First release of bonobos planned from sanctuary for orphans in Congo

DURHAM, N.C. -- Brian Hare wants you to care about the bonobo, a saucy, endangered primate that needs a better publicist.

For generations, bonobos have lived just outside the limelight, as their well-known cousin, the common chimpanzee, became a cause celebre, largely through the good works of famed anthropologist Jane Goodall.

For bonobos, "there was no beautiful girl on the cover of National Geographic," said Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. "They have a serious marketing problem."

In these intellectually advanced creatures, Hare sees academic discovery. Chimps and bonobos are the species closest in makeup to humans, sharing 98 percent of our DNA. Their actions and tendencies in the wild may lead Hare to conclusions about human evolution and behavior.

And bonobos have personality. Females are dominant in this species, which settles disputes with sex rather than aggression. If they were human, they'd be like TV's Desperate Housewives.

Bonobos exist in the wild in just one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, in central Africa. Experts estimate that between 5,000 and 50,000 remain in the wild. To get a more precise estimate, you'd have to tromp through dense jungle while avoiding tribal rebels, deadly snakes and tropical diseases.

Young, orphaned bonobos usually end up at the Congolese sanctuary -- the only one of its kind in the world -- after their mothers, to whom they cling for the first several years of life, are killed. Hunters routinely kill adult bonobos for food and to sell the infants, illegally, as pets.

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