National Geographic : 2013 Mar
102 national geographic • march 2013 By David Quammen Photographs by Christian Ziegler in a remote forest sector of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along the north bank of the Luo River, 50 miles by dirt trail from the nearest grass airstrip, lies the Wamba research camp, a place that’s quietly renowned in the annals of primatology. Wamba was founded in 1974 by a Japanese primatologist named Takayoshi Kano for the study of the bonobo, Pan paniscus, a species of simian unlike any other. The bonobo, in case you haven’t heard, carries a reputation as the “make love, not war” member of the ape lineage, far lustier and less bellicose than its close cousin, the chimpanzee. Modern stud- ies of zoo populations by the Dutch-American biologist Frans de Waal and others have docu- mented its easy, pervasive sexuality and its pro- pensity for amicable bonding (especially among females), in contrast with chimpanzee domi- nance battles (especially among males) and in- tergroup warfare. But the bonobo’s behavior in the wild has been harder to know, and Takayoshi Kano, operating out of the Primate Research In- stitute of Kyoto University, was among the first scientists aspiring to study it there. Apart from several interruptions, including a hiatus during the Congo wars of 1996-2002, observations at Wamba have continued ever since. Early one morning I followed a researcher named Tetsuya Sakamaki, also from Kyoto Uni- versity, into the forest. Promptly I saw things that, according to the popular image of the spe- cies, I might not have expected. Bonobos quar- reled. They hunted for meat. They went hours at a stretch without having sex. This was the animal so renowned for its lubricious, pacific social life? As Sakamaki and I watched a party of bono- bos feeding on the fruits of a boleka tree—small, grapelike morsels with papery husks—he identi- fied the individuals by name. That female there, with the sexual swelling, we call her Nova, he said. She last gave birth in 2008; the gaudy infla- tion of her genital area, like a pink sofa cushion taped to her rump, advertised her readiness to breed again. This female is Nao, he said, very old, very senior. Nao has two daughters, of which the elder has so far remained in this group. And that female there, that’s Kiku, also very senior, with three sons in the group. One of those sons is Nobita—easy to identify, Sakamaki explained, by his great size and the digits missing from his right hand and both feet and by the blackness of his testes. Missing digits suggest a mishap in a snare, not unusual for bonobos facing the haz- ards of human proximity. Nobita seems to be the alpha male, insofar as bonobo groups recognize alpha males. By now we had followed the bonobos into a grove of musanga trees, and they were stuffing their mouths with fruit, pulpy and green. Sud- denly a screechy altercation broke out between THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.