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 studies of zoo populations by the Dutch-American biologist Frans de Waal and others have documented its easy, pervasive sexuality and its propensity for amicable bonding (especially among females), in contrast with chimpanzee dominance battles (especially among males) and intergroup warfare. But the bonobo’s behavior in the wild has been harder to know, and Takayoshi Kano, operating out of the Primate Research Institute 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 University, into the forest. Promptly I saw things that, according to the popular image of the species, I might not have expected. Bonobos quarreled. 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?