A Case of Mis-ape-rehension

bonobo empathy
Last month Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hit cinema screens worldwide as this summer’s hottest blockbuster hit. As the director of a charity which works to protect an endangered species of great ape I should have been first in the queue, but the film that had so much potential to raise awareness of our primate brothers has delivered a slap in the face to the underdog of the great ape world.

In preparation for the movie I had readied myself for the usual cinematic liberties which science fiction takes with scientific fact. I welcomed the inevitable Hollywood injection of anthropomorphism, there’s no place for subtlety when the plot line is sandwiched somewhere between motion capture CGI and 3D glasses. I knew I could rely on the filmmakers to zoom in on every loving glance and furrowed brow to hammer home the parallels that exist between our species. I was even prepared for the incomprehensibly rapid acceleration of evolutionary change, I wasn’t going to let it bother me that apes were able to develop language and talk within a decade, despite the fact that chimpanzees lack the necessary vocal anatomy required to produce speech. I had put my geek on the shelf for the night and I was determined to enjoy it. But I was not prepared for Koba, the sadistic bonobo who is so besieged with hate that he attempts to kill his fellow ape and wage war on humanity.

If bonobos were more well-known it would be ironic but for hundreds of fans this character will be the first and possibly last bonobo that they have ever heard about, and that is why it their portrayal is so damaging. If you think I’m exaggerating ask anyone you know to list the great apes and I bet they can name chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans, a few may even acknowledge that our species belongs on that list too, but good luck finding someone who can name all five. It’s a rare man who knows his bongos from his bonobos.

Bonobos, share almost 99% of their genetic makeup with humans, we are as closely related to bonobos as we are to chimpanzees, and yet bonobos remain conspicuously absent from popular culture, wildlife documentaries and even science text books. If all the World’s a stage and we are merely players, then bonobos ought to sack their agent. The study of chimpanzee behaviour alone has shaped our world view of what it is to be human and we have all been brought up on the idea that prehistoric man was born out of a violent, competitive struggle for survival, where chimp-like ancestors fought for dominance, hunted in packs and clubbed their women folk into submission. The fact that a parallel reality could be closer to the truth is rarely acknowledged.

Aside from a centre parting and a slimmer build, bonobos look a lot like chimpanzees, so much so that they were not recognised as a different species until 1933. For those who have had the opportunity to spend a few moments in their company, the differences are striking. The boisterous clamouring and nervy shrieks commonly heard within chimp groups have been replaced with laid back lounging and ecstatic high pitched whoops. The sense of malice and tension, so palpable when chimps stand off against each other, is absent and in its place there is a more sedate atmosphere peppered with the occasional frenzy of sexual excitement. Whereas chimpanzees turn to violence, bonobos prefer to resolve conflict with sex, and females, despite their smaller stature, are dominant over males forming a sisterhood of social governance which serves to maintain the peace. If it all sounds a little far-fetched, that’s because we’ve bought into the patriarchy for so long that the alternative is a little hard to fathom.

In 2011 I set up the Bonobo Conservation Initiative UK, the UK affiliate of American based BCI which was founded by Sally Coxe in 1998. BCI is the only organisation with the sole purpose of conserving wild bonobos and protecting their rainforest home. Unusually for an animal charity, BCI is based upon a belief in the power of the human spirit. Central to the organisation’s grass-roots model is the recognition that conservation will only be achieved through the empowerment of local communities, and they have been having a huge impact on the villages they work with by doing just that; building schools and health clinics, investing in roads and transportation, providing medical supplies and crucially, training and employing Congolese people to monitor poaching and conduct surveys. In 2006, thanks largely to the work of the BCI and local communities, an area of more than 30,000 km2 was set aside as protected forest by the Congolese government. The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, which continues to be run by and for local communities, has been hailed as a model for all such work in the developing world. But it is only the beginning, BCI are working to connect a series of community-based nature reserves to form a linked constellation of protected habitat called The Bonobo Peace Forest. This ever expanding area of land is hoped to represent a safe haven for bonobos and local people alike.

Historically the Planet of the Apes franchise had overlooked bonobos in their mix of characters and I had often felt a twinge of disappointment that no one had thought to include a species known for their empathy, intelligence and propensity to walk on two feet, it seemed like the perfect casting call. Clearly I overestimated the research capabilities of the writers at 20th Century Fox.

During an interview with NBC’s Keith Wagstaff Dawn director Matt Reeves attempted to explain why “Koba, the film’s villain… a bonobo… practice(s) violence instead of free love,” the director replied, “He is not just a bonobo, he is a bonobo that was kept captive by humans and experimented on, which is kind of a horrific thing if you imagine yourself as that ape.”

As plausible as that may sound, to anyone who knows the first thing about bonobos it doesn’t ring true. Firstly, bonobos have never been used for human medical experiments, as depicted in Rise and referenced in Dawn. Often this is explained by their rarity in captivity, it is more likely due to their extreme sensitivity. Bonobos would make exceptionally poor lab animals, they are well known for surviving for less than a week after trauma. In the 1930s three bonobos housed at Munich Zoo died from shock during the Allied air raids, by comparison the neighbouring chimps survived to old age. Until relatively recently it was considered impossible to rear an orphan bonobo; rescued infants often arrived after being prized off the bodies of their dead mothers by the very hunters who had shot at them, unsurprisingly they exhibited signs of chronic psychological stress, shied away from human contact, refused food and died within a matter of days. Claudine Andre, who founded Lola ya Bonobos, a sanctuary for bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade, was the first to successfully handrear a young bonobo. Today, the sanctuary’s success can be accredited to the ‘mamas’ that act as bonobo surrogates devoting 24 hour care to the infant bonobos ensuring they are showered with affection and given the opportunity to play. No matter how brutal their prior treatment, or how horribly traumatized they are when they arrive at the sanctuary, those that survive the critical first week develop into caring and empathetic adults. No bonobo, captive or wild, has ever been seen killing another bonobo, nor a human nor any other ape. In this they are unique amongst the great apes, “ape shall not kill ape”, the rule by which Caeser’s community live in Dawn, might as well be their mantra.

The least known and last discovered of the great apes are in danger of being the first to go extinct, and may fall by the wayside unnoticed unless more is done to raise awareness of their threatened existence. There is an argument to be made that by characterising Koba the bonobo in such a negative way the film makers, screen writers and directors of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes have inadvertently set back the cause for ‘the forgotten ape’ by ensuring countless cinema goers remember bonobos for all the wrong reasons. If that is the case it would be a tragedy that could cost us their lives.

Tallulah Bygraves


bonobo tv.gif


Tallulah Bygraves is CEO and Co-Founder of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative UK, MA in Leadership and MSc in Primate Conservation. In 2007 she lead a study on local resource use and primate abundance in Guyana, this cemented her belief in the importance of community managed conservation. In 2013 Tallulah developed a community participation self-assessment tool which was applied to BCI’s current model in order to evaluate their ongoing work in DRC. Tallulah is a Teach First Ambassador and spent several years teaching Secondary School Science.

Combining her passion for education and conservation, Tallulah strongly believes that the most effective way of preserving wild bonobos is to provide local communities with the knowledge and means to effectively manage their resources. Find out more at www.bonobo.org.uk or on twitter @Bonobo_UK.

photo: Mark Dumont




This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Case of Mis-ape-rehension

    1. ‘Koba’ was Josef Dzhugashvilli’s nickname long before he became ‘Stalin’, and remained in use among his closest associates. Koba was the name of a much admired Georgian bandito, a kind of Robin Hood. I’m not sure whether the writers of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were aware of the provenance of the name, but it’s hardly appropriate for a bonobo.

      Comment by Klaus Bubblehammer on 15 September, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.