Bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans collectively make up the group of primates known as great apes. Bonobos were the last of the great ape species to be discovered, which occurred around 1929. Although they are frequently called “pygmy chimpanzees,” this name is not appropriate as they average 80% of the weight of chimpanzees with a more slender body and longer limbs. Their hairdo parts down the center of the head and they have reddish lips in a dark face.
Behaviorally, bonobos differ greatly from chimpanzees. Although they will kill and eat small animals, they do not wage war on neighboring groups or engage in infanticide like chimpanzees. Sexual behavior serves a much more significant role in social relations among bonobos than in any of the other great ape species. They solve conflict, ease social tension, and maintain social bonds through sexual behavior. Also different, adolescent females (around the age of ten years) leave their maternal group to find a new group, while males stay with their mothers. Male social status is tied to their mother’s rank in this female dominated society.
Wild bonobo populations are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the bushmeat trade, and the pet trade. Decades of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the only country that bonobos are native to, have made it impossible to study wild bonobos and find out exactly how many are left. The best estimates place the wild population somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000.
Bonobos are among the rarest and most critically endangered species housed at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. As of January 2007, there were 220 bonobos living in captivity, including 83 managed by the Bonobo Species Survival Plan (SSP) in North American zoos, 84 managed by the European Breeding Programme (EEP), and over 50 in “Lola ya Bonobo”, a bonobo sanctuary in the DRC. The captive bonobo population is managed internationally and every few years bonobo experts from around the world meet to discuss bonobo transfers, breeding, husbandry, and conservation. International cooperation on the captive management of bonobos is important for maintaining genetic diversity, particularly due to the relatively small captive population. Due to the lack of information available on bonobos compared to other great ape species, bonobo facilities share their experiences with one another in order to continue to fine-tune captive husbandry practices.
There are only nine facilities housing bonobos in the North America. They include the Columbus Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo, Memphis Zoo, Milwaukee County Zoo, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Jacksonville Zoo, and the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines. The ten bonobos housed at our zoo makes up one of the larger groups of bonobos in the SSP, containing approximately 12% of the entire North American bonobo population.
In addition to ex-situ conservation through captive breeding, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens supports in-situ (in country) bonobo conservation through financial contributions to the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project (LWRP). Dr. Jo Thompson is the project director for LWRP, which has been operating in DRC since 1992. The mission of LWRP is to conduct scientific research on, conservation of, and educational activities about fauna, primarily the bonobo (Pan paniscus), and flora within a specific region of the DRC. In addition to the bonobo, a number of other endangered or little-known wildlife of particular conservation concern are located within the LWRP area, including Thollon’s Red Colobus, Black Mangabey, Congo Peacock, Congo Clawless Otter, and others. Jacksonville Zoo has supported the work of LWRP since 2007, when Dr. Thompson visited our zoo and served as a guest speaker for the APE-ril conservation event.
Our former Director of Animal Programs, Delfi Messinger, was an animal activist in Africa for 14 years. During a major uprising in Zaire (the former name for DRC), she remained at the compound where she had struggled for years to rescue orphaned bonobos. Five years later, she managed to get six bonobos to safety at a Dutch zoo, where several of them and their offspring reside to this day. She returned to the US in 1998 and wrote a book which covers bonobo natural history while offering an insight into the culture and the constraints of doing conservation in Africa.
For more information about this rare and intriguing species go to the following Web sites: