We are delighted to announce the birth of a baby bonobo on 25th July. Sharing 98% of their DNA with humans, bonobos are an endangered species of great ape, found only in the basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the IUCN, the number of bonobos found in the wild has been in decline for the past 30 years, a trend which is set to continue. Bonobos are the least familiar type of great ape, often mistaken for their close relatives, the far more widely recognised chimpanzee. Efforts to conserve and grow important captive-bred populations are critical in maintaining the species; in the UK, this challenge falls solely upon Twycross Zoo as it is the only zoo in the UK to keep and successfully breed them.
The new arrival, which is yet to be sexed, was born to experienced mother Cheka, 19 who is one of the adult females in the group at Twycross Zoo and has been resident at the zoo since 2004.
Cheka has already produced two offspring as part of a carefully planned European Endangered Species Programme (EEP); her other offspring are nine year old daughter Gemena, who now resides at Leipzig Zoo in Germany and five year old son Winton. The arrival of this infant brings the group at Twycross Zoo to 12 individuals, having welcomed four other infants in the last five years. The zoo has also transferred a male and female to Germany in the hopes of further breeding success in Europe.
Planning the breeding of bonobos amongst captive-bred populations is an intricate process given the promiscuous nature of the animals, as Dr Charlotte Macdonald, Director of Life Sciences at Twycross Zoo explains: “Bonobos have complex social structures and for them, sex is used as a powerful communication tool. It’s not always about reproduction, but is also used to establish social hierarchies and bonds, express excitement, or remove tension from potentially aggressive situations. However, with so much promiscuous behaviour going on they need to be carefully managed to keep their genetic lines healthy.”
Twycross Zoo is a partner of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), a United Nations initiative committed to ensuring the long-term survival of chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orang-utans and their habitats in Africa and Asia. Bonobos are under increasing threat in the wild, poached for their bush meat and threatened by commercial logging and expansive agriculture. They are further threatened due to them being an endemic species in the Congo, where there has been political instability and civil unrest. To support the bonobo population in the Congo, Twycross Zoo provides funding to Lola Ya Bonobo, the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, which cares for orphaned and injured bonobos. Also, researchers from Lola Ya Bonobo have visited Twycross Zoo and given talks to visitors to raise awareness of the plight facing the bonobo.
Dr Macdonald continues, “It’s very important to us at Twycross Zoo that we teach our visitors about our bonobos, especially as we are the only zoo in the whole of the UK to keep and breed them. In appearance they are often mistaken for chimpanzees by people who have not seen them before, but look more closely and their appearance and behaviour is completely different – they are a very lively group! We are working with a number of universities around the country to study their behaviour and learn more about this amazing species.”
Photos by Hannah Barlow