Thursday, September 22, 2011

In the Congo, a secret world of bonobos

Anthropologist Amy Cobden's fieldwork is challenging stereotypical ideas about chimpanzees, left, and bonobos, right. Photos copyrighted by Frans de Waal.

Journalist Kate Roach writes in New Scientist about the research of an Emory graduate student of anthropology:

A dark, chiseled face looks at us from way up in the branches of a vast rainforest tree. Deep-set, inky eyes peer suspiciously through the foliage, throwing an occasional glance towards movement in a tree beyond. This is Ruby, a mature female bonobo. She lingers, almost as if to separate us from the rest of her party, who are moving on in search of more fruit. Then she leaps away.

Such encounters are typical of the pleasure and frustration of studying bonobos in their natural habitat. Found only in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, these were the last great apes to be discovered and are the least studied. Their range, beneath a huge arc made by the Congo river, is fragmented across a region of lowland rainforest that approximates 350,000 square kilometres, about the size of Germany. It is a hauntingly beautiful landscape, encompassing both swamp and dry forest, all of it inaccessible, with travel mostly restricted to following forest trails by foot or trail bike, or navigating the rivers in unsteady flat-bottomed pirogues.

But physical remoteness is not the only reason why bonobos are so elusive. A succession of wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1996 and 2003 has severely disrupted research. In 1998, scientists were forced to leave the area where I am staying with primatologist Amy Cobden from Emory University in Atlanta. … Cobden knows it will be many months, possibly years, before the apes once again become sufficiently used to humans to behave naturally. With so much still to learn about these animals, she is hopeful that her patience will be rewarded.

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Chimps, bonobos yield clues to social brain
A wild view of apes of the planet
Mountain gorillas cope with people in their midst

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