Photographer Christian Ziegler captured this unusual photo of a wild bonobo — a species of great ape — that looks as though it is cuddling a mongoose. While the species is known to be gentle, the truth behind the photo may be much darker than what appears to be affection.
Zeigler’s photo is one of the finalists — specifically one of the “most commended” entries — for the Natural History Museum 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The other finalists can be seen in PetaPixel’s original coverage.
The photo is of a young male bonobo gently holding a mongoose pup deep in the rainforest. The still capture may look as though it depicts a tender moment and while the pup was eventually released unharmed, this story may have had a much darker beginning.
Affection or Something Else?
Seigler works for the Max Plank Institute of Animal Behavior as a photographer and coordinated with one of the institute’s scientists, Barbara Fruth, to document the behavior of wild bonobos in the Congo where they are native.
“The image of a wild bonobo gently holding another species is indeed an unusual and compelling sight. But whether or not this demonstrates that bonobos can genuinely care for other species is a difficult question to answer,” Ziegler says.
The group that Fruth and Ziegler were studying has been the subject of research into behavior for over 20 years and as such, humans are able to get as close as five or 10 meters to the animals.
“I tracked the group every day from about five in the morning until midday. It was amazing be allowed near the group and I feel so lucky to have spent this time with wild bonobos. They are such intelligent, sociable animals. Being in their presence feels not unlike being with a group of humans,” he adds.
He draws on Fruth’s experience to explain the photo, as it isn’t clear what the ape’s intentions were.
“Historically, bonobos are known for their gentle, empathetic and peaceful nature. We know from captivity that bonobos care for individuals other than their own species. However, in zoos and sanctuaries, the day-to-day nutritional requirements are taken care of,” Fruth says.
“In the wild though, bonobos face many constraints such as food shortage, diseases, competition, and pressure from human activities. Bonobos live largely from plants, but also hunt diverse mammals including duikers, small forest antelopes, squirrels, various species of monkeys, and species such as this mongoose. Attacks happen in ambush. Occasionally more than one individual is captured and this may include animals that are mothers with dependent offspring. Bonobos do not immediately kill their prey but start eating when it is still alive,” she continues.
“They usually share the prey’s meat with other bonobos. Very rarely, it can happen that when their appetite is satisfied, bonobos will use leftover living prey as pets. Usually, these individuals are later ingested. Therefore, we cannot label this behavior in the wild as ‘caretaking.’ In the particular case in the photograph, the male released his ‘pet’ as he joined other social events and continued traveling. We also cannot exclude that ‘pets’ may be kept to attract interest from other group members, and thereby potentially increasing the status of the handler.”
An Endangered Species
Bonobos are an endangered species that suffers from habitat loss and poaching. For those who wish to help, Ziegler says that Bonobo Alive is an organization that supports anti-poaching patrols, and invests in environmental education allowing local people to appreciate the value of a forest. He encourages any who are able to support them.
“Having seen the enthusiasm, local engagement and support of the local communities for the project, I can say that by supporting this association is money well invested,” he says.
Image credits: Photo by Christian Ziegler, provided courtesy of the Natural History Museum’s 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.