Why Bonobos Are Endangered and What We Can Do

The chimpanzee's gentler cousin faces unprecedented threats from illegal hunting

Bonobo female 'Tshilomba' head and shoulders portrait
Anup Shah / Getty Images

Although these endangered great apes look quite similar to chimpanzees, bonobos tend to be leaner in stature and darker in color—standing between 28 to 35 inches tall. They also form smaller groups and are led by matriarchs rather than alpha males, creating cooperative communities known for emotional bonding and neutral dispositions.

Unfortunately, bonobos are very much in trouble. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the bonobo went from Vulnerable to Endangered in 1994 and has remained there ever since.

The surviving global population of between 10,000 and 50,000 individuals is scattered throughout forests south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Threats

Bonobo Family
Jeff McCurry / Getty Images

Bonobo numbers are decreasing and illegal hunting remains the primary obstacle to species conservation.

Other factors like habitat destruction, disease, and civil unrest in regions with higher densities of bonobo groups also contribute to population reduction trends, which the IUCN estimates will continue for the next 60 years if nothing changes. 

Poaching

Because of their more peaceful nature, poachers have targeted bonobos for generations—not just in the illegal bushmeat trade but also for use as pets and in traditional medicines.

Because of their scattered communities and remote range, it’s difficult to assess precisely how many individual bonobos are killed each year. Still, the IUCN estimates that nine tons of bushmeat are extracted from each 50,000 square kilometers conservation landscape within the bonobo’s range each day.

Civil Unrest

Apart from the fact that they were the last of the great apes to be scientifically described (not being recognized as a species separate from chimps until 1929), the bonobo resides exclusively in a part of the world known for unrest and increasing poverty. Paired also with the remote characteristics of the bonobo’s habitat, efforts to study and survey the species have been hampered as a result.

Low pay and little supervision among government soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo create additional barriers for wildlife laws and conservation management while facilitating illegal guns and ammunition flow to poachers.

Habitat Destruction and Degradation

Another result of civil unrest? There are very few protected areas for bonobos to live and repopulate undisturbed from deforestation and fragmentation.

Political instability makes establishing conservation areas more difficult than throughout other parts of Africa, but much of the forest loss in bonobo habitats can also be attributed to agriculture conversion and urban development (from 2002 to 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo lost a whopping 8% of its total tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch).

Disease

Infectious diseases, including human-borne and natural pathogens, have been observed among bonobos—sometimes affecting entire subpopulations. Especially in places where habitat coincides with higher human density, diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites spread rapidly.

Like chimpanzees, the bonobo reproduction cycle is slow (despite the species’ reputation for using sex as a social tool), and mature females only give birth to a single infant every five to six years after an eight-month gestation period. As a result, bouncing back from a significant population loss is incredibly challenging in the wild. 

What We Can Do

Adult and baby bonobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Along with chimps, bonobos share most of their DNA with humans—as much as 1.6% of the human genome is more closely related to the bonobo than to the chimpanzee. Studies even suggest that the species has evolved with the impulse to be kind to strangers—with some going out of their way to help a stranger get food without the promise of immediate payback.

If bonobos disappeared from one of their scarce habitats, it wouldn’t just mean an end to one of humankind’s closest relatives, but it could also lead to an extinction cycle affecting entire forests. In Salonga National Park, one of the few protected bonobo habitats and Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, an estimated 40% of tree species (which makes up 65% of all trees) are dispersed by bonobos.

However, for every unknown about these important animals, there are individuals and organizations working to help protect them. For instance, partners of the Great Ape Conservation Fund have teamed up with Congolese authorities to establish new reserves and conduct research surveys of bonobo habitats in the region. These surveys help measure the urgency of conservation efforts and pinpoint exceptionally vulnerable populations. The fund also facilitates new initiatives to strengthen law enforcement against illegal hunting and supports information exchange programs.

Studies suggest that bonobos could also share the same benefits of sustainably managed ecotourism as their gorilla cousins (mountain gorillas are one of the most successful examples of how ecotourism can aid in conservation). In the remote areas where bonobos thrive, nurturing an ecotourism market could create economic incentives for local communities to protect the species and their habitats. 

Save the Bonobo