Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods chronicles experiences with bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Bonobos exist only in the DRC, and hunting and habitat loss have reduced their populations to between ten thousand and fifty thousand individuals, placing them on the brink of extinction. However, this story is about more than primate encounters; Woods also recounts the historic, political and cultural dynamics of the DRC that have contributed to bonobos' dwindling populations.
Although commonly overlooked primates, bonobos (Pan paniscus) share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans, offering perspectives on human behavior. More specifically, bonobos offer a more peaceful, egalitarian and sometimes romantic angle on an important question addressed by Woods' book: what makes us human? Sometimes known as "make-love-not-war-chimpanzees" bonobos often use sex to resolve tension within and between groups. In contrast the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), the bonobo's closest relative, uses violence in comparable situations. Understanding sex and reconciliation in bonobo social structure provides insight into the origins of human patterns of peace and violence. Woods describes bonobo sexual practices with a charismatic combination of pornography and science, entertaining the reader yet demonstrating the place of sexuality in bonobo behavior.
Woods became involved with bonobos by accident. Her husband Brian Hare, PhD, received funding to study cooperation in bonobo culture, requiring extensive travel in the DRC. Life in the DRC meant adjusting to a war torn, tropical country with dangers ranging from murder to malaria. Woods quickly learned that her French language skills and female gender made her better suited than her husband for bonobo research. Woods' mild aversion to the meticulousness of science provided additional unexpected challenges. Assuming the role of researcher with little scientific training, Woods found a fresh perspective on bonobo behavior and interpersonal human relationships. Her accounts of scientific experiments and her personal experiences offer a diversified view of bonobos that is reminiscent of Jane Goodall's.
Set in the only bonobo sanctuary in the world, Bonobo Handshake sheds light on the need for bonobo conservation and showcases the projects in process that protect the species. Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary—under the umbrella of the organization Friends of Bonobos actively reintroduces bonobos to a secluded location where a human community helps to ensure the success of the project. Exemplary of how conservation is beneficial to both people and wildlife, Friends of Bonobos has facilitated bonobo reintroductions while bringing medical supplies, educational tools, and even a soccer team and uniforms for children to the village of Basankusu, DRC. Woods' book also advocates for the use of sanctuaries as an alternative to research labs because they offer more realistic data and more ethical and humane treatment of primates.
With unique perspective and experience, Woods provides a valuable contribution to knowledge of bonobo social structure, especially regarding bonobos in sanctuaries. Woods arrived in the Congo intending to understand her own relationships and left as an experienced primate scientist. In between are struggles, explorations and accounts that amount to a touching, educational and stimulating novel. Woods writes with youthful language that provokes the reader to laugh out loud, but the novel also contains moments of deep honesty, lurid historical accounts and stories of loss that bring tears to readers' eyes. Woods' combination of knowledge and honesty weaves a story that anyone can relate to regardless of travel, experience or bonobo handshakes.
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