Book’s plea: Save the bonobos

Great ape proven to understand language is being slaughtered

A biologist at Washington University in St. Louis is the mastermind behind a project that has led to an informative book, aimed at children but appealing to all ages, on an endangered species of ape.

Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, is the driving force behind I’m Lucy, A Day in the Life of a Young Bonobo, written by Mathea Levine, Goodenough’s daughter, and featuring the photographs of St. Louisan Marian Brickner. The book includes a convincing, impassioned Afterward by the famed primatologist Jane Goodall.

Goodenough forged collaborations with the book’s participants, but also with field scientists, and created Blue Bark Press to get the work in print. The book sells for $19.95 and can be purchased on this Web site: All profits from I’m Lucy go to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) and the Roots & Shoots program, both non-profit organizations. The BCI seeks to preserve the bonobo population, found in the wild exclusively in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa.

No one knows how many bonobos are left in the wild, but it may be as few as 5,000, and there are estimates that unless humans intervene in their preservation and in maintenance of their habitat, the little apes could become extinct in the wild in less than a decade.

The bonobo, one of two species that make up the chimpanzee genus, Pan, is among nature’s quaintest, cutest animals. Along with the common chimpanzee, the bonobo is the closest relative to humans, with a genome that is 98 — some say 99 — percent similar to our own.

Bonobos are even being studied to see if they can actually understand human language. A famous bonobo, Kanzi, who is 27 years old and lives at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, mastered more than 200 words through keyboard lexigrams. When a word is spoken, he will point to the correct lexigram.

Who, then, would want to kill such a fun, intelligent creature, not far removed from our own species?

“Bush meat”

In parts of Africa and Asia it is considered prestigious to serve guests freshly killed wild animals, and bonobos are often killed for just that purpose. This kind of delicacy, if you will, is called “bush meat.” Impoverished DRC residents are also known to consume them.

They also are under the pressure of intense logging — much of their lives is spent in trees — and political unrest in the DRC has made it difficult for the nation’s leaders to develop any sustained preservation program. The DRC has a wealth of minerals and one in particular, coltan, an essential mineral for cell phones, Play Stations and computer chips, is highly prized. The habitat of the bonobo is ground zero for conflict between Rwanda and Uganda-backed rebels and the government of the DRC to control the coltan market.

Thus, bonobos face long odds for survival. Goodenough is part of a heroic effort to counter these actions. She has befriended conservationists Sally Coxe and Michael Hurley, a husband-wife team who, for a decade or better, have raised funds toward purchasing some of the bonobo habitat and turn it into conservation land, and established the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI). In this effort, they have worked closely with the current leadership of the DRC.

“I first learned about bonobos by reading the story of Kanzi, who is actually a half-brother of Lucy, the title character in the book,” Goodenough said. “I attended a conference where I heard Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her husband, Duane, of Emory University, who worked with Kanzi on his language skills. After that I couldn’t read enough about them. Their language capabilities intrigued me.”

Mom rules

Goodenough also was fascinated by the fact that chimpanzees and bonobos last shared a common ancestor just two million years ago, and within that timeframe bonobos diverged markedly from chimpanzees in social structure. They are matriarchal as opposed to the patriarchal chimpanzees. And, while chimpanzees are smart, bonobos are less excitable and more prone to pay attention than chimps — traits that could make them more amenable to learning.

In 2000, Goodenough spent time at the Apenhaus in Holland, a facility that houses bonobos, and became hooked on the creatures. Roughly the same time, she befriended Frans de Waal, an Emory primatologist who has written extensively about bonobos. Goodenough became acquainted with Coxe and Hurley, who have family at Martha’s Vineyard where Goodenough and her family spend summers.

At Coxe’s suggestion, Goodenough contacted St. Louis photographer Brickner, whose photographs of bonobos at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida had impressed Coxe. Goodenough found that Brickner had a vast storehouse of bonobo pictures. Her daughter, Levine, had established a career as a writer, and the notion of putting together a consciousness-raising book fell in place.

A dream comes true?

“I asked Marian what she planned to do with all of these wonderful pictures,” Goodenough said. “She told me that the most important thing in her life was to have children come to know bonobos. It was her dream. She wanted them to like bonobos and see that bonobos are very much like kids. If this could happen on a large scale, she hoped that the recognition would help in their conservation and preservation.”

The book has 28 photographs. The story thread tells of the activities of Lucy, her brother Kaleb, Aunt Lexi and her mother Lorel in a typical bonobo day, a sort of “Ulysses treatment” of a great ape family, with Lucy the focus. The text is smooth and charming, the photographs, warm, humorous and compelling. And the message is clear: Lucy is a lot like us, especially like a young girl, and these great apes are in trouble.

A short excerpt from the book:

Meet Lucy! She’s a bonobo, and she’s a lot like you! In this story, you’ll learn about Lucy and her family and see amazing photographs that will make you laugh out loud.

What is a bonobo? Bonobos are our closest great ape relatives who live in a uniquely peaceful and matriarchal society.

Tragically, scientists predict bonobo extinction within 10 years unless humans protect them and their habitat, the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa.

“Our hope is that the book will be widely read and that children will fall in love with these animals, as in Marian’s dream,” Goodenough said. “In addition to the book, people can go to the Web site to learn more about bonobos and about connecting to the environment through their connection to bonobos. That will facilitate all of our goals.”