ENN contributor Vanessa Wood reports from the Congo on her trip to study and protect the Bonobo monkey. Vanessa's research group, the 3chimps - Hominid Psychology Research Group, is comparing the psychology of hominids - human and non-human apes. Specifically, researchers seek to identify which features our social problem-solving abilities have evolved since humans, Bonobos, and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor. In addition, they are comparing the psychology of apes and non-primates to identify cases of psychological convergence. Such cases of convergence may provide a unique opportunity to infer how human-like social skills evolved.
ENN contributor Vanessa Wood reports from the Congo on her trip to study and protect the Bonobo monkey.
ENN: Why Bonobos?
Vanessa Wood: Our main reason for studying Bonobos is incredibly narcissistic. We want to know about ourselves.
Chimpanzees, Bonobos and humans share a common evolutionary ancestor. This means around 6 million years ago, apelike creatures were running around. Some would evolve into chimps, some into Bonobos, and some into us.
This means that Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, just like chimpanzees. But unlike chimpanzees who have war, torture, and occasionally beat the females and kill infants, Bonobos live in a relatively peaceful society, where females form strong relationships and apparently keep the peace through sex.
ENN: What we want to know is why?
Vanessa Wood: Because of researchers like Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham, Christophe Boesche, John Mitani, Tetsuro Matsuswa, David Watts and Toshida Nishida, we know a whole lot about chimpanzees. The years these people, along with countless others, spent in the forest watching chimps, has given us an intimate view of how chimpanzees societies work. In some ways, these societies are so close to humans, we assumed our common ancestor was very chimpanzee like.
By this, we mean they used tools, had sophisticated cooperation, and occasionally formed war parties to hunt down, torture, and kill the enemy.
ENN: But what if they were more like Bonobos?
Vanessa Wood: It's entirely possible that our ancestor lived in an egalitarian society that didn't cooperatively hunt at all. That’s not all. In both Bonobos and humans, the physical differences between females and males are less pronounced. Females develop strong bonds. We have similar temperaments. Even our use of facial expressions are similar.
So the main reason we study Bonobos is to find out more about the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos and hopefully through that, find out what it is that makes us human.
ENN: Why aren’t Bonobos violent?
Vanessa Wood: Chimpanzees rarely fight fair. The minimum number of chimpanzees needed to overcome another chimpanzee is three to one; two to hold down the enemy and the third to inflict the damage. Studies have shown that if the odds are less than three to one, chimpanzees won’t attack, but if they are better than three to one, they aim to kill.
Chimpanzees, like most animals, have marked territories. They check their border for signs of an intruder. If they hear other chimpanzees, they make great pant hoots, thump on trees, scream and shout. If they come across a lone male, they attack so violently, the victim has little chance of survival.
In Chimpanzees, sometimes their intentions are more sinister. They not only patrol the border, they invade. This attack is coordinated and planned. As they cross the border, they are silent. There are no noisy displays. They eat nothing, it’s not a foraging party. They are tense and jump at unfamiliar sounds. They ”˜track’ the enemy, stopping to examine food remains or feces. If they find him, and the odds are in their favor, again, the victim or victims will be lucky to survive.
This behavior has never been seen in Bonobos. In fact, if two groups of Bonobos meet in the wild, they’ve been seen to have sex and groom each other.
We think that sex is a mechanism that made Bonobos so tolerant. Having sex is a way to release tension and form strong bonds, so males have sex with males, females have sex with females as well as heterosexual sex.
The amount Bonobos have sex is under debate, but the fact is, compared to chimpanzees and most other animals, Bonobos have the most amount of non conceptual sex of any other animal besides humans.
Other things must have happened to the Bonobos brain to make them less violent, but we aren’t yet sure what.
ENN: How did the Bonobos end up at Lola?
Vanessa Wood: All the Bonobos at Lola are orphans. The Congolese hunt and sell Bonobos for meat and the infants are sold in the pet trade. Bonobos are a highly endangered and protected species, so when the baby Bonobos are confiscated, often in terrible condition, there has to be somewhere for them to go. Once their parent are dead, the infants are too sick and too helpless to go back into the wild.
Lola ya Bonobo, meaning ”˜Bonobo Paradise’ in the local Lingala language is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Just outside Kinshasa, the 35 hectare forest sprawls, enclosed and protected. Small lakes covered in water lilies divide the people from the Bonobos and the overflow runs in streams to the river. The canopy rustles and long arms swing gracefully from branch to branch. There are whoops answering high pitched cries, and several Bonobos do handstands in a pile of moss by the lake.
Go if you can. The Bonobos are amazing.
ENN: How can we help?
Vanessa Wood: You can always adopt a Bonobo through the Lola website: www.lolayabonobo.org. The money pays for the food and upkeep of the Bonobos, and they’ll send you a picture and stories of how your Bonobo is going.
But most importantly, Bonobos are in so much trouble because they are virtually forgotten. So talk about them, tell other people about them, get interested in the bush meat trade and deforestation in Congo. Be aware where your wood products come from. And if you can, come and see them.
ENN: How did you get involved in this project?
Vanessa Wood: I got involved with Bonobos through my husband, Brian Hare. I’ve worked on and off with primates for 10 years, but when he told me about Bonobos, I was curious and wanted to see them for myself.
I’ve always been a die hard chimp fan, but Bonobos are so hysterical, weird and fascinating I’ve been converted.
ENN: What is the political climate in Congo?
Vanessa Wood: Better. On our last trip in 2006 we came in the middle of the elections and the entire plane on the way in was empty and the streets were crawling with UN troops. I only felt scared at the sanctuary once when there was gunfire shots and tire burning in the city and we had to be evacuated, but it turned out to be ”˜trottoir’ (sidewalk) gossip and there was only one shot and not so many tires.
Now Kinshasa is pretty safe. You have to be aware when you’re in the city, but once in the sanctuary, it’s like being on holiday.
ENN: Is the government helping?
Vanessa Wood: The Congelese government is very proud of its Bonobos, and it’s doing the best it can to help with limited resources, overwhelming poverty, and of course its rich natural resources like coltan, diamonds, and tin that the first world countries are always trying to steal for a pittance.
Joseph Kabila is the President now, and he’s done a wonderful job so far. There is high hope for him that he can clean out corruption, improve the standard of living, and sell Congo’s wealth for what it deserves. When the people are taken care of, then the Bonobos will have a chance. As a Congolese man once told me, ”˜I can’t worry about Bonobos if my children don’t eat.’
ENN: What's going on right now?
Vanessa Wood: There is a stable government, the first democratically elected government in 40 years. Stability seems to be returning and infrastructure is improving. I hope Congo makes it. Reading about its history over the last 40 years breaks my heart. I hope it becomes a success story like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Its been through so much. And the future of Bonobos depends on it.
Bonobo Handshake Blog: http://bonobohandshake.blogspot.com
Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary: http://www.lolayabonobo.org
Research website: http://www.eva.mpg.de/3chimps
Personal website: http://www.vanessawoods.net