Northern and central Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa


Rain forest

Bonobos or pygmy chimps?

The bonobo is one of the most rare and intelligent animals in the world. The social structure of this magnificent ape is unique and complex: in the largely peaceful bonobo society, the females rule the roost. Bonobos are members of the great ape family, along with gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. Earlier scientists thought the bonobo was just a smaller version of the common chimpanzee and so the term “pygmy chimpanzee” was used. But don’t be fooled! Bonobos and chimpanzees are really quite different—you just need to know what to look for.

Bonobos versus chimpanzees

Size— Chimpanzees and bonobos are about the same size, but bonobos are more slender and have smaller heads and smaller ears.

Food— Chimpanzees eat plant material as well as monkeys and other mammals when they have the chance. Bonobos eat mainly leaves, stems, fruits, worms, insects, and sometimes small fish.

Location— Bonobos are found only in a small part of one country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The four subspecies of chimpanzee range from western to central Africa.

Getting Along— When trouble comes between chimpanzees, they often fight it out. They are also very protective of their territory and kill chimpanzees from another group, called a troop, if they try to move in. Bonobos don’t seem to have established territories, and they tend to handle any squabbles or tension by using different sexual behaviors instead of aggression.

Looks— Bonobos are more comfortable walking upright than chimpanzees are. They also keep their white rump patch for life, while the patch darkens with age on chimpanzees. And bonobos look quite distinguished with their “hair” neatly parted down the middle of their head!

Bonobos are much less fearful of water than chimps, even fishing for shrimp with their hands.
Bonobos were described as a subspecies of chimpanzee in 1929 but identified as a separate species in 1933. They are still the least understood of the great apes.
In the wild, bonobos usually can get most of their liquid from fruits.
The San Diego Zoo was the first zoo in the United States to welcome a baby bonobo.
One characteristic bonobos are especially known for is their ability to get along: unlike humans or chimpanzees, they have never been observed killing one of their own kind.

The first bonobo to arrive in San Diego was a male, Kakowet, who was estimated to be 18 months old. He was captured as a youngster by natives in the Lac Leopold II region of what was then the Congo Republic, brought to the village of Inongo, and eventually taken to the zoo in the country’s capital, which is now called Kinshasa. Raised in the home of that zoo’s manager, he became a part of their family. In 1960, the zoo’s director made a gift of this rare bonobo to the San Diego Zoo. During his long flight from the Congo he was allowed free run of the airplane! Soon after his arrival in San Diego he was placed in our Children’s Zoo, where his gentle and affectionate nature made a big hit with all. He was raised with a young gorilla, orangutan, and chimpanzee for company, and what adventures they had! In 1962, 6-year-old female Linda arrived here from the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium. They immediately became fast friends, and the pair produced 3 male and 7 female offspring over 18 years at the San Diego Zoo.

Today, there are nine bonobos in the troop, residing in a spacious home in the Zoo’s Lost Forest below the gorillas’ lush habitat. What you’ll notice is that these intelligent animals are a lot of fun to watch. Their exhibit is dominated by giant rock outcroppings and distinctive, twisted palms, on which the playful bonobos nimbly climb. Waterfalls and streams add to the African rain forest atmosphere. But the real show is the bonobos themselves—just a few minutes observing them in action, and you’ll realize how smart they really are!

Sadly, there are few bonobos left in the wild, and so they are considered the most endangered of the great apes. Humans continue to move into bonobo habitat, hunting these amazing apes for food and selling their babies into the pet trade. Commercial logging operations create new roads to harvest timber, giving people easier access to hunt or capture many rain forest species, including bonobos. Conservationists estimate that at least 4,000 wild chimpanzees and bonobos are killed every year to satisfy the demand for “ape steaks.” Furthermore, the bonobo’s range is within one unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which puts their populations in a more precarious position than if their range overlapped many countries.

There are also few bonobos in zoos. The San Diego Zoo has successfully bred and maintained these intelligent and curious apes since 1960, and we continue to fund conservation efforts for them in central Africa.