Bonobo Conservation

A Conversation with Zjef Pereboom

Zjef Pereboom
Zjef Pereboom
Photo by Julia Kolker

Europe and North America work together to help the bonobo. One of their goals is to keep the bonobo population in zoos healthy and genetically diverse. Bonobos are rare great apes found in the wild only in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. So if these endangered animals disappear from the wild, there will still be members of their species alive and well in zoos. It’s an international effort, says Belgian researcher Zjef (pronounced “Jeff”) Pereboom, who’s involved on the European side. He heads the Center for Research and Conservation at the Zoological Society of Antwerp in Antwerp, Belgium. Pereboom works with many species, but has a particular interest in bonobos. In March 2010, he visited Milwaukee, Wis., where the North American efforts are coordinated.

Pereboom traveled to the Milwaukee County Zoo to meet with the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s (ZSM’s) Stefanie McLaughlin and Shawna Joachim. They assist Dr. Gay E. Reinartz, the ZSM’s conservation coordinator, in managing the bonobo population in North American zoos. They also help Dr. Reinartz run the ZSM’s Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative, a bonobo-conservation program in the Congo. (Dr. Reinartz was doing field work in that country when Pereboom visited.)

Bonobos in zoos are managed by two organizations. In North America, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has Species Survival Plans (SSPs) for many endangered animals, including bonobos. The counterpart in Europe is the European Endangered Species Program (EEP). These programs work to ensure that zoo animals have healthy and genetically diverse populations, and sometimes pair up particular animals for breeding. As of April 2010, the Milwaukee County Zoo had 16 bonobos, one of the largest zoo groups in the world. The Zoological Society’s Dr. Reinartz heads the Bonobo SSP and Pereboom works in the EEP, managing the international bonobo studbook.

In March, Pereboom talked with the Zoological Society’s Julia Kolker about the challenges and successes of working with bonobo populations in Europe. 

A bonobo at the Milwaukee County Zoo
A bonobo mother and baby at the Milwaukee County Zoo.
Photo by Richard Brodzeller
What are the differences between the European Endangered Species Program and the Species Survival Plans in America?
There are more cultural differences between zoos in Europe. Each country has its own practices and traditions, unlike the U.S. zoos. However, they’re trying to work together more in Europe. Over the past 10 years, European zoos have become more collaborative. Conservationists are also trying to manage bonobo populations globally. Two female bonobos from the Jacksonville Zoo [in Jacksonville, Florida] are going to European zoos soon, for example.

How are bonobos doing in European zoos?
Some years, European and American bonobo populations in zoos have been identical [in number of animals]. European breeding programs are doing well. Right now [in March 2010], there are 90 bonobos in the EEP, and 86 in the North American SSP.

What are the challenges of managing bonobo populations in Europe?
The challenges include getting the different institutions to cooperate toward the benefit of the bonobo population. Another challenge is not to lose genetic diversity in zoo bonobo groups.  Bonobos breed infrequently (once every four to five years); so you have to make sure a pairing is a good one, or you’ve wasted time and genetic lineage.

For more on bonobos and the Zoological Society’s bonobo-conservation program, please see the links below: