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world bonobo day

Bonobos are found in forests south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sometimes known as the pygmy chimpanzee, bonobos were not officially recognised as a separate species until 1929.

Bonobos and chimpanzees share 98.7% of their DNA with humans, making the two species our closest living relatives.

They live in close family groups, led by the females, with individuals within the family developing strong bonds and friendships, grooming and helping others within their group to find food to ensure that all members of the family are well fed and healthy.

Bonobos are empathic and peaceful.They live in a tolerant society virtually without violence, and deal with conflict and tension by hugging one another and having sex. The bonobos' generous nature likely evolved because they live in an area of the Congo where food is plentiful, never having to compete with gorillas or kill for a meal like chimpanzees do.

They console each other when an individual shows signs of stress, with stressed individuals producing 'baby-like' signals to express their emotional distress and seek consolation from others. They also produce more signals if more bonobos in the social audience are nearby, suggesting they adapt their signals depending on who is nearby.

Due to their social nature, bonobos are highly cooperative, helping each other to access and subsequently share resources such as food. They will also cooperate with strangers to perform tasks such as locating food even when there is no immediate payback, and without having to be asked first. The impulse to be nice to strangers is likely to have evolved as the benefits of bonding with outsiders outweigh the costs.

They share food with individuals within and outside their own family groups, and individuals from different social groups take part in grooming and sexual activities, helping to strengthen bonds and mitigate aggression.

Bonobos build night-time nests made of leaves and twigs, in the forks of trees each evening. They build these close together to help each other look out for predators such as leopards and snakes, and adults sometimes even share a nest, a unique behaviour among the great apes.

Whilst bonobo societies are built on friendship and cooperation, it still pays for individuals to develop allies with those that have a higher social ranking to ensure they have access to resources and protection within their family group. This may mean choosing to associate with individuals that may be more selfish than others to gain such protection.

Bonobos also show commitment to social interactions, resuming them soon after they have been interrupted, showing a sense of mutual obligation towards each other, they even have specific communication signals to both suspend and resume such interactions.

When it comes to parenting, bonobos are perfect mums, their infants are born virtually helpless and must be carried everywhere for the first two years. At birth, the male bonobo inherits the social status of his mother and relies on her for protection. He shares a close, permanent bond with mum, learning how to be part of bonobo society.

Females within the social family support mums by babysitting their infants and in the process acquiring maternal skills and forging alliances that are likely to help them in later life.

Females have even been observed to support a mother as she is giving birth, guarding the female and preventing males from coming close, swatting flies and even catching and handling the baby as it is delivered. This behaviour is more evident in females that have already given birth themselves and thus have some idea of how to help.

Females have also been known to adopt and raise infants from outside of their immediate social group, carrying, grooming, nursing and sharing food with their adopted youngsters. These adoptions appear to be carried out for pure selfless concern for others and an emotional desire to offer care to individuals that they have no previous connection with.

Females within a social group are also known to stick together. With older females supporting younger females when males behave aggressively towards them, helping them to maintain a superior status in the society. This support is provided despite younger females being unrelated as the females generally leave their birth group during adolescence. The protection helps young females to join the group without fear of being attacked. The older females also benefit as the younger females spend more time with them and this provides their sons with more opportunities to mate.

Bonobo mums also support their sons during conflicts with other males, protect them from other males when they are making mating attempts and may even intervene in other male's mating attempts to reduce their chances of success, helping to increase the chances of their own sons mating successfully.

The bonobo mums also use their rank in the matriarchal society to give their sons access to popular spots within social groups and help them achieve higher male status.

To be able to live so effectively within a family group, bonobos have developed excellent communication systems that others within their family group understand.

Families often separate into smaller groups during foraging, communicating their whereabouts with regular calls.

They produce a short high-pitched peep when feeding, travelling and resting. Because they are used in so many circumstances, it is necessary for individuals to understand the context and emotional states of individuals to understand the exact meaning.

When in direct visual sight, bonobo’s use physical gestures to communicate and these also change meaning according to the specific context in which they are used, with some gestures having multiple meanings. For example, if an individual raises her arm and another comes to clean bits out of her hair, then the meaning is something like 'please groom me.'

But an arm raise gesture sometimes means 'please carry me' or 'let's mate' depending on the context.

To solve social conflicts female bonobos invite other females to engage in a socio-sexual behaviour by using referential pointing gestures and mimicking hip swings to communicate specific information about desired goals to others.

Communicative exchanges between individuals have also been shown to be similar to cooperative turn-taking sequences, with gaze signals playing an important role and individuals seeming to anticipate signals from others before they have been fully articulated.

Bonobos also use gestures to politely greet with ‘hello’ and "goodbye" signals to one another when entering and exiting social encounters.

As well as being socially and emotionally complex, bonobos are also cognitively complex nimals. They have great memories, remembering the voices of old friends for several years.

They are good problem-solvers, planning before carrying out tasks, and efficient tool-users using many different tools to reach a food reward including stones to crack nuts, and modified branches, antlers or rocks as shovels to dig. They also learn how to make tools and subsequently develop their own tools for more complex tasks.

Bonobos also have theory of mind understanding that others may have different information in their heads than they hold themselves and thus adapting their behaviour accordingly.

And finally they have a sense of disgust with regards to food that is presented to them that smells bad or is presented to them close to faeces, demonstrating a sensitivity to the signs of pathogens in food that they are at risk of ingesting.

Bonobos really are amazing animals

Bonobo conservation

Bonobos are classified as ‘endangered’ due to their low population numbers in the wild, and these populations are threatened by both habitat loss and poaching.

Humans hunt bonobos to eat them, trade them as bushmeat, keep them as pets and for use in traditional medicine. Specific bonobo body parts are believed to enhance sexual vigour or strength. The number of bonobos lost to poaching each year is not known, but the number of bonobo charms available in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests that poaching may be common.

Only part of the bonobo’s range lies in protected areas. A growing and moving human population, combined with slash-and-burn agriculture and commercial logging, leaves bonobos outside protected parks at risk of losing their homes.

Civil unrest in the region around the bonobo’s home territory has led to many bonobo deaths, as gangs of poachers have been free to invade Salonga National Park, one of few protected areas for bonobos. In addition, unrest has made modern weaponry and ammunition more available, enabling hunting, and the military has at times sanctioned the hunting and killing of bonobos.

For more information about bonobo conservation and sanctuary:

Photo by Gudkov Andrey

Written by Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia Foundation

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