by Bren Stam
Bonobos are very complex great apes that are even closer cousins to humans than chimpanzees. In fact, they are so like humans that traditional African people often refer to them as brothers from long ago and tell stories of times when humans and bonobos lived in harmony.
Bonobos look and behave more like human beings than chimpanzees and share more than 98% of our DNA composition. They are seldom studied or featured in zoos for the simple reason that they are so very human-like. They’re capable of complex thought and expression and exhibit sexual behavior very similar to that of human beings. Because of these traits, zoo officials often do not consider bonobos to be suitable for exhibit, and researchers find them more difficult to deal with than chimpanzees.
Bonobos anatomy is far more like human anatomy than that of any other great ape. In fact, bonobo anatomy is very similar to that of Australopithecus, the earliest ancestor of humans. Bonobos walk upright a great deal of time, and they display a gracile (tall, slender) physique. Their heads are smaller and rounder than those of chimpanzees, and their faces are flatter with a smaller brow ridge than that seen in other great apes.
Bonobos live in Central Africa in the equatorial forests. Listed as endangered since 2000 by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. Their population is between 29,000 – 50,000 and is in decline due to human encroachment from environmental degradation and poaching. Poachers seek out bonobos to supply meat to the black market bushmeat trade, to supply body parts and organs for medicinal purposes, and to be sold into the pet trade.
Bushmeat poachers hunt all kinds of animals as commercial logging and slash and burn agriculture deforest the land. In the past, there were some cultural taboos against hunting bonobos because they are so much like humans; however, as development forces human populations to relocate, taboos and cultural preferences are often undermined. Bonobo meat fetches a high price on the black market, and bonobo populations are devastated by this predation which takes place even in protected areas such as national parks.
Repopulation of bonobos in the wild will be difficult if not impossible because they are slow to breed. They reach sexual maturity at the age of thirteen and live only to age fifty or so. Females reproductive years are between the ages of thirteen and forty, and they produce thirteen to fifteen offspring within a lifetime with a gestation period of approximately seven-and-a-half months.
Of course not all bonobo babies survive to maturity. Some die of natural causes during infancy, many are killed or stolen by poachers and some die of infectious diseases. As the human population increases and environmental degradation compromises bonobos habitat, the chance of dying of infection becomes greater due to overcrowding of wild animals and greater chance of contact with humans and human diseases.
As mentioned, Bonobos have not been studied as intensively as chimpanzees, in great part because they are almost embarrassingly like humans. Yet due to the fact that bonobos are so much like humans, studying them can give us tremendous insight into our own behavior.
Bonobos are very intelligent, and their egalitarian, matriarchal society exhibits an enviable structure that we would do well to study. Their social groups often consist of as many as a hundred individuals in close proximity, yet they seem to live peacefully with little conflict. It has become apparent that within their own society, they have an effective communication system and the ability to resolve difficulties. Scientists speculate that they may have their own language, and in fact, bonobos in captivity have shown the ability to learn human language and express themselves effectively.
Because of the peaceful social model bonobos present, it stands to reason that war torn human society could learn a great deal from them. Bonobos are physiologically, psychologically and biochemically structured to live without violence. Because their DNA and ours are so closely matched, it would seem entirely possible that we might be able to learn how to shift our societal patterns to follow the bonobo model if we would only try.
This is one reason why it’s extremely important that we work to save bonobos in their natural habitat. Not only is it simply the right thing to do, it may very well be our own path to a future of peace and cooperation.
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