I once told a friend about bonobos—"they're like chimpanzees," I said, "but they're peaceful and have sex all the time"—and he thought I was making them up. My computer doesn't think they exist either; it suggests alternative spellings including "bonbons" and "bongos." Bonobos are our closest living primate cousins (along with chimpanzees), sharing 98.7 percent of their DNA with us, but most people don't know anything about them.
Chimpanzees have been studied longer and there are more of them: Bonobos weren't discovered until 1933, 150 years after their better-known cousins. And there are only some 10,ooo to 40,000 bonobos in the wild (about one-tenth the chimpanzee population), all in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which makes them more endangered than chimps. Bonobos have also lacked a Jane Goodall or a Dian Fossey to champion their cause, and there are few books about them.
Now there is a new book, Bonobo Handshake, by Vanessa Woods. Woods mixes bonobo science with her own personal tale. She meets, falls in love with (and later marries) a young primatologist, Brian Hare, and follows him to Congo, one of the most dangerous places on the planet (the U.S. State Department warns of armed rebels, kidnappings and deadly diseases). They go to Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for young bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade or rescued from being pets. Hare was there to learn more about the bonobos and discover how they differed from their chimpanzee cousins. Woods, a journalist, was just along for the ride at first but she was quickly drafted as research assistant to Hare when it turned out that the bonobos trusted only women.
The story follows Woods and Hare through research experiments, moves from country to country and even during marital spats. Woods eventually finds her purpose: saving the bonobos. She helps to care for the sanctuary's orphans. She works with the organization, Friends of the Bonobos, that runs Lola. And she eventually becomes a research scientist in her own right.
Woods' tale is interspersed with plenty of information about bonobos and how they interact with each other. Bonobos easily share and cooperate, unlike chimpanzees. They like to eat slowly and love sugarcane. They are afraid of doors. Despite their peaceful nature, they can still be mean or jealous or violent. Young bonobos can be very fragile. And yes, they really do have sex all the time, though not as often in the wild as in a zoo.
The book also details the (so far mostly successful) attempt to reintroduce the rescued bonobos back into the wild, an incredible feat in a country torn by violence. (Woods gives one of the best accounts I've read of Congo's history and the effect of that violence on the people who live there.) Last June, nine bonobos were transferred to a site near the village of Basankusu. The local people work as trackers and administrative staff. The bonobos have brought jobs, schools and a clinic to the villagers.
It's easy to look at a country like Congo and wonder whether the money spent on cute furry primates would be better put to use on food or medicine for an impoverished population. But saving wildlife can have benefits for the local people, too, as evidenced by the bonobo reintroduction. And the bonobos may have even more important lessons for us. Scientists keep trying to answer the question of what makes us human. They look to our own species, of course, and to our ancestors and our primate relatives. "Most of the time, bonobos have no hunger, no violence, no poverty. And for all of our intelligence, all of our things, bonobos have the most important of all possessions—peace," Woods writes. "If we lose bonobos, we will never learn their secret. And even more tragically, because they share so much of what makes us human, we will never understand ourselves."