A bonobo field report

A couple of readers have pointed me to an exceptional article in the current New Yorker, in which writer Ian Parker travels with Gottfried Hohmann to Lui Kotal, the field site where he studies partially habituated bonobos.

Along with a lot of local color, Parker presents a cogent description of the history of bonobo research. His back-and-forth interviews with Hohmann and Frans de Waal illuminate the differences between field and captive primate research, which give rise to a current disagreement about bonobo nature:

"It was so easy for Frans to charm everyone," Hohmann said of de Waal one afternoon. "He had the big stories. We don't have the big stories. Often, we have to say, 'No, bonobos can be terribly boring. Watch a bonobo and there are days when you don't see anything -- just sleeping and eating and defecating. There's no sex, there's no food-sharing.' " During our first days in camp, the bonobos had been elusive. "Right now, bonobos are not vocalizing," Hohmann said. "They're just there. And if you go to a zoo, if you give them some food, there's a frenzy. It's so different."
Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, "Stuck together, bored out of their minds -- what is there to do except eat and have sex?" De Waal has argued that, even if captive bonobo behavior is somewhat skewed, it can still be usefully contrasted with the behavior of captive chimpanzees; he has even written that "only captive studies control for environmental conditions and thereby provide conclusive data on interspecific differences." Stanford's reply is that "different animals respond very differently to captivity."

Then there is the most powerful bonobo stereotype -- the sex thing:

When I asked Hohmann about the bonobo sex at Lui Kotal, he said, "It's nothing that really strikes me." Certainly, he and his team observe female "g-g rubbing," which is not seen in chimpanzees, and needs to be explained. "But does it have anything to do with sex?" Hohmann asked. "Probably not. Of course, they use the genitals, but is it erotic behavior or a greeting gesture that is completely detached from sexual behavior?"
A hug? "A hug can be highly sexual or two leaders meeting at the airport. It's a gesture, nothing else. It depends on the context."

This is a book chapter-length article, and worth printing out and reading closely. We could use a half-dozen more like it on different primates.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in reading more about bonobo field research, I can pass along a link to the Lomami blog at Wildlife Direct, where Ashley Vesper writes about his experiences surveying bonobo populations along the Lomami River.