The Smart and Swinging Bonobo

Civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has threatened the existence of wild bonobos, while new research on the hypersexual primates challenges their peace-loving reputation

Bonobos have a playful, gentle manner that is often reminiscent of human beings at their best. Our common primate ancestor lived six million years ago. (Frans Lanting)
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On day six, 660 miles from Mbandaka, the riverbank throngs with villagers who have come to carry our supplies on a two-hour walk through the jungle to our destination, Kokolopori, a group of villages. Bofenge Bombanga, a powerful-looking shaman from the Mongandu tribe clad in a loincloth and headdress made from dried hornbill beaks, leads a welcoming dance. Afterward, in one of many tribal fables I will hear about the bonobos, he tells me that a village elder was once trapped high in a tree after his climbing vine came loose—and a passing bonobo helped him down. "Since then it has been taboo for villagers to kill a bonobo," he says through an interpreter.

But others say the taboo on bonobo meat is not observed in some areas. As a Congolese bonobo conservationist named Lingomo Bongoli told me, "Since the war, outsiders have come here, and they tell our young people that bonobo meat gives you strength. Too many believe them." In an informal survey of his village, more than one in four people admitted to having eaten bonobo meat. Soldiers—rebel and government—were the worst offenders.

In the village we are greeted by Albert Lokasola, once secretary general of the DRC's Red Cross and now head of Vie Sauvage, a Congolese conservation group. His group is working to establish a bonobo reserve on the 1,100 square miles of Kokolopori that are home to an estimated 1,500 bonobos. Vie Sauvage employs 36 trackers from local villages (at a wage of $20 per man per month) to follow five bonobo groups and protect them from poachers. It also funds cash crops such as cassava and rice and small businesses such as soap-making and tailoring to deter villagers from poaching. Funding for the project, about $250,000 per year, comes from BCI and other conservation groups.

On day seven, after a tough trek scrambling over fallen trees and across slippery logs, we finally see what I have come all this way to see—bonobos, nine of them, part of the 40-member group known to local researchers as Hali-Hali. The first thing I notice is the animals' athletic build. At the Frankfurt Zoo, even males had the slim, elegant stature of ballet dancers, but jungle males are broad shouldered and well muscled, and the females too are bulky.

As he sits high on a limb munching fistfuls of leaves, the alpha male exudes dignity (even though he's the one who threw feces at me). Above us in the canopy, young and old bonobos are feasting. A male juvenile lies in the crook of a tree with one leg dangling down into space and the other resting at a right angle on the trunk, like a teenager on a sofa. Two females stop eating for a few moments to rub their swollen genitals together.

My heart stops as a youngster casually steps off a branch maybe 30 yards up and plunges toward the forest floor through branches and leaves. About ten yards before crashing into the ground, he grabs a branch and swings onto it. I'm told by the trackers that this death-defying game is a favorite among young bonobos, and invariably concludes with a wide grin on the acrobat's face.

Suddenly, the alpha male puckers his pink lips and lets loose a scream, a signal for the troop to move. He leads the way, hurtling from tree to tree just below the canopy. I stumble beneath them, trying to keep up, banging my head into low branches and tripping on vines spread like veins across the forest floor. After about 300 yards, the bonobos settle into another clump of trees and begin stripping branches and shoving leaves by the fistful into their mouths. About noon, they go to sleep.

When they wake after a couple of hours, the bonobos come down onto the ground, in search of plants and worms, moving so swiftly through the forest that we see them only as blurs of dark fur. I spy a female walking upright across a moss-covered log, her long arms held high in the air for balance like a tightrope walker.

As the setting sun paints the rain forest gold, the alpha male sits on a branch high above me and swings his human-like legs, for all the world appearing to be deep in thought as the sun slips below the canopy rim.

Later in the week, I follow the Hali-Hali group for 24 hours. I see that they spend much of the day feeding or dozing. At night, they settle in a clump of trees high in the canopy and build their springy nests, yanking leafy branches and weaving them into resting places. Chimps build night nests too, but theirs are not as elaborate as bonobo cradles, which resemble giant bird nests. Their chatter drifts away, and by 6 p.m., as the light leaches from the sky, each bonobo has settled out of sight in a leafy bed.


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