Can we save bonobos, the great ape most similar to humans? They are more endangered than we thought.

According to the African wildlife foundation estimates, there are 15000 to 20000 bonobos left in the wild. Bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees are thought to genetically be closer to humans, certainly their appearance – they are thinner, have thinner faces and a more noticeable crop of hair on their head, but are horrifically threatened.

Although these bonobos do not look human, they look very different to other chimpanzees.

Yet it would appear that even this estimate is too high.

How do you count an animal that lives deep in the rainforest? Bonobos are far more at home in the forest than humans. They can travel at speed through the treetops, and given the facts that a large portion of the declining their number comes from the bushmeat trade they are fearful of humans and will usually flee when they hear us coming.

Up until now their population size has been estimated using a count of the nests they create. The problem is that with declining rainfall in the Congo basin nests are lasting longer. Indeed, scientists suggest that the longevity of a nest has increased by as much as 17 days.

Now if you are counting a population based on the number of nests you find, and they last longer than you thought they would, you will naturally overcount the number of bonobos in the system.

This overestimation is thought to be as high as 60%, which if true would reduce the wild bonobo population to around 5000.

We need to remember that despite sometimes being called pygmy chimpanzees, bonobos are a completely different species. The loss would be very sad, and the number of bonobos left in zoos is much lower than that of chimpanzees, well below the level needed if the wild population has to be restarted.

There have been articles published in the last few months estimating that 80% of great ape habitat in Africa will be lost by 2050. 

This needs to change.

Destruction of the rainforest is not needed for these countries to pull themselves up the economic scale. The West and other rich countries must put our money where our mouths are. The Congo basin rainforest is essential (alongside the Amazon rainforest and the rainforests of southeast Asia).

Without these rainforests remaining we have no hope of keeping our carbon footprint below what the planet can tolerate.

Of course we should encourage tourism to these places – carefully directed tourism can provide good paying jobs to people in remote places and give them an incentive to protect their surroundings. However it is likely that this is not enough.

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