(Photo: © Frans Lanting)
Bonobos, members of the great ape family, have very elaborate, and unique, social and sexual behaviors. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Amy Parish, scientific advisor for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, about this peace-loving and female-dominated species.
CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Ozric Tentacles “Eternal” from ‘Erpland’ (Flameshovel Records – 2004)]
CURWOOD: That's a bonobo ape summoning the rest of the gang together. Now, the bonobo is as genetically similar to humans as the chimpanzee but unlike chimps these relatively peaceful creatures live in matriarchal societies and use sex to deal with competition and anger.
The only place where they are found in nature is a small wedge of forest south of the Congo River in Africa and their numbers have been falling in the face of civil unrest, logging, and hunting. So, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative is creating a refuge for them called the Bonobo Peace Forest.
Joining me now is Amy Parish. She teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and is a scientific advisor to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. Hello.
PARISH: Hello, Steve. Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Can you start by just telling us a little bit about the bonobo? What do they look like? Where do they live? What do they eat? That sort of thing.
PARISH: If you saw one you might think that they’re a chimpanzee because they’re very closely related to chimpanzees, and yet there are some differences that become apparent if you watch them for a day. For instance, their vocalizations are much higher pitched. So if you’ve heard chimps and then you heard bonobos, any layperson can clearly hear the difference between the two.
CURWOOD: Now, the bonobo have gotten quite a bit of interest because of their, well, shall we put it, their rather interesting social life.
CURWOOD: And you’ve been an observer of that for years. Tell me more about how the bonobo interacts socially compared to chimps or even compared to, you know, us, the great ape people.
PARISH: Bonobos have a reputation as the make love not war species, and they have that reputation because they have a very elaborate repertoire of sexual behavior that seems very similar to what we see in humans. So there are face to face matings. There are same-sex copulations between females and also between males. There are copulations that don’t occur around the time of ovulation, so they have what we call “continuous receptivity.” They can have sex anytime.
You see sexual interactions on almost any day that you’re out watching the bonobos, and they seem to be particularly concentrated during times when there might otherwise be tension. So when food is being put out for the bonobos, or when they encounter a fruit tree in the wild, or just after aggression, they resolve that aggression using sex. And so they have their make love not war reputation because of the kind of repertoire they have and the context in which they use it.
CURWOOD: So this is really the matriarchal society?
PARISH: It really is. And not everybody’s been willing to accept that because it is so rare in mammals to see patterns of female dominance. For so long our only model that we could use to guess about our evolution, and what our last common ancestor would have looked like with chimpanzees five million years ago, was a chimpanzee model. We’ve been studying chimps for forty years in the wild and so we know a lot about their patriarchy and about their patterns of warfare, and that seems similar to humans.
We only learned about bonobos much later –they were only recognized as a separate species in the 1920s. And what we’re seeing with bonobos is a very different pattern: female dominance; resolving conflict using sex; no infanticide; not necessarily only the males hunting and eating meat. And so, not everybody’s comfortable with the idea that our last common ancestor might have been matriarchal, maybe sort of aggressive towards males.
CURWOOD: So, bonobo guys are kind of mellow, is that the bottom line here?
PARISH: You could call them mellow. Sometimes they’ve been characterized as mama’s boys, or henpecked.
CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Mama’s boys!
PARISH: [LAUGHS] Because unlike chimpanzees, where for a male chimp to enter the adult male dominance hierarchy he has to first dominate all females in the group. So as he approaches adolescence he begins to become very aggressive towards all of the females and then eventually, when he’s dominated all of the females, including his mother, he can enter the very lowest ranks of the adult male dominance hierarchy.
In bonobos, males maintain their relationships with their mothers throughout their lives. They never assert dominance over them. In fact, the mothers actually become involved when males have fights with each other, and whoever has the higher ranking mother wins the fight.
PARISH: We know that it’s son’s rank that is dependent on mother’s rank, and not the other way around, because when a high-ranking mother dies that previously high-ranking son will immediately fall in rank and become peripheral on the edges of the group. And so it’s clear that males really need their mothers throughout their lives to help them with their dominance interactions. And males even, sons even, benefit from getting to mate with their mother’s friends.
I started noticing that in captivity females were launching cooperative attacks against males sometimes, inflicting serious injuries on them; and as I went from zoo to zoo I saw the same pattern happening again and again. And each zoo thought that there was something wrong with their particular male so they had spun these stories to account for the strange behavior. Stories like, ‘oh, the male was ill when he was young, and a female keeper took him home and must have made him soft, must have spoiled him somehow and now he doesn’t know how to stand up to females.’
And the idea is that the natural order of things would be, of course, that females are submissive towards males and not the other way around.
CURWOOD: How comfortable do you think the public is with an ape society where women, in fact, are in power? And that they’re pretty closely linked to us?
PARISH: People are uncomfortable with the idea that females might hold the power because it’s just so contrary to our understanding of the natural order of things. And so I even have colleagues who are chimpanzee researchers who refuse to accept that the pattern is female dominance. So, for instance, they call it “strategic male deference” [LAUGHS] which basically means, well, you know, of course the males could be in charge if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back and letting females have the upper hand, maybe. Maybe so they get more sex out of it, is the basic idea.
PARISH: And, you know, we never say that when it’s male dominance. We never say, ‘oh, well, obviously the females could be dominant if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back.’ I’ve even seen in scientific literature the pattern that we see in bonobos has been described as “male chivalry,” which is not at all an empirical term for a scientific paper. It’s not chivalry, it’s just that females have the upper hand.
In zoos, people feel very sorry for the males when they get injuries from the females, and the zoos always want to intervene. So, for instance, in one zoo where I work they decided they were going to give a particular female who is prone to attacking males a time-out whenever she engages in this behavior so she would learn, you know, not to attack males. And I said, ‘well, you do realize that this is a pattern across zoos, and this is part of the natural repertoire of bonobo behavior.’ And they said, ‘we don’t want our females attacking males, and so we’re going to try to intervene.’
And what’s interesting to me about that is in chimpanzees it’s males who attack females and are very, very brutal to them in many circumstances, and I don’t see the same sort of sympathy, or the same sort of impetus to intervene, when it’s males attacking females because we see that as natural. But when it’s a female attacking a male we say, ‘oh, you know, something must be done.’
CURWOOD: Tell me some stories of the behaviors of the bonobo that you’ve observed over the years, things that you think we’d be interested in hearing.
PARISH: Well, I’ve watched bonobos for about 15 years, and some of my favorite stories or anecdotes about them come from days when I spent all day, from dawn to dusk, watching them.
For instance, one day I was watching a female named Louise, and she had a bunch of celery in her hand and I wanted her to turn slightly so I could take some pictures of her because the green celery looked so nice against her black fur. And so I kept saying, ‘Louise, Louise, Louise.’ And she wouldn’t look at me. She kept looking up at the sky, munching on her celery – no matter what I did she wouldn’t look.
So I kept pestering her, I’d say, ‘Louise, Louise!’ And so finally she stood up and ripped the celery in half and threw half to me. So she thought I was begging from her for the celery. And it was so touching because I’d sat out there for many, many days and eaten my lunch and never offered them any, nor had they begged from me. But I was very, very touched that she’d be willing to share her food with me. I felt, you know, that it was a moment of female solidarity. An inter-species moment of female solidarity. So that’s one example.
PARISH: Another example that might seem a little unsavory if you’re not a biologist, but I used to collect fecal samples on all of the females so that I could analyze the samples for estrogen and progesterone. I wanted to look at cycle state and how it correlates with behavior. And so I was allowed to watch the bonobos in their indoor sleeping cages before they were let out into their daytime enclosure, and then the idea was once they were released I could go in and pick up the samples.
So Lana had a sample in her hand that I really needed because I knew she was approaching ovulation, and so I held out my hand and wiggled the ends of my fingers, which is a typical bonobo begging gesture. And she knew I was begging for something but she couldn’t figure out what it was – she was turning around in circles and looking on the floor. And finally she looked at her hand, and looked at me, and looked at her hand, and then she just held it out and I took it from her. And I thought, ‘oh, this is wonderful, I’m going to have to train the bonobos to just give me their samples.’
Well, the very next day I came in and she handed me a sample. And by the end of the week, all four adult females were just giving me these fecal samples, which was very heartening. As a biologist, it made my job a lot easier. [LAUGHS]
And years later I went to the zoo in Stuttgart, where one of the females who had been too young to collect on during the time when I was collecting fecal samples, had been transferred to this zoo from North America to Europe. I’d only collected on her mother, not on her, and she hadn’t seen me in four years. And as soon as she saw me, she went away and got a fecal sample and brought it over to me. [LAUGHS] So she clearly recognized me as that woman who wants to have fecal samples, even though all of that time had passed. And the keepers at the Stuttgart Zoo said she’d never done that with anyone else.
But I think my favorite, when I returned to the San Diego Wild Animal Park after I’d had my own son, who’s named for a bonobo – his name is Kalen, named after the first bonobo I ever met. So I took my son to the Wild Animal Park and Lana was very excited to see me. She was standing up and vocalizing and clapping her hands. She was looking at Kalen, and looking at me, and then she disappeared. And she came back with her new baby that I hadn’t seen yet, and she held him up in front of me, she suspended him by his arms and held him there. And it was very clear she recognized that I had had a baby, and she wanted to let me know that she had also had a baby. It was just a very touching moment.
CURWOOD: Now, there are plans afoot to create a Bonobo Peace Forest for these apes. What would the creation of a Bonobo Peace Forest mean for the bonobo?
PARISH: This is a very exciting project that’s being run by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which has spent years putting it into place. And basically it’s going to be a huge forest reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s managed by the local indigenous people. So they stand to gain a lot in terms of community service projects, and they stand to gain a lot by protecting their own environment.
So it’s a good thing that they’re doing it because there’s probably less than 10,000 bonobos left in the wild today. We don’t exactly know how many because it’s been hard to go out and do census work with all of the civil war going on. But we know that populations of bonobos have been declining very, very rapidly over the last decade, and this Bonobo Peace Forest is going to be a model for conservation in the 21st century.
CURWOOD: What do you think are gonna be some of the biggest challenges in creating a safe and successful refuge for the bonobo?
PARISH: One of the problems in the former Zaire has been that when logging companies came into these areas they would bring workers from other parts of Zaire or other African countries that didn’t have the same ways of life as the local population. So in many local populations where bonobos live there are taboos against eating bonobos, and they believe that bonobos are an ancestor, or that they embody the spirits of their dead relatives, and there are taboos against eating them.
And what logging companies do is they bring people in but they don’t feed them. They arm them and they say, ‘go into the forest and hunt for your own food.’ And so the rates of hunting of bonobos have gone up drastically due to these logging pressures. Having a protected forest like this is going to be really instrumental in making this a workable project.
CURWOOD: Amy Parish teaches at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for taking this time.
PARISH: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
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