20 Apr The Bonobo Crisis
The most unique and human-like yet least understood of all the great apes is the bonobo, a species both rare and endangered. Although sometimes called “The pygmy chimpanzee,” this little-known ape is not really a chimpanzee, nor is it a gorilla or an orangutan. It is a unique creature whose anatomy resembles that of “Lucy,” the most famous of the pre-human hominids. Like Lucy, bonobos walk far more upright than chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans.
Bonobos only live in a small area of what is now The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For many years, bonobos were safe from hunting because of their enormous similarity to humans; widespread taboos against eating them evolved. Things have changed, the DRC is now at war, there is no longer a domestic protein supply and all forms of farming have been disrupted. Unaware of their endangered status or the health risks of eating animals so similar to humans, many local people, refugees and troops have begun to eat bonobos. Because conservationists evacuated the area at the outset of the war, it is unclear how severely their numbers are being affected. All indications, however, are that the situation is critical. Orphaned baby bonobos, (often a good indicator of the extent of hunting) are showing up in urban areas in large and growing numbers.
Few people are aware of bonobos because, for a long time, scientists have argued about whether they are really different from chimpanzees. Most scientists now recognize that these arguments were based on lack of knowledge rather than fact. They live in large extended family groups and communities and walk single file on trails. They have a complex yet poorly understood communication system that many scientists suspect may be something closer to language than mere emotional expression.
The bonobos’ appearance clearly makes them the most human-like of all apes. The stride, the stance, the resting postures, the gestures and the facial expressions all look more like our own than those of chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans. Often, in the forest, large groups of 200 to 300 individuals come together for what appear to be ” social visits.” During such times, there is almost constant vocal exchange- the purpose of which is unknown.
Before we actually have a chance to learn about these creatures that look and act more like ourselves than any other ape, they may vanish from the wild completely. At the moment we can only guess at their social structure, at the meanings of their sounds, and at the nature and richness of their lives. Yet we know that they share about 99% of our genetic heritage, much or our anatomy and apparently most, of our emotions.