Bonobo

Bonobos, arguably our closest relatives, live only in the Congo Basin rainforests of central Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Bonobo (Pan paniscus) at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. rel=
Bonobo (Pan paniscus) at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© naturepl.com/Karl Ammann / WWF

Key facts

  • Common names

    Bonobo, dwarf chimpanzee, gracile chimpanzee, pygmy chimpanzee; Chimpanzé nain, chimpanzé pygmé (Fr); Chimpancé pigmeo (Sp)

  • Scientific name

    Pan paniscus

  • Location

    Tropical forests, central Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • Population

    Speculated at 29,500 - 50,000 individuals

  • Status

    Endangered

    More

Our mysterious cousin

Although the bonobo is probably our closest relative, we still know very little about the species. 

The one protected area within bonobo range, Salonga National Park, has been invaded by heavily armed gangs of poachers, and conservation efforts have been hampered by the civil unrest prevailing in the region.

Physical description

Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos are slight. Bonobos have longer legs, shorter arms, and a narrower trunk. They are also generally smaller, with a rounder skull and flatter face.

Other distinguishing features are a black face with red lips, and a prominent tail tuft which is retained by adults – chimpanzees only have the tuft in the juvenile stage.

Bonobos exhibit remarkably different social behavior from chimpanzees, with an emphasis on peacemaking.

Colour: Black fur, which may turn to a grayish color in aged individuals.

Hand and a foot of a Bonobo (Pan paniscus) at the animal shelter Lola near Kinshasa Democratic ... / ©: WWF-Netherlands / Bente van der Wilt
Bonobo hand and foot.
© WWF-Netherlands / Bente van der Wilt
Juvenile bonobo (Pan paniscus) reacting to photographer blowing through the fence. Lola Ya Bonobo ... / ©: naturepl.com/Karl Ammann / WWF
Juvenile bonobo, Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, Kinshasa, DRC.
© naturepl.com/Karl Ammann / WWF

Apes in the canopy

Bonobos use a variety of forest types including primary and secondary forests. High densities are known in secondary forest on dry ground, and they are reported to spend much of their time in dense tropical forest canopy in search of food.

Social structure
Bonobos are highly social animals, living in large communities of up to 120 individuals.

Subgroups usually contain 2-15 individuals and are usually based on a female and her male offspring, and adult female associations. Groups of bonobos often forage together. Larger subgroups can be found close to food sources.

Although there is extensive overlap between community ranges, subgroups tend to avoid each other. If they do come in contact, serious fighting may ensue.

Social relations within bonobo communities are largely affected by the species sexual behavior, which is used to manage and diffuse tension.

Life cycle

Females reach sexual maturity at approximately 12 years of age. The gestation period is thought to be between 220 and 230 days. They normally give birth to a single young. 

Offsrping have a black face and hands, with ears hidden behind whiskers. The young are cared for until they are 4-5 years old, and females have 5-6 offspring in their lifetime.

Male offspring remain with the mother's group for life, whereas females leave the maternal group for another at maturity.

The lifespan of bonobos is unknown.

Diet
Fruits form the bulk of the bonobo's diet but leaves, pith, flowers, seeds and invertebrates are also eaten. Bonobos have been observed to eat small mammals, although unlike chimpanzees, they have rarely been observed to actively hunt for meat.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Tropical Rainforest, western Congo Basin,Gabon.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Geographical Location
Central Africa

Ecological Region
Central Congo Basin Moist Forests

Population & distribution

Current population & distribution

Populations have declined rapidly over the last 30 years, but there are no reliable estimates for current bonobo numbers.

Many years of civil unrest in DRC has meant that few recent surveys have been done. Distribution within the country is very patchy, and total population estimates vary widely reflecting our poor understanding of this ape.

The actual geographic range of the species also remains unknown. Bonobos are known to be found between the Zaïre River, the Lomami River, the Kasai/Sankuru Rivers, and the Lac Tumba/Lac Ndombe region, although they appear to be absent from the central part of this area between the Momboyo River and the Busira River. Within this large forest zone, totalling approximately 350,000 km², bonobos are absent or rare in many areas and common only in a few scattered localities.

New conservation initiatives in Lac Tumba discovered larger than previously recorded group sizes as well as a significant population in a zone previously thought uninhabitable for bonobos. This illustrates the importance of surveys within the species' possible range and the establishment of new protected areas.

Salonga National Park, a World Heritage Site of 36,000 km² (about the size of the Netherlands), is the only protected area within bonobo range. It was created in 1970 specifically to safeguard the species.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Russell A. MITTERMEIER
Pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus) or Bonobo.
© WWF-Canon / Russell A. MITTERMEIER

What are the main threats?

Civil unrest and increasing poverty in DRC pose immediate threats to the survival of the bonobo. The species' low and fragmented population, combined with their slow reproductive rate, means that they are extremely vulnerable to increasing habitat loss and hunting.

Poaching
Bonobos are occasionally hunted for traditional medicinal or magical purposes; specific body parts are thought to enhance strength and sexual vigour. Such charms are widely available in some parts of DRC, suggesting that large numbers of bonobos may be killed annually.

Habitat loss
Only part of the species' range is under protection. Because of war, illegal hunting and deforestation continue to jeopardize their suvival. Both traditional slash-and-burn agriculture and commercial logging operations occur in their habitat.
Bushmeat: Ape heads and hands for sale at fetish market. Congo, Central Africa.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Bushmeat: Ape heads and hands for sale at fetish market. Congo, Central Africa.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

What is WWF doing? 

WWF's work to save the bonobo centres on Salonga National Park, DRC.

We helped build capacity to census and monitor large mammals in the park, resulting in the first systematic, park-wide survey of bonobos. This indicated a lower than expected occurrence of bonobos and high levels of human disturbance.

Under the WWF African Great Apes Programme, a new project was then started to increase the monitoring and protection of bonobos in Salonga National Park.

» WWF African Great Apes Programme
» More on work in the Congo Basin

How you can help

  • Buy sustainable wood. By purchasing FSC-certified forest products, consumers, retailers, traders, and manufacturers help protect bonobo habitat by encouraging sustainable forestry and limiting illegal logging. Without the FSC label, your timber may well stem from illegal or controversial sources in central Africa.
     
  • Donate to WWF to help support our great ape conservation work.
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