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Formerly called the pygmy chimpanzee, bonobos are the dwarf or gracile chimpanzees. This endangered great ape is one of the two species making up the genus Pan. The other is Pan troglodytes or the common chimpanzee. Although the name “chimpanzee” is sometimes used to refer to both species together, it is usually understood as referring to the common chimpanzee, whereas Pan paniscus is usually referred to as the bonobo. Along with the common chimpanzee, the bonobo is the closest extant relative to humans.

Bonobos are endemic to only one country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They inhabit the heart of the Congo Basin which is the second world’s largest rain forest. The bonobo habitat spans approximately 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) and is bordered by the Congo River to the north and west, the Kasai River to the south, and the Lualaba River to the east. This region is also home to a vast array of other wildlife species including leopard, forest elephant, sitatunga, bongo, okapi, forest buffalo, Congo peacock, and many other primates. As of June 2016 a total of 119 live in zoos across Europe; 65 distributed between six different German zoos, and a further 54 in zoos in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and England.

Physical Appearance of Bonobos

The bonobo is distinguished by relatively long legs, pink lips, dark face and tail-tuft through adulthood, and parted long hair on its head.

Where Can One See the Bonobos

The bonobo is found in a 500,000 km2 (190,000 sq mi) area of the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa.

General Characteristic of Bonobos

The species is omnivorous and inhabits primary and secondary forests, including seasonally inundated swamp forests. Political instability in the region and the timidity of bonobos has meant there has been relatively little field work done observing the species in its natural habitat.

The bonobo, with its long legs and small head atop narrow shoulders, has a more gracile build than does a chimpanzee. Bonobo lips are reddish in a black face, the ears small and the nostrils almost as wide as a gorilla’s. These primates also have a flatter, more open face with a higher forehead than the chimpanzee’s and–to top it all off–an attractive coiffure with long, fine, black hair neatly parted in the middle.

Like chimpanzees, female bonobos nurse and carry around their young for up to five years.

By the age of seven the offspring reach adolescence. Wild females give birth for the first time at 13 or 14 years of age, becoming full grown by about 15.

Juvenile bonobos are incurably playful and like to make funny faces, sometimes in long solitary pantomimes and at other times while tickling one another.

Bonobos are the only non-human animal to have been observed engaging in tongue kissing, and oral sex. Bonobos and humans are the only primates to typically engage in face-to-face genital sex.

Recent studies show that there are significant brain differences between bonobos and chimps. The brain anatomy of bonobos has more developed and larger regions assumed to be vital for feeling empathy, sensing distress in others and feeling anxiety, which makes them less aggressive and more empathic than their close relatives.

Bonobo society is dominated by females, and severing the lifelong alliance between mothers and their male offspring may make them vulnerable to female aggression.

Bonobos are also good at sharing food. This has been observed not only in zoos but also in the wild.

In both bonobos and chimpanzees, males stay in their natal group, whereas females tend to migrate during adolescence. As a result, the senior males of a chimpanzee or bonobo group have known all junior males since birth, and all junior males have grown up together.

Bonobo males remain attached to their mothers all their lives, following them through the forest and being dependent on them for protection in aggressive encounters with other males.

Would you like to see bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo? You can book a safari into the wild with some of Congo Tour Operators. There are also several packages that combine gorilla safaris in Congo with bonobo viewing that are offered by selected safari outfitters in East and Central Africa.