Our Cousins Are Sick

By Carl Zimmer | April 2, 2009 11:51 am

Bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives. Unfortunately the entire species has dwindled down to a few thousand survivors, all in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This morning I got a worrying email from Vanessa Woods, a bonobo expert who’s at a bonobo research facility in DRC:

In the last month, a flu epidemic has hit the bonobo sanctuary where we work: Lola ya bonobo (www.friendsofbonobos.org). It is the only bonobo sanctuary in the world, with over 60 orphans from the bushmeat trade.

The virus has infected over 20 bonobos and counting, and has already killed four. Another 3 have died, we aren’t sure of the cause, so it could be as many as seven, which means the sanctuary has already lost over a tenth of its population.

The symptoms are a dry cough, followed by a runny nose. But then the bonobos start hyperventilating, it’s like they can’t get enough air. They die as quickly as 72 hours after the initial symptoms. The problem is, the virus hasn’t seem to run its course, it’s been through the nursery twice, and is bouncing back and forth between the enclosures.

The only enclosure that is safe is the quarantined bonobos who will be released back into the wild in June this year.

Bonobos, known as the peaceful ape, are also the most endangered, with as few as 10,000 left in the wild. They share 98.7% of our DNA, like chimps, but unlike chimps who have murder, rape, and war in their societies, bonobos communities are female dominated and have very little violence. Their similarity to humans is why the virus could jump so quickly.

Lola ya Bonobo is critical to the conservation of bonobos, both through education (30,000 Congolese visit the sanctuary every year, most of them school children) and the release project which will be the first time bonobos have been released into the wild.

The economic crisis has also hit Congo, and the sanctuary is down $33,000 for food this year. No food = no medicine, and the drugs and equipment to treat this kind of epidemic are expensive.

If anyone has heard of anything like this illness in great apes, please write to v.woods@duke.edu. If people would like to donate, please visit www.friendsofbonobos.org/support.htm .

 [Image from Friends of Bonobos]


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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