Three monkey skulls were brought to Brussels from Congo in the 1890s. These were unlike anything people had ever seen. They were huge, with weird ridges down the middle, and looked like they belonged to a mythical creature that could have been a cross between a chimpanzee and a gorilla.
To many researchers, these skulls were a puzzle – the missing link between the many species of our monkey ancestors.
First, they were classified as a gorilla, but there were no known gorilla populations in that part of Africa. So, explorers like Lady Victoria Stanley, primatologist Dr. Cleve Hicks, and others went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to determine if it was a new species.
There, they heard the legends from people living in Bili, some 200km east of the Ebola River. These stories told of lion-killing ferocious apes that howled at the moon like wolves and lived in communal compound-like structures.
Separating The Fact From The Fiction
For decades, the locals reported sightings, smells, sounds and even massive chimpanzee-like poops left behind by the mysterious apes. These reports of a new species were all dismissed for over a hundred years until some brave researchers faced the African wilderness to find this elusive animal.
It’s hard to believe that an animal this size could go undetected for so long.
After many years of exploration and study, the Bili Ape, aka the Bondo Ape, was accepted as a very real animal and a scientific fact in 1996. And so far, this is what we know about them:
Bondo Apes Are Chimpanzees
They are a subspecies of the Chimpanzee family and the strongest members of it. The Bondo Ape males weigh 80 to 90 pounds, while females weigh 60 to 70 pounds. And just like chimpanzees, these species stand 115 cm tall.
In contrast to chimpanzees, Bondos interact with and groom monkeys instead of hunting them. And yes, they are big enough to kill big cats and other large animals without hesitation if the need be, but they don’t. So, the only likeness with gorillas is that of size.
They Are Actually Quite Harmless
They are shy and hide from people and cameras. Although sometimes their curious nature takes over, and they do come to look at humans nearby, circling them inquisitively, staring and then going away when approached.
They also do not attack or harm people unless provoked or made to feel endangered in any way. And rest assured that they also don’t display chimp traits like infanticide, cannibalism, or aggressive behaviors.
Their Habitats Are Unique Too
Bondos are found exclusively in the forests near the Congo River, around the town of Bili. That’s why they are also called the Bili Apes sometimes. Their habitats are on the ground, made using interlaced branches and saplings that form a central basin. They can live in the trees as well. Discoverers have found ground nests under trees.
They Create Strong Communities
Bondo apes readily share food with others they don’t know, as well as their family or friends. They also care for others, settling disputes and soothing worried family members. These are fission-fusion communities where a few separate from the group to go hunting. The membership of this smaller group rotates frequently.
The females of the species are responsible for raising the babies. This creates a strong connection between young Bondos and their mothers; if they are separated early, the young have been known to commit suicide.
They Can Self-Medicate Like A Pro
These apes are quite smart. One of their most human traits is their ability to self-medicate. This shouldn’t be a surprise since Bondos share 98% of their DNA with humans. They are genetically more like us than gorillas.
Moreover, Bondos can find and identify a variety of herbs and use them to treat wounds and illnesses. In fact, they have been known to mix different herbs to create cures to replace specific plants that are hard to come by in the Congolese jungle.
Females Dominate The Bondo Society
Female Bondos are the dominant of the species. They can play a little politics and coordinate with other females to oversee particular males in their community. The females have a vital role in deciding who goes out to forage. Males usually follow the examples and orders set by the more knowledgeable females.
Females are quite community-centric, also. They help each other give birth and offer support and protection to new mothers. They have also been known to have close friendships with each other.
Bondos Always Travel In Groups
The foraging parties can have 7 to 16 apes traveling together throughout the jungle canopy to look for food for the entire community. Once the food is found in an abundant measure, they get together to eat together in groups of 3 to 10. These are mixed-gender herds with parents and young also intermingling without any rules.
The Bondo Diet Is Diverse
They eat like chimpanzees. The diet consists mainly of fruits, but Bondo Apes will also eat nuts, piths, flowers, stems, shoots, etc. When out hunting for food, they can also score some invertebrates, including termites, grubs, and worms.
Bondo Apes Have A Playful Yet Sensitive Nature
Bondos have been observed to be quite creative and playful. Researchers have seen them playing hide and seek, closing their eyes with a banana lead or their fingers. They have also been known to conceal their eyes before running into other apes, trying to climb, and running into other Bondos.
In addition to being a bit comical and playful, they can be quite sensitive. They pay attention to others in their community, helping them, cheering them up, and grooming them. Bondos sometimes tease each other and enjoy pulling funny faces at their friends.
They Have Secure Sleeping Habits
As mentioned earlier, Bondos build nests on the ground level, but many are also found sleeping in the bushes or trees, building comfy nests there as well. It seems that the apes sleep in bushes at the boundary of the nest as a preventative measure against attackers that may attack them at night.
Conserving The Bondos – Getting Them Out of The Endangered List
Bondos were discovered not long ago, but human behavior has already put them on the endangered list.
The unending wars, skirmishes, and civil instability in Congo have led to rampant deforestation, shrinking the habitat for Bondo Apes. Moreover, agribusiness has also ruined the environment for these apes. Add to this mix the illicit harvesting of Bondo meat, and we have an animal welfare disaster at our hands.
While very few survive in the wild, some Bondos can also be found in zoos and other facilities worldwide. And despite these efforts, only about 10,000 to 50,000 survivors remain across the entire world.
In addition to the threats mentioned above, Bondo survival is also susceptible to the following:
Viruses, germs and parasites can ravage Bondo populations, especially those living with or around human communities. The unnaturally unclean living conditions made worse by human waste are to be blamed in such cases. Reports tell of human-borne infectious diseases in these apes as well as illnesses brought on by natural pathogens. Often, Bondos have no choice but to live close to humans because their habitats have been made unlivable or extinct.
Loss of Habitat
Very few places are left in the wild for the Bondo Apes to call home. They simply don’t have an undisturbed habitat where they can forage, survive and repopulate in peace. The Congolese forest has lost around 8.6% of its tree cover due to war, fragmentation, urbanization, and deforestation. These are dire times for all chimpanzee species, especially the Bondos, because they already call a very small part of the forest their home. It is being taken away from them systematically while they are also hunted for bushmeat.
The practice of logging involves cutting down all the trees in a forest, only to leave the stumps standing. This leads to significant habitat loss and degradation since the remaining patches of forest are barely small unconnected patches that leave Bondo populations isolated and susceptible to hunters.
That’s how logging plays a role in the rampant bushmeat trade. It allows hunters to reach previously dense areas of the forest and kill these animals. Although there is a government ban on logging in Congo, it continues to happen.
Bondos and other chimp species are killed by poachers or taken for illegal wildlife trade. These animals are trafficked, slaughtered, revered as trophies and eaten across many regions. All this happens despite Bondos being protected under the DRC legislation. Economic hardships and a disregard for traditional practices have made this intelligent species fair game for locals.
Bondo Apes were a mystery for a very long time, and now that we are learning more about them, they have turned out to be a delight to study. Although rumors say that they have been seen killing lions, researchers have only seen them eat fruits, nuts, vegetables, and occasional bats, fish and squirrels.