unlike the war-mongering chimps, bonobos are known as the hippies of the ape world. Chimps are known to kill, cannibalize and engage in warfare to gain access to territories. Bonobos on the other hand, have a matriarchal society in which sex is extremely important. Sex–including acts between members of the same sex, and between the old and the young–is used to reinforce social bonds, to resolve conflict or simply to say “hi”.

Female-female sexFemale-male genital rubbing LLC_1111 - Version 2Young bonobo simulating sexual behavior with an adult 

Even after having spent several months following western lowland gorillas around (read more about my time with gorillas here), I was still struck by how incredibly human-like the bonobos were; they were playful, lazy and social and had real relationships with one another. Us humans share about 98.7% of our DNA with both bonobos and chimpanzees.

LLC_1126 - Version 2An infant bonobo playing with an adult. LLC_1119 - Version 2

Also staying at the Lola Ya Bonobo guesthouse was a film crew working on Bounce, a documentary about the origin of ball sports. Bonobos’ playful nature made them the perfect candidates to test the idea whether playing with balls was an instinctive behavior coded in our DNA.

LLC_1639 - Version 2The Bounce film crew threw a ball over the fence to see how the bonobos would react to it.

The other bonobos watched as a more intrepid member of their group ventured into the water to retrieve the ball. 

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, bonobos are an endangered species. No one knows exactly how many there are out there, but it is certain that their numbers have been declining over the last 30 years and will continue to do so for at least the next 45 years (WWF). They are threatened by the bushmeat trade (as hard as it is to believe that people want to eat these beautiful creatures) and deforestation, both of which are in turn spurred by poverty and political instability.

More blog posts coming soon about Lola Ya Bonobo! There will be close-ups of bonobo babies…

Visit Lola Ya Bonobo’s website here. Raising bonobos ain’t cheap–they would gladly welcome your donation!