February 14 is Valentine's Day; it is also the inaugural World Bonobo Day (#WorldBonoboDay)—begun by conservationists at The Bonobo Project to help bring awareness to an endangered and gentle species.
There are plenty of reasons to love the bonobo. As far as apes go, bonobos are our closest relative, with a genome approximately 98.7 percent identical to the human genome. They are empathetic. They are super-intelligent, capable of communicating through an artificial language using a lexigram, making campfires to toast marshmallows, and fashioning tools (to name just a few examples). In other words, they are fascinating windows into our evolutionary past.
So why is Valentine’s Day their day?
Bonobos have a very interesting sex life—a make love not war approach that leaves them with the nickname “hippie chimp” and a relatively peaceful culture. In fact, among non-human great apes, bonobos stand out particularly for their sex life.
1. Bonobos Use Sex to Resolve Conflict
If after sex you’ve ever wondered what you and your partner were fighting about, then you might understand the bonobo’s go-to move for conflict resolution. It’s a social model that this matriarchal species figured out a long time ago—and now it’s basically bonobo law. As Frans de Waal writes at Scientific American:
If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box. Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to diffuse tension.
2. Bonobos are Bisexual and Uninhibited
According to studies, most sexual activity among bonobos is not for procreation (75 percent) and nearly all are bisexual. They are also happy to do about anything with each other that gets them to orgasm.
3. Bonobos Do It Face to Face
It’s probably not for the romance of it—on average, bonobo sex lasts only 13 seconds—but bonobos tend to face their partners during sex. (See this NSFW video.) Scientists were surprised to find that our closest ape cousin uses a sexual position once thought of as only a human position.
So why do they need our attention?
I can’t say that I’m not biased about the importance of World Bonobo Day, as (full disclosure) one of my favorite charities is the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, but there are good reasons for us to give the species more of our attention.
Yes, bonobos continue to tell us a lot about ourselves, and yes, they are incredibly fascinating animals, but they are also endangered. There are approximately only 15,000 bonobos left in the world due to the destruction of their exclusive habitat by logging and the targeting of them by bushmeat hunters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We need to preserve their species not simply for what they tell us about ourselves or because they are a scientific fascination, but because it is the right thing to do.
So share the love this Valentine’s Day and tell your friends about World Bonobo Day.