I can’t say I’d ever heard of bonobos before arriving in the Congo. Which is a little surprising since they share 98.7% of our DNA. Perhaps I’ve seen photos of them before and in my ignorance gone, ‘cool chimpanzee!’
But look a little closer and you’ll realise that, in looks, bonobos are chimpanzees keeping up appearances… they have black faces but their thin lips look as though they regularly apply a pretty pink lipstick and their hair-style of preference is a neat centre-parting.
It is their social habits however that are markedly different. With chimpanzees, the male is in charge and as such they can be very violent; known even to commit murder on occasion. In bonobo groups however, it is the female who rules. And she keeps everyone under control through sexual activity.
Bonobos will have sex as part of a greeting and as a means of resolving conflict. They don’t discriminate by age or gender. Incest too, with the exception of mother-son sex, is perfectly acceptable. Bonobos don’t form lasting sexual relationships – it’s all about free love, man.
Bonobos only live in the Equateur region of the DR Congo, situated between the Congo and Kasai rivers. Chimpanzees on the other hand habituate the region north of the Congo river. Since these primates are poor swimmers and never acquired the technology of rubber inflatables, it is possible that the formation of the Congo river, about 1.5 – 2 million years ago led to this separate species, Pan paniscus, the bonobo.
Unforunately, bonobos are endangered due to habitat loss and the bushmeat trade. Often baby bonobos are sold as pets or for use in witchcraft. Some however make it to the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa (Lola ya Bonobo means ‘Paradise for Bonobos) where they are rehabilitated and then reintroduced into the wild. I visited the sanctuary, where I took these photos. I saw the playful baby bonobos and one of the adult males. The other adults were off in the forest. Perhaps they were getting it on, out-of-sight…