Learning from the bonobos

Looking back & forward / Winds & Waves / November 2016

A sack becomes a toy for a playful bonobo. Photo: Maureen Hurley

Bonobos are a great ape species found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They and chimpanzees are more closely related to us than any other animal.

Recently I visited the bonobo sanctuary on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Most of the bonobos there are babies and young adults rescued from poachers. Bush meat trade is rife in Congo, where livestock is scarce and expensive. Up to 80 percent of the meat consumed here consists of wildlife, according to a sanctuary guide. Lola ya Bonobo www.lolayabonobo.org is the world’s only organization providing lifetime care to bonobos orphaned by the illegal trade. When possible, it releases its bonobos into the wild.

Most bonobos are found in Equateur province, where I live and work with HandUp Congo on capacity building projects. The province became infamous two years ago for an Ebola outbreak, believed to have been caused by eating infected bush meat (not necessarily the bonobos).

I enjoyed seeing the bonobos up close. I believe we can learn a lot from them. For example, they live in a matriarchal society that is peace-loving. The females are smaller than the males but will join forces to prevent an aggressive male from hurting others.

Bonobos have evolved to avoid fighting. Researchers at the sanctuary have discovered that in a situation with a potential for conflict such as over food, chimpanzees have an increase in testosterone, which makes them more competitive. Bonobos, on the other hand, have an increase in cortisol, which is related to stress. The stress response causes bonobos to seek social reassurance and so they hug each other and share instead of fight.

The sanctuary guide told me that bonobos are the only great apes that have never been seen to kill their own kind. We must learn from bonobos, so that we can have peace in Congo. Bonobo females give birth only once in five years, another practice needed among humans in Congo, where many families have 10 or more children.

Safari Kanyena and HandUp Congo co-founder Lucy Hobgood-Brown at the bonobo sanctuary. Photo: Maureen Hurley

The bonobos’ willingness to share is also noteworthy. Recent research at Lola has shown that bonobos are good Samaritans, perhaps more so than human beings. We prefer to help people we are related to or whom we know rather than strangers. But although Bonobos also show empathy towards family and friends, when given a choice, they prefer to share food with strangers.

Désiré Safari Kanyena, a community development consultant, is an advisor to the Australia-based NGO, HandUp Congo www.handupcongo.org, which works in Equateur province.