Meet the Cincinnati Zoo's primate pro

Posted at 11:00 AM, Dec 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-04 11:00:26-05

Most people crave interaction: being social, hanging out with others and seeing new faces. So is it any wonder one of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s most gregarious primate species shares that same need?

In early November, the zoo’s Jungle Trails visitors received a special treat; eight bonobo moms and babies all together in one "super group" including two new females from the San Diego Zoo. The gathering is part of what the zoo calls "fission fusion," where bonobos regroup with new individuals to reinvigorate dynamics. (See the super group in action here.)

Curator of primates Ron Evans explained that unlike other great apes, bonobos seek out other bonobos in the wild. While primates like chimps and gorillas tend to be male-dominated groups, the bonobos are considered matriarchal where the girls rule, he said. Because bonobos are so loving and open to new encounters, he said they received the nickname "hippie apes."

The Cincinnati Zoo's curator of primates Ron Evans. Photo by Christine Charlson

“They’re much more social and they like to visit friends frequently,” Evans said. “So it’s really easy to put the grouping together because they have ways to diffuse tension through embracing each other, through grooming each other, through sexual behavior – so they diffuse any nervousness they have really quick through that close contact.”

In order to keep bonobos happy, they constantly need new bonobos coming into the mix, Evans explained. He said after being together in a group for too long, they tend to get grouchy. To simulate what goes on in the wild, zoo staffers rotate bonobos into different groups from within their own zoo as well as others. He said the group’s newest members, female Lana and daughter Kesi from San Diego, can easily be identified as they’re missing most of the hair on their arms and scalp. Evans explained because bonobos get to know each other through grooming, it shows the new girls in town are extremely popular, as they’ve been groomed excessively.

“When Kesi arrived she had lots of hair on her arms,” he said. “They just love her and they want to sit there and bond with her. And they groom, groom, groom. And it will grow back, it just means she’s everybody’s favorite.”

Along with allowing the moms and kids to bond, Evans explained they introduced Kesi and Lana one-on-one to their three resident male bonobos that had been separated into their own bachelor pad. Evans said Kesi received a breeding recommendation with male Vernon from the Species Survival Plan (SSP), so he has hopes the two will hit it off, resulting in a new baby in the near future. He said the Cincinnati Zoo boasts 10 baby bonobos born in their facility, which marks an important achievement.

“That’s huge and that’s a significant number because these guys are critically endangered species, very rare in zoos,” Evans said. “So every one of them is so valuable. They’re so important we’ve started managing bonobos on a global scale.”

Currently, there are only 90 bonobos housed in seven zoos in North America and even fewer in zoos across Europe and Japan. As the critically endangered species inhabit only one region in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there are only an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 left in the wild. Evans explained the species face constant threat from loss of habitat due to deforestation and mineral mining including diamonds and coltan – an ore used in cellphones and computers. In addition, he said all wild animals including bonobos are also considered "bush meat," or food for hungry locals.

“The good news is we have researchers on the ground, we have people there keeping an eye on them,” he said. “There’s a sanctuary over there to help orphaned bonobos with the hopes to reintroduce them someday.”

Besides being considered the most intelligent of the great apes, Evans said bonobos are our closest living relatives and share about 99 percent of our genetics. As a board member of the Bonobo SSP, Evans explained the group is encouraging other zoos to make room within their facilities for the gregarious primates. He said as part of their commitment, the SSP constantly monitors bonobos in captivity worldwide, recording their personalities, genetics and breeding potential.

“So lots goes in to managing any species at the zoo, but when you’re talking about critically endangered super rare, super intelligent animals like the great apes, and certainly the bonobos, it’s a little more intense on how we have to manage them,” he said.

The Primate Pro

If anyone knows primates, it’s Evans. In addition to his role with bonobos, he also sits on the board for the Gorilla SSP. He confessed his fascination with great apes began at age 10 when he first saw the remake of "King Kong" in the late 1970s. He said he was enraptured with the movie until its end, when they killed the giant ape after they pulled him out of his home in the wild.

“I realized back then that was probably my first conservationist thought in my life: Why would they do that to that gorilla? What a dumb story,” he said. “And then as I got older and I started reading about Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse, and all of it just kind of came together, so I’ve always been interested in gorillas.”

At age 15, Evans enrolled in the Cincinnati Zoo Academy and worked his way through the ranks to his current position as curator. Besides the important work with primates within the facility, Evans explained that the zoo participates in species conservation efforts around the world including the longest-running gorilla study, the Mbeli Bai Study, in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo.

While the diminishing numbers of primates may paint a bleak picture, Evans said conservation efforts do work. He points to success stories like the mountain gorillas brought to the forefront by researchers like Fosse. He said thanks to ecotourism adding value to species, their numbers continue to rise.

“It’s the only subspecies of gorilla and probably great apes, period, that the numbers are going up,” he said. “It shows an example of how you can get down to desperate time yet stop the bleeding and actually let it start healing a little bit.”

Even though the super group of bonobos is now split, primate keeper Stephanie Schuler said they’ll rotate the three groups weekly during the PNC Festival of Lights to give visitors the opportunity to see the new dynamics. She said they’re especially encouraged by the grouping of Lana, Kesi and Vernon, as Vernon has already shown far more than a casual interest in Kesi.

“When we did put Lana, Kesi and Vernon together, it was a typical bonobo introduction – hugging and grooming and 'follow the leader,' " she said. “Right after bonobos are put together, they take turns following each other around through holding. Sometimes it turns into a game of fun chasing and other times they just walk around until they settle into a grooming session. All bonobos are happy with their groupings.”