The Bonobo And The Mongoose is a photograph you might as well get used to seeing; a picture as perplexing as it is beautiful that shows what looks like a wild animal with a pet. While the bonobo’s apparent nurturing of the young mongoose is heartwarming to behold, if we know nature, there’s likely a darker side to what we’re seeing here.
The photo was captured by Christian Ziegler at the LuiKotale field site, near Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ziegler submitted the photo to the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2022 Competition, and it has already been acknowledged as a highly commended entry (alongside these spectacular images).
Ziegler was tracking a group of bonobos, which are endangered great apes, when he came across one individual tenderly holding a mongoose pup. “‘The bonobo held and stroked the little mongoose for more than an hour,” Ziegler said in a release sent to IFLScience.
However, as the NHM were quick to point out in their release, the situation may have had a darker beginning. “Bonobos are omnivores and eat mainly fruit but occasionally they hunt,” they said. “The mongoose pup – eventually released unharmed – may have been taken when its mother was killed.”
The diet of bonobos is broad but does include meat, with a 2019 study concluding that a group in the Lomako Forest eats and shares meat at a rate comparable to chimpanzees. This group’s preferred meat was that of Weyn’s duikers, a small forest antelope. It represents a heavier meal than a mongoose, but that’s not to say a bonobo would turn down a small bite.
Bonobos aren’t alone in having been spotted tending to small animals, however, with even the largest of the great apes – the gorilla – having been snapped in the act. Bobo, a western lowland gorilla, was housed at Cameroon’s Mefou Primate Sanctuary when he was seen petting a tiny bushbaby.
The wild bushbaby had gotten into the enclosure, but luckily was treated with care by Bobo who ended their interaction by placing his temporary pet in a tree. Another gorilla – Koko, (who was famous for “signing” – apparently shared a close relationship with a cat and was reportedly devastated when it died (due to a car, not Koko).
Some positive case studies for primate pet care, then, but there are some to counter.
In 2021, a TikTokker captured the unfortunate journey of a teddy that was dropped into the orangutan enclosure at Dublin Zoo. An orangutan appeared to fish the toy out for the crying child and climbed onto a bridge above onlookers who anticipated the animal was returning the lost property. However, instead the orangutan proceeded to rip it limb from limb and let the stuffing reign down on the people below.
“But that’s just a teddy!” I hear you cry. “I’m certain a wild orangutan wouldn't enjoy a delightful, big-eyed forest baby.” Well, try telling that to the slow loris this orangutan was seen eating..
In the case of Ziegler’s bonobo, we’ll never know if it began its interaction with the young mongoose from blood origins. Regardless, it sure makes for a spectacular photo.