A Kinder, Gentler, Bisexual Great Ape

Dominique Morel’s quest to save the bonobo.

Alexandra Markowski

Dominique Morel believes that understanding what is unique about bonobos can help us better understand ourselves (Photos courtesy of Friends of Bonobos)

When Dominique Morel arrived in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go in 1997, she had no back­ground in ani­mal pro­tec­tion. Nor had she heard of bono­bos, one of two great ape species most close­ly relat­ed to humans. But after her first vis­it to the bonobo sanc­tu­ary found­ed by the Con­golese non­prof­it Amis de Bono­bos du Con­go (ABC), Morel fell in love with the peace­ful matri­ar­chal crea­tures. Although they share 98.7 per­cent of humans’ DNA, bono­bos have cre­at­ed a soci­ety – unlike that of chimps and peo­ple – with­out vio­lence, in which sex is a form of mediation. 

Morel vol­un­teered week­ends as a sur­ro­gate moth­er for the young ani­mals and began help­ing with the trans­la­tion of the ABC’s newslet­ter. She has steadi­ly ded­i­cat­ed more of her life to bono­bos, secur­ing grants and oth­er fund­ing for Lola Ya Bonobo, the only bonobo sanc­tu­ary in the world. Care­tak­ers there pro­tect around 60 bono­bos and pre­pare the ani­mals for release back into the wild. 

Bono­bos are one of the planet’s most endan­gered species; sci­en­tists esti­mate 5,000 to 15,000 bono­bos remain. They can be found only in the Con­go, where they are thought to have evolved in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion south and east of the Con­go Riv­er, as chim­panzees evolved north of the riv­er in Ugan­da and the Cen­tral African Republic.

Morel, who is French, is cur­rent­ly based in Islam­abad, where she works for Catholic Relief Ser­vices, though she still serves as vice pres­i­dent of ABC and is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can chap­ter of the orga­ni­za­tion, Friends of Bonobos.

How did the evo­lu­tion­ary split between chim­panzees and bono­bos affect their development?

The the­o­ry goes that south of the Con­go Riv­er, the bonobo species was the only tree-dwelling, fruit-eat­ing species that remained. With­out com­pe­ti­tion for food, the bono­bos remained in groups and became more tol­er­ant. Mean­while, north of the riv­er, the chim­panzees were com­pet­ing with goril­las for the same nour­ish­ment. So they formed small­er par­ties and had to for­age indi­vid­u­al­ly and away from the oth­er groups. Nat­u­ral­ly, the chimps didn’t devel­op the same social­ly coop­er­a­tive behav­iors as the bonobos.

Why are so few bono­bos left?

Researchers start­ed to work in the Con­go in the 30s, and by the 70s, civ­il war made it very dif­fi­cult to track and research bono­bos. Twen­ty years ago, sci­en­tists work­ing in the wild esti­mat­ed that about 100,000 bono­bos were left, but this was an esti­mate. Because bono­bos tend to come togeth­er when they are afraid, dur­ing the war bush­meat hunters were like­ly to encounter and kill entire groups of bonobos.

How do the social struc­tures of bono­bos and chim­panzees differ? 

Chimps have one dom­i­nant male rul­ing a group. In bonobo groups, females are the dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als. They keep the peace. We had one inci­dent when a young adult male bonobo, Tatan­go, kept pro­vok­ing an old­er male, Max, a very peace­ful twen­ty-some­thing adult. Every time Tatan­go would charge Max, con­fu­sion and shout­ing ensued. After sev­er­al days of this, the five young adult females joined ranks and attacked the trou­ble­mak­ers. They attacked both males, as if to teach them both a les­son, and it was enough to bring back peace in the group.

Many stud­ies com­par­ing bono­bos and chim­panzees refer to the ele­ment of tol­er­ance. Tol­er­ance is what allows bono­bos to be more coop­er­a­tive than chim­panzees. There’s no ten­sion; every­body can col­lab­o­rate with each other.

Chimps are known to kill mem­bers of oth­er chimp groups. There can be a lot of intim­i­da­tion and aggres­sion of younger males by the alpha males. Bonobo groups are much more peace­ful, and while there is some­times ten­sion among indi­vid­u­als, there is lit­tle violence. 

How can the dif­fer­ence between bono­bos and chimps help us under­stand ourselves?

These dif­fer­ences give anoth­er per­spec­tive to our evo­lu­tion­ary path and under­stand­ing of what it is that makes us human. For a long time, we only thought chimps could help us under­stand human evo­lu­tion. Many peo­ple still don’t know that bono­bos and chimps are equal­ly our two clos­est relatives. 

It is cer­tain­ly not a coin­ci­dence that the image of our ances­tors empha­sizes the aggres­sive and vio­lent nature of humans – brutish and short” – while more peace­ful, altru­is­tic, empa­thet­ic human char­ac­ter­is­tics are some­times con­sid­ered a result of evo­lu­tion or even a social var­nish” over our true nature.” This is a misconception. 

Under­stand­ing that we are as close genet­i­cal­ly to bono­bos as to chimps sug­gests that paci­fism, play­ful­ness, empa­thy, and col­lab­o­ra­tion may also be part of human nature and not mere­ly cul­tur­al or learned behaviors. 

What is it with bono­bos and sex?

Sex­u­al activ­i­ty is the key fac­tor in appeas­ing ten­sion in bonobo groups. Bono­bos engage in sex­u­al activ­i­ty – most often just sex­u­al con­tact – every time they are stressed, both when they are excit­ed and when they are upset or jealous. 

It is not unusu­al for young bono­bos to throw tantrums. Usu­al­ly, anoth­er bonobo comes to embrace and rub gen­i­tals with the cry­ing bonobo until he or she has calmed down. 

And then there’s the bonobo hand­shake.” When we intro­duce a new bonobo into a group, every one of the bono­bos will come and offer them­selves for a quick sex­u­al con­tact with the newcomer.

Why should we save bono­bos from extinction? 

The most impor­tant rea­son to save bono­bos is that they are one of our clos­est rel­a­tives, but prob­a­bly one of the least under­stood of the Great Apes. If we are try­ing to under­stand our evo­lu­tion, we need to under­stand bonobos. 

Under­stand­ing more of what is unique about bono­bos – their sex­u­al ten­sion res­o­lu­tions, peace­ful nature and female lead­er­ship – could help us learn why humans are who we are. How can we be more like bono­bos and less like chim­panzees? How can we be more peace­ful? Under­stand­ing bono­bos can help us answer these questions.

What does Friends of Bono­bos do to ensure the species’ survival?

We have a three-fold strat­e­gy. The first part is the sanc­tu­ary, Lola Ya Bono­bos. It is ille­gal to hunt bono­bos, ille­gal to trade bono­bos, and ille­gal to eat bonobo meat. But for the [Congolese]Ministry of Envi­ron­ment, it’s very dif­fi­cult to con­fis­cate bono­bos and enforce these laws unless they have a place to put them. … Bono­bos are psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly frag­ile, they can’t live in zoos. They need a lot of affec­tion and a lot of con­tact to survive. 

The sanc­tu­ary in itself is not enough. We also need to pre­vent the bush­meat trade. We tar­get urban envi­ron­ments, because the res­i­dents of the urban areas tend to be the con­sumers, both of bono­bos as pets and bush­meat. We try to encour­age Con­golose peo­ple to appre­ci­ate bono­bos for what they are. It’s work­ing well, as peo­ple who have learned that it is ille­gal to eat, kill or keep bono­bos bring the ani­mals to the sanctuary. 

How does edu­ca­tion play a role in bonobo preservation? 

I remem­ber vivid­ly the first day I saw bono­bos in per­son. One of the bono­bos, a young female named Osh­we, approached my hus­band, took his hand and pulled him toward one side of the gar­den. When they arrived near a tree cov­ered in small fruit, she climbed all over him and onto his shoul­ders and his head, until she could reach the branch­es cov­ered in fruit, and then start­ed to eat. After a while, she climbed down the same way, took his hand again and led him back to the group.

I could tell hun­dreds of sim­i­lar sto­ries of bonobo behav­iors that seem so human – demon­strat­ing empa­thy to one anoth­er, hug­ging each oth­er, infants look­ing to their sur­ro­gate moth­ers to cud­dle, young­sters hav­ing a tantrum or play­ing tricks on one anoth­er, or adults mourn­ing a dead bonobo. 

We use these human-like behav­iors in our efforts to pro­tect bono­bos in the Con­go. It is very dif­fi­cult to see bono­bos in the wild when they move around on tree­tops. The hunters who kill them to sell as bush­meat have prob­a­bly nev­er seen a live bonobo, and it’s even less like­ly the mer­chants and the peo­ple who pur­chase the meat to eat would have seen one. By mak­ing the orphan bono­bos acces­si­ble for direct obser­va­tion by so many Con­golese peo­ple, Lola Ya Bonobo Sanc­tu­ary, and now the release site at Eko­lo Ya Bonobo, play a key role in con­ser­va­tion edu­ca­tion. Once peo­ple have seen bono­bos in per­son, almost every­one is adamant that they’ll nev­er eat bonobo meat any­more – it would be like eat­ing one’s cousins or ancestors.

Alexan­dra Markows­ki is a for­mer In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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