By Karen Billing
Few people can say that they’ve had a hug from a bonobo. Even fewer can tell you exactly what a bonobo is.
Solana Beach resident Debbie Sandler, who has had her share of bonobo hugs, is determined to introduce people to the endangered animal, a member of the great ape family that is one of humans’ closest living relatives. Sandler had the opportunity to spend time with the bonobos in their native Democratic Republic of Congo last year and wants to raise awareness about the species, as well as alert people to the population living right here in San Diego.
The San Diego Zoo is only one of seven in the United States to have bonobos in captivity. There are currently 13 bonobos in the group at the zoo, having moved down from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in June 2012.
The number of bonobos left in the wild is unknown but it could be as little as 10,000. The Congo’s Lola Ya Bonobo, where Sandler visited in October 2012, is the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, taking in bonobos orphaned by the bush meat trade.
“They need us, they need our voices,” said Sandler.
Of the four great apes (which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), the bonobos are the least known and the most rare. For many years bonobos were thought to be just pygmy chimps and were only discovered as a species 30 years ago, Sandler said.
As the bonobos live exclusively in the Congo there is a degree of difficulty for researchers getting access to the animals as the country has been emerged in a deadly conflict since 1998.
Bonobos and chimps are humans’ closest relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of human DNA.
While chimps live in a male-dominated society with infanticide and war, the bonobos are female dominated; they are more peaceful and sexual behavior is used as a way to resolve conflicts.
“Because they’re so genetically alike with humans, it’s really valuable for us to understand them better,” Sandler said.
They look very similar to chimps, but bonobos are smaller with pink lips, black faces and hair parted down the middle. Unlike chimps, bonobos have a very high-pitched voice.Debbie Sandler
Sandler, who has her degree in anthropology and primatology, is a self-proclaimed “former orangutan girl.” She got hooked on bonobos after a reading the book “Bonobo Handshake” by Vanessa Woods, a Duke University researcher who traveled to Lola Ya Bonobo with her husband Brian Hare, who leads the Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke.
Almost immediately after finishing the book, Sandler plunged herself into learning as much as she could about the bonobos. She tracked down Hare, flew across country to attend a Friends of Bonobos fundraiser, and made plans to go to Africa as soon as she could.
“I wanted to have that hands-on experience with the orphans but equally as important, I wanted the opportunity to experience Lola and that part of the world so that I could, in some way, bring that magic back here and share this incredible group of little known great apes with my community and others,” Sandler said.