Considered the most rare and least known of the great apes, the bonobo (Pan paniscus), sometimes called the pygmy chimpanzee, recently has captured the attention of social scientists and conservationists worldwide. Many scientists regard the bonobo as the species that most closely resembles early human ancestors. Like the chimpanzee, bonobos share over 98% of their genetic makeup with humans, but unlike its chimpanzee relative, the bonobo is found only in the central African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). The exact number of bonobos that exist in the wild is unknown, but due to rain-forest destruction and poaching, the species has disappeared from much of its historic range. To add to these threats, a civil war has had an inestimable impact on remaining populations. Today, the bonobo is ranked among the six African primate species considered highest in conservation priority and is classified as endangered due to exploitation by humans and loss of habitat. Click here for more information on the bonobo.
Bonobos are also rare in captivity. There are roughly seven times as many chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in zoos as bonobos. Since 1988, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee has coordinated the Bonobo Species Survival Plan © (SSP), a captive breeding and management program for bonobos living in North American zoological facilities.
In 1995, concern over declining numbers of bonobos in the wild led the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM), with contributions from bonobo scientists around the world, to publish the Action Plan for Pan paniscus: A Report on Free Ranging Populations and Proposals for their Preservation. The Action Plan compiles population data on bonobos from 20 years of research conducted at various sites throughout the bonobo's range. The plan identifies priority actions for bonobo conservation and serves as a reference for developing conservation programs for researchers, government officials and donor agencies.
Acting on Action Plan recommendations, the ZSM developed the Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI). This program integrates habitat and rain-forest preservation, capacity building for national conservation institutions, training for Congolese nationals, wildlife population assessment and monitoring, environmental education, and assistance to those dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned bonobos in DRC. The focus of ZSM’s work is to conduct regional surveys within the range of the bonobo in conjunction with training Congolese researchers in survey methodology and biodiversity monitoring. Our initial goal was to survey Salonga National Park to determine the conservation status of the bonobo within the park and to provide financial and technical assistance to strengthen park protection in order to ensure the survival of bonobo populations within this World Heritage Site.
Since then, with grants from the United Nations, USAID, the U.S. Embassy, the World Wildlife Fund and many other groups and individuals, the Zoological Society has been working to:
- survey the bonobo population and its habitat in order to find ways to help protect these apes
- develop anti-poaching measures to help save apes, forest elephants and other endangered animals in Congo's Salonga National Park, a U.N. World Heritage Site
- provide training, literacy education, agricultural techniques, schools, equipment and jobs for Congolese living near bonobo habitats so that they will have a vested interest in protecting the great apes
- model small-scale conservation methods that can be used throughout Congo
- Bonobo Species Survival Plan
- Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative
- What is a bonobo?
- Field diary from the Congo
- Back from the Congo: Photo Journey
- Conserving Bonobos in Europe: A Conversation with a Belgian Researcher
- USAID supports award-winning field conservation program in the Democratic Republic of Congo