On the Edge of Extinction
Dr. Mireya Mayor: Bonobos, arguably our closest relatives, are a species on the edge of extinction. They are found in the Congo Basin rainforests of the central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are no reliable estimates, but it's thought that as few as 10,000 bonobos are left in the wild today. Compared to what we know about chimps, we know hardly anything about these amazing animals. However, the fact that bonobos share 98.4 percent of their genetic makeup with humans, coupled with their relative rarity and their self-awareness, compel a moral and scientific urgency to preserve them and protect them.
Bonobos are under threat from bushmeat hunters and habitat loss. As a result, their populations have rapidly declined over the last 30 years. Salonga National Park protects 36,000 square kilometers of forest within the heart of bonobo territory, but it is the only national park harboring the species. This park has been invaded by heavily armed gangs of poachers and conservation efforts have been hampered by the civil unrest prevailing in the region. Though there are currently many organizations striving to help these endangered animals, the bonobo's habitat is shared with people. Ultimately, the success of conservation efforts will rely on local and community involvement.
LO: What puts these amazing animals at risk? What can people do to help protect them?
Dr. Mireya Mayor: Bonobos are an endangered species due to several interlocking factors: habitat loss (logging and deforestation), pet trade, civil unrest, increasing poverty and hunting for bushmeat. The latter activity has increased dramatically during the current civil war due to the presence of heavily armed militias even in remote "protected" areas.
Cultural beliefs are also impacting their already difficult plight. Bonobos are occasionally hunted for traditional medicinal or magical purposes because specific body parts are thought to enhance strength and sexual vigor. These magical charms are widely available in some parts of DRC, suggesting that large numbers of bonobos may be killed annually. The coupling of the bonobo's low, fragmented population with their slow reproductive rate means that they are extremely vulnerable to this increase in habitat loss and hunting.
We humans have a responsibility to do everything we can to protect these close relatives or we could soon lose the primate species that shares the greatest genetic connection to humans. From a scientific standpoint, bonobos offer an insightful window into further understanding our own behavior. From an emotion standpoint, what would it say about humanity if we let our closest living relatives disappear?
There are conservationists like me trying to help bonobos, but we can't do it alone. There are things that everyone can do in their lives, at home and at work. It is as simple as being informed about the items you buy, such as what species of wood your dining room table is and where it comes from, or ceasing to use certain brands of cosmetics, hair and soap products that contain palm oil. Palm oil production has been documented as a cause of substantial, and often irreversible, damage to the natural environment. This includes deforestation, habitat loss of critically endangered species, such as the orangutan, and a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. It may not seem like much, but these actions add up and are key contributors to the critical issues we now face, thus also part of the solution. The most important thing you can do is to get involved and help spread the word by educating people about the bonobo's plight.
How Dr. Mireya Mayor helped discover the world's smallest primate
Dr. Mireya Mayor: For more than a decade, I have dedicated my life to exploring remote and previously uncharted parts of the world in search of little-known species facing extinction. I have met indigenous people who had never seen a foreigner and, with their help and guidance, have come face-to-face with some of the rarest, most spectacular animals on the planet. Some of the most amazing wildlife I have come across occurred as I traversed nearly a thousand miles across Tanzania. I came face-to-face with elephants, lions, giraffes, hyenas and pools clouded with hippos. In the Amazon, giant river otters led me through windy rivers while I studied monkeys so rare, there were no photographs of them at the time. But perhaps the highlight of my career was working with western lowland gorillas in the Congo, the least known of the great apes.
LO: How and where did you discover the world's smallest primate?
Dr. Mireya Mayor: In 2000, whilst on an expedition in Madagascar, I co-discovered a new species of mouse lemur (Microcebus mittermeieri), previously unknown to science. Like the bonobos, lemurs are in dire threat of extinction, due in large part to habitat loss and destruction, with less than 10 percent of the original forest in Madagascar still standing. This little creature became a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar, as I was able to take my findings to the prime minister and president of this African island nation and eventually convince them to declare the new species habitat a national park. This discovery serves as a constant reminder that we still have much to learn about our natural world and the importance of striving to protect it.
Explorer and primatologist Dr. Mireya Mayor is the host of Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor on Nat Geo Wild. Read more about her expeditions in her book Pink Boots & a Machete: My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer.