The Wilhelma in Stuttgart experienced a valuable addition this spring with the approximately 40 to 45-year-old bonobo male Congo.
A happy, loud background noise indicates that Congo’s first contact with the female Chimba and her son Kaju is going well. The great ape species, native only to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
As for many endangered animal species, there is also a so-called EAZA ex-situ program for bonobos, i.e. a conservation breeding program of the European Zoo Association EAZA. The aim of these programs is to establish a genetically stable reserve population in zoological gardens.
There are currently 153 animals in eleven European zoos, and Wilhelma has the largest group in Germany with 22 animals. “Because Congo has never been in a zoo, its genes are not yet represented in the program,” explains zoologist and curator for the great apes Kerstin Ludmann. “Theoretically, he could mate with any of our females.”
What is much more important, however, is that Congo can experience living together in a bonobo group in his old age. In the 1980s and 1990s he performed as a circus animal in the ring. There he only had contact with a group of chimpanzees, but they showed a different social behavior. The bonobo then lived in the ringmaster’s house.
“For the owner, Congo was a family member,” says Ludmann. In the summer of 2022, he finally gave the animal to a zoo on the French Atlantic coast. But since there were no other bonobos there, Congo came to Stuttgart. “We have the genetically most important females and we have experience in difficult group reunions,” explains monkey expert Ludmann. For the first 30 days, Congo initially lived behind the scenes to get used to the new environment and the caretakers, but had visual and auditory contact with his conspecifics.
In the last week he was initially allowed to explore the bonobo enclosure alone, now he is occasionally brought together with individual animals until he is finally allowed to move into one of the two bonobo groups.
In the meantime, Congo can be seen more often in the show enclosure – recognizable by his gray beard, just like a gentleman in his prime.
“We are confident that he will fit in well,” says Kerstin Ludmann. Bonobos can live over 70 years in human care. The oldest animal in the Zoological-Botanical Garden in Stuttgart is the 55-year-old matriarch Kombote.
Congo has to get on well with her: She is the boss in the enclosure, because the females of the bonobos wear their pants.
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