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“Hippie chimp” quickly losing ground to people: study

Nov. 26, 2013
Courtesy the Wildlife Conservation Society
and World Science staff

The bonobo chimp, one of hu­mans’ two clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives, is quickly los­ing space in a world with more and more peo­ple, a study re­ports.

Re­search­ers call the study the most de­tailed range-wide as­sess­ment of the bo­no­bo chim­pan­zee, some­times called the “hip­pie chimp” for its rel­a­tively peace­a­ble and sex­u­ally ac­tive ways. En­dan­gered and still poorly known, hab­i­tat frag­menta­t­ion and poach­ing are de­stroy­ing its nat­u­ral liv­ing range, the re­search finds.

Credit: Crispin Ma­ham­ba/WCS-DRC Pro­gram


Us­ing da­ta from nest counts and re­mote sens­ing im­age­ry, sci­en­tists found that the ape avoids ar­eas of high hu­man ac­ti­vity and for­est frag­menta­t­ion. As lit­tle as 28 per­cent of its nat­u­ral range re­mains suit­a­ble, ac­cord­ing to a mod­el the re­search­ers de­vel­oped. 

The find­ings, pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the jour­nal Bio­divers­ity and Con­serva­t­ion, are “a ma­jor step to­wards ad­dress­ing the sub­stanti­al in­forma­t­ion gap re­gard­ing the con­serva­t­ion sta­tus of bo­no­bos across their en­tire range,” said lead au­thor Je­na R. Hick­ey of Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in Ith­a­ca, N.Y. and the Uni­vers­ity of Geor­gia. 

They show, she added, “that hu­man ac­ti­vi­ties re­duce the amount of ef­fec­tive bo­no­bo hab­i­tat and will help us iden­ti­fy where to pro­pose fu­ture pro­tected ar­eas for this great ape.”

“For bono­bos to sur­vive over the next 100 years or long­er, it is ex­tremely im­por­tant that we un­der­stand the ex­tent of their range, their dis­tri­bu­tion, and drivers of that dis­tri­bu­tion so that con­serva­t­ion ac­tions can be tar­get­ed,” said Ash­ley Vosper of the New York-based Wild­life Con­serva­t­ion So­ci­e­ty, which par­ti­ci­pated in the work. 

“Bono­bos are probably the least un­der­stood great ape in Af­ri­ca, so this pa­per is piv­ot­al in in­creas­ing our knowl­edge and un­der­standing of this beau­ti­ful and char­is­mat­ic an­i­mal.”

The bonobo and the com­mon chimp are mankind’s two clos­est ev­o­lu­tion­ary rel­a­tives. Of them, the bonobo is the smaller and more slen­der. Its so­cial struc­ture is com­plex and ma­tri­ar­chal. Un­like com­mon chimps, bono­bos form so­cial bonds and de­fuse ten­sion or ag­gres­sion with sex­u­al ac­ti­vity.

The bonobo’s whole range lies in the low­land for­ests of the Dem­o­crat­ic Re­pub­lic of Con­go, the larg­est coun­try in sub-Saharan Af­ri­ca and cur­rently be­set with war­fare and in­se­cur­ity. 

“Bono­bos that live in clos­er proxim­ity to hu­man ac­ti­vity and to points of hu­man ac­cess are more vul­ner­a­ble to poach­ing, one of their main threats,” said Ja­net Nack­oney of the Uni­vers­ity of Mar­y­land, a co-au­thor of the stu­dy. “Our re­sults point to the need for more places where bono­bos can be safe from hunters, which is an enor­mous chal­lenge” in the coun­try.


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The bonobo chimp, one of humans’ two closest living relatives, is quickly losing space in a world with more and more people, a study reports. Researchers call the study the most detailed range-wide assessment of the bonobo chimpanzee, sometimes called the “hippie chimp” for its relatively peaceable and sexually active ways. Endangered and still poorly known, habitat fragmentation and poaching are destroying its natural living range, the research finds. Using data from nest counts and remote sensing imagery, scientists found that the ape avoids areas of high human activity and forest fragmentation. As little as 28 percent of its natural range remains suitable, according to a model the researchers developed. The findings, published in the December issue of the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, are “a major step towards addressing the substantial information gap regarding the conservation status of bonobos across their entire range,” said lead author Jena R. Hickey of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and the University of Georgia. They show, she added, “that human activities reduce the amount of effective bonobo habitat and will help us identify where to propose future protected areas for this great ape.” “For bonobos to survive over the next 100 years or longer, it is extremely important that we understand the extent of their range, their distribution, and drivers of that distribution so that conservation actions can be targeted,” said Ashley Vosper of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which participated in the work. “Bonobos are probably the least understood great ape in Africa, so this paper is pivotal in increasing our knowledge and understanding of this beautiful and charismatic animal.” The bonobo and the common chimp are mankind’s two closest evolutionary relatives. Of them, the bonobo is the smaller and more slender. Its social structure is complex and matriarchal. Unlike common chimps, bonobos form social bonds and defuse tension or aggression with sexual activity. The bonobo’s whole range lies in the lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and currently beset with warfare and insecurity. “Bonobos that live in closer proximity to human activity and to points of human access are more vulnerable to poaching, one of their main threats,” said Janet Nackoney of the University of Maryland, a co-author of the study. “Our results point to the need for more places where bonobos can be safe from hunters, which is an enormous challenge” in the country.