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Pan paniscus

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CITES: Appendix I (What is CITES?)
IUCN Red List: P. paniscus: EN (What is Red List?)
Key: EN = Endangered
(Click on species name to see IUCN Red List entry, including detailed status assessment information.)

Pan paniscus
Photo: Max Planck Institut

The only true enemies of bonobos are humans. Threats to bonobo survival include hunting and habitat destruction (Malenky et al. 1989; de Waal 1997). While there are taboos against hunting bonobos in some communities surrounding their range, they are hunted as meat by other communities. The pet trade also jeopardizes bonobo survival in the wild. This practice is particularly harmful because in order to obtain infants for sale, poachers must kill the mothers. Poaching is especially prevalent when researchers are not present at study sites (Malenky et al. 1989). Habitat destruction in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is due to commercial logging, clearing land for agriculture, food acquisition by human communities, and human settlement (Malenky et al. 1989). Underlying most of the threats to bonobos in the wild is the volatile political climate of DRC which directly affects the Congolese people and both directly and indirectly affects the apes (Thompson-Handler et al. 1995).


Threat: Human Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

Habitat loss and degradation due to commercial logging, subsistence usage of forest products, and re-emigration into the forest by local human populations is prevalent in DRC and greatly threatens bonobo populations (Dupain et al. 2000). Large-scale commercial logging is responsible for more damage than simply removal of forest cover; some of its byproducts include loss of biodiversity, climate change, desertification, and watershed degradation (Rowe et al. 1992). These indirect environmental consequences are of serious concern for bonobo populations, even at well-established research sites that exist on logging concessions (Oates 1995; Thompson-Handler 1995). There is continuing concern that the Congolese government will begin to rely more heavily on timber extraction as its key economic opportunity and depend on forest resources for fiscal development. Because of these future plans, commercial logging is the perceived to be the largest threat to bonobos in DRC over the long-term (Reinartz & Bila Isia 2001).

More ubiquitous as a cause of habitat loss and degradation is the conversion of forest to agricultural lands as well as collection of firewood for subsistence usage and for sale in urban centers (Thompson-Handler et al. 1995). Profits from agricultural products traditionally harvested in semi-rural areas and sold in markets in urban centers have plummeted due to the deterioration of the economy, roads, and the river transport system associated with the political instability (Dupain et al. 2000). While this may temporarily mitigate habitat destruction due to agriculture, the resulting trend is re-immigration of local people into the forests and subsequent establishment of semi-permanent settlements. In these establishments, people practice small-scale cultivation and subsistence hunting as well as collection of wood for fuel and shelter (Dupain et al. 2000; Reinartz & Bila Isia 2001). While some areas have protected status, this is merely a label that has no meaning; a total lack of laws and enforcement creates a climate in which people can live within the boundaries of the park and use the natural resources without consequences (Coxe et al. 2000).

Potential Solutions

Logging threats may be temporarily mitigated, though, because of the political instability and warfare that have plagued DRC for almost a decade. Logging companies have ceased their activities because of the dangers of working in a combat zone and as a result, habitat loss due to the extraction of trees and the infrastructure associated with unsustainable forestry techniques has ceased (Dupain et al. 2000). It is important, though, that when lands slated for logging become available in the future, that bonobo-friendly forestry techniques are used. That is, low impact, sustainable logging should be the goal of the Congolese government, especially if timber is to be the most important export commodity and the basis of its economic viability.

With only two reserves (Salonga National Park and Luo River Scientific Reserve) where bonobos occur and logging is prohibited, an important goal for the future is to create more protected areas as well as increase protection of bonobos both in and outside existing reserves (Reinartz & Bila Isia 2001).

Unfortunately, little can be done to alleviate the impacts of habitat loss due to subsistence agriculture and fuelwood collection at this time. Many Congolese have been displaced and have no other economic or even subsistence opportunities, and until there is stability in DRC, most research has ceased and bonobo populations cannot be reliably protected (Coxe et al. 2000).

Threat: Invasive Alien Species

There are a number of pathogenic and parasitic diseases that affect bonobos in the wild. Respiratory, gastrointestinal, cutaneous, or systemic bacterial infections can range in severity from latency to death (Whittier et al. 2001). Salmonella, Steptococcus, and Staphylococcus are common agents that can be found within the environment or can be transferred between humans and bonobos (Whittier et al. 2001). Other infectious agents that affect bonobos include viruses (poliovirus, measles, herpes, hepatitis, Ebola, etc.), fungal infections (ringworm), and parasites, both ectoparasitic and endoparasitic (Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Schistosoma, Strongyloides, etc.) (Whittier et al. 2001). While there may be some natural background rate of these diseases, certainly epidemics of some could threaten entire populations of bonobos. Unnatural exposure to these and other diseases could lead to rapid extinction in non-immune bonobos or very small populations of bonobos. As humans and bonobos come into close contact because of population growth, habituation to researchers, and hunting, the probability of disease transmission between species increases (Butynski 2001).

Potential Solutions

At research sites, precautions should be taken to ensure minimal exposure. This includes screening researchers and visitors, updating vaccinations (where applicable), limiting contact, and burying human waste (Whittier et al. 2001). Health education about zoonotic diseases in local communities may also decrease the incidence of disease transfer between bonobos and humans.

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

As the population explodes in Central Africa, traditional values are eroded as are time-honored tribal customs. This is important in the case of the bonobo because across many tribes in DRC, it has been traditionally taboo to hunt these apes, though that sentiment is quickly falling by the wayside (Thompson-Handler et al. 1995; Coxe et al. 2000). With no other economic opportunities, local people must trade bushmeat for clothes, medicines, soap, spices, and other necessities as well as use it as a primary protein source (Dupain & Van Elsacker 2001). Moreover, with an active zone of military occupation bisecting the bonobo's range, troops and displaced people consume bushmeat as a main source of protein and rely on its sale as a source of income (Reinartz & Bila Isia 2001).

The role of lumber companies in the bushmeat market cannot be underestimated. They provide guns and ammunition, transportation to and from the forests where bonobos are hunted, boats to move carcasses between the forest and urban centers, and workers hunt, sell, and eat the meat (Butynski 2001; Dupain & Elsacker 2001). Guns have also become quite prolific and readily available as the civil war erupted (Coxe et al. 2000).

Infant bonobos are also highly prized as pets, and as adult bonobos are killed for meat, infants are sold in markets in urban centers such as Kinshasa. It is estimated that between five and 10 adults are killed to capture one infant, as reproductive-aged adults are culled from the population, the reproductive capacity of the population will dwindle (Reinartz & Bila Isia 2001).

Potential Solutions

Foreign logging companies must be held accountable for their roles in the bushmeat trade. Instead of facilitating the illegal hunting, transportation, sale, and consumption of bonobos, logging companies should provide alternate food sources for their employees and prohibit the transportation of meat and hunting paraphenelia on company boats (Dupain & Van Elsacker 2001).

Local communities that depend on bonobo meat for protein and as currency to obtain necessary supplies should be provisioned with alternate food sources and sundries by international aid organizations. Giving people alternatives may alleviate some of the pressure on bonobo populations in the most heavily hunted areas. Providing other economic opportunities is another crucial factor in decreasing reliance on bushmeat. In times of peace, this can be achieved by maintaining a strong research presence in areas that have been traditionally used as hunting grounds (Dupain & Van Elsacker 2001). Researchers can often provide jobs to local people as field assistants, educators, and camp staff. They not only offer paid work, but having locals involved in research and bonobo conservation creates a meaningful connection between people and wildlife that may influence their future actions (Wrangham 2001).

Educating potential buyers of infant bonobos in the markets of Congolese urban centers is another way to decrease the market for apes as pets.

Threat: Accidental Mortality

Occasionally bonobos are ensnared in traps set for other terrestrial mammals and are injured (Kano 1992; Coxe et al. 2000). There is little data on the scope of this problem.

Threat: Persecution

Traditionally, bonobos were revered and viewed as relatives to local people (Coxe et al. 2000). Where they are not habituated, bonobos are extremely shy and afraid of people (de Waal 1996). Except for where they are hunted as food, there are no instances of human-bonobo conflict.

Threat: Changes in Native Species Dynamics

Bonobos have no known predators and as such their population size and structure is not affected by predator-prey interactions (de Waal 1996).

At Wamba, there have been high instances of physical handicaps noted in the study groups. Missing digits and limbs dominate those deformities recorded, and there is some speculation that leprosy could be one of the causes of these abnormalities (Kano 1992).

Potential Solutions

Limiting physical contact between bonobos and humans is crucial to minimizing transfer of all diseases. In instances where it is appropriate and the bonobos are habituated, veterinary care may also be helpful.

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

Bonobos are long-lived and mature slowly, producing few offspring over their lifetimes, as such population growth rates are inherently slow. Because of these qualities, disturbances can have significant affects on overall population size (Thompson-Handler et al. 1995). Any demographic changes are compounded by the effects of habitat fragmentation, range restriction, and decreasing population sizes. For example, when two populations that used to come into contact are separated by an impassable barrier, such as a logging road, gene flow between the two communities ceases and problems such as inbreeding depression and subsequent fixation of deleterious alleles (Thompson-Handler et al. 1995; Coxe et al. 2000).

Potential Solutions

Efforts to decrease habitat fragmentation should be of greatest importance. Demographic changes should be minimized, if at all possible, by decreasing the demand for bushmeat as well as setting up orphanages and refuges for infant bonobos confiscated in markets.

Captive breeding programs are also important and may serve as "arks" for bonobos. It should continue to be the goal of programs to produce and maintain viable populations ex situ.

Threat: Human Disturbance

Political instability has had deleterious effects on all life in DRC and continues to impede bonobo conservation and research efforts. All research has been abandoned in this area, and few reports of bonobo populations at the most important study sites are available. In some cases, those local people involved in the research have managed to stay and serve as guards, though they are unable to receive any salaries from researchers and communication is impossible. Where bonobos have been habituated, their risk of being shot by soldiers and hunters is great, and research assistants have little means to protect these apes from such persecution (Coxe et al. 2000).

Potential Solutions

There are few options as long as the area remains insecure for both foreign and domestic assistance and involvement (Coxe et al. 2000).





Content last modified: December 1, 2010

Written by Kristina Cawthon Lang. Reviewed by Frans de Waal.

Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2010 December 1. Primate Factsheets: Bonobo (Pan paniscus) Conservation . <>. Accessed 2014 April 17.