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Bonobos are great apes. Of all the primates they are the most similar to us. Our DNA is 98.6% identical to theirs! Bonobos have black fur and black faces with pink lips. The long hair on their head hangs in a parting. They have narrow shoulders, long arms and legs and large, slim hands. Bonobos walk on the knuckles of their hands (and on their feet). The small bones in their hands are especially adapted to this. Bonobos can also walk upright, by the way. Just like other great apes, they have no tail. They look a lot like chimpanzees but they are slightly slimmer.
Bonobos live in the wild in the Democratic Republic of Congo (in Africa), south of the Congo river. They live partially in the trees, but most of the time on the ground.
Bonobos live in large, mixed social groups. These groups consist of 30-80 animals, but they can even total 120 animals. One or multiple females are dominant. The females form coalitions together. The females collaborate with each other, enabling them to command the physically stronger males. Males remain with their mothers in the group for their entire life. They have a strong bond and a male will often go to his mother for support. In fact, a male’s position in the hierarchy is determined by his mother’s status. Females reach adulthood around the age of nine and they can then have young of their own. They leave the group they were born into and join a different group to reproduce there.
Bonobos use all sorts of sounds and facial expressions to communicate with each other. Moreover, they often have sex with each other; this is a major, daily activity. They use sex to relax but also to resolve conflicts, reduce tension and to make friendships. All the animals in the group have sex with each other, except sons with mothers. In addition, bonobos often spend the mornings looking for food. They do this in small groups. Once night falls, they all gather together again. Bonobos build sleeping nests high up in the trees. They are safe from predators up there!
Female bonobos generally have their first child between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. When a female is fertile, she has a red swelling around her genitals for about ten days. The males are strongly attracted to the big swelling. But ultimately, the females decide whether and when to mate. After a pregnancy of about eight months, the baby is born. From the start, the young bonobo has black fur and a black face. The mother takes care of her offspring for the first four to five years of its life. The baby suckles from the mother during that time. Moreover, young bonobos have to learn a great deal from their mothers and from the other juveniles in the group. For instance, how to climb and clamber or how to take care of young animals. The males do not really participate in raising the young, but they are friendly to them. From the time they are born, juveniles have a crop of white hair on their behind. This is a sign indicating: ‘I am young so I am allowed to do whatever I want.’
Situation in the wild
Bonobos only live in the rainforest to the south of the Congo river (in the African state of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Their existence is threatened there by deforestation. People also actively hunt bonobos for their meat. One of the reasons for this is the extreme poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Moreover, the country is politically and economically unstable. Unfortunately, that means nature conservation is not high on the agenda there.
Apenheul Primate Conservation Trust
The Apenheul Primate Conservation Trust (APCT) supports a major project for bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, called the Lola Ya Bonobo project. Lola Ya Bonobo is a sanctuary for bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sanctuary protects bonobos, combats poaching, takes in bonobos and returns them to the wild.
Apenheul is the only zoo in the Netherlands where you can see bonobos. That’s special!
Apenheul is part of the EEP European breeding programme for bonobos. Together with other international zoos, we maintain a healthy population of this primate species in captivity.
- Of all the primates, bonobos are the most similar to us. Our DNA is 98.6% identical to theirs!
- People used to think that bonobos were a small type of chimpanzees. It was only relatively recently (in 1929!) that it became clear they are really two separate species of great apes.