Bondo Ape Profile
A new great ape species is the holy grail of discoveries. The Yeti, Bigfoot and King Kong are all manifestations of the same urge for humanity to find the rest of its family.
Even primatologists are prone to wild speculation when the chances of identifying a new cousin are on the table.
In the end, the truth is always anticlimactic, as it is sadly with the Bondo apes; an isolated population of chimps from the Bili forest in DRC with a wild and unfounded reputation.
Bondo Ape Facts Overview
|Location:||Democratic Republic of Congo|
|Lifespan:||Around 35 years|
|Size:||Around 1.5 m (5 ft), maybe bigger|
|Weight:||Up to 100 kg (220 lbs)|
|Color:||Black hair, grey with age|
|Diet:||Fruit, leaves, meat|
|No. of Species:
For a brief period in the early 2000s, headline writers were lapping up news of a mystery highly aggressive ape, newly discovered with traits of both gorilla and chimpanzee, supported with legends of lion-killers and bipedal monsters in the forests of The Congo.
While they didn’t live up to the hype, these isolated chimps are a bit peculiar.
They seem to be bigger, flatter-faced, and more ground-dwelling than average, though nothing particularly stands out as unique about them.
Interesting Bondo Apes Facts
1. They’re chimps
When Bondo, or Bili apes were first discovered, they came with local legends and dubious reports. Locals said they would kill lions, that they’re inter-bred with gorillas and that they’re immune to the poison darts commonly used in hunting.
Some people said they would stand on two legs at a height of over 6 feet tall.
Early primatologist records described an ape that would make nests on the ground like a gorilla, would howl, and had a much flatter face than other chimps.
All of this got everybody very excited, but as usual, reality soon kicked in.
DNA sequencing from hairs found in these nests confirmed that these are not a new species at all, just a relatively-isolated population within a subspecies of the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.
Even this subspecies (the ‘eastern chimpanzee’) isn’t unique to the region. This group of Bondo or Bili apes are simply a weird-looking population of a well-known group of chimps.
2. Their skulls had a more prominent brow ridge
This population of chimps appear to have flatter faces than usual. Skulls were initially discovered and found to have more prominent brow ridge, but the morphological measurements were essentially that of a chimpanzee.
While interesting and unusual, it’s not out of the ordinary for small inbreeding populations to have weird and wonderful differences.
Apparently one skull discovered had a sagittal crest, which is a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the top of the skull, more like a gorilla.
However, this appeared in one skull only, and wasn’t a trait found across the population.
3. A chimp-gorilla hybrid is probably impossible
One early and imaginative hypothesis was that these apes were a hybrid between the local chimps and gorillas.
While both are apes, they’re from very different genera, making hybridisation unfeasible. Horses and donkeys, being from the same genus, sometimes hybridise, but their offspring is sterile and cannot pass on its genes.
Despite the fact that chimps and gorillas can become friends, and will even begin to mimic each others’ behaviours, the chances of these more distantly-related animals successfully branching off as a fertile community of hybrids is almost zero.
On the other hand, inbreeding is a legitimate source of strange morphology in communities. In small groups where breeding can only occur between relatively closely-related members of the community, distinct physical differences can often occur.
This could have much more easily explained the prominent brow ridge and strange skull shape than a miraculous conception between two unrelated species, even before DNA investigations ruled it out. 1 2
4. They are claimed to be lion killers
Another wild claim, this time from local legend, refers to the chimps in the Bili forest as lion killers. This is another one that seems unlikely, but may be a product of bad translation.
While lions tend to spend more time in the savanna than in the forest where chimps live, leopards might be a more reasonable inspiration for the lion killer claim, if it’s true at all.
One thing corroborating the story is the report of one of these chimps munching on a leopard carcass, though whether or not it was killed by the ape is not known.
It’s possible that the legend of a lion-killing ape came from a witness report, a translation error, or that it was spun out of thin air. Regardless, it seems unlikely to be accurate and is so-far unsupported. 3
5. They might be quite large
If dinosaurs came back today we’d all be disappointed by how much smaller they are than we expected from Jurassic park. Legends inflate reality, and when the animal truly does exist, they can create an unfair sense of disappointment towards an otherwise curious discovery.
It stands to reason that a ground-nesting ape will be physically intimidating, and reports of these chimps being over five feet tall are common. However, it’s not easy to measure one.
Legend has it they’re well over six feet tall and walk on two legs, which has yet to be taken seriously, but this population may be larger than average chimps.
Again, exaggerations, legendary claims and wishful thinking all contribute to a disappointing reality when something that should be quite interesting on its own is discovered to not match the hype. 4
6. They use tools
Researchers have seen evidence of smashed shells and termite mounds, suggesting the chimps make use of rock tools to break into their food.
They also use sticks to hunt for ants and termites, like other populations of the same species. This again is impressive, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
7. They’re now being poached even more
Due to the increased interest in these populations, and the growing development of local human populations, the Bondo apes are now under increased threat from human activities.
Their habitats are being destroyed and they’re being hunted more for food as people encroach on their environments. DRC is one of the least stable countries on earth, and this makes for a total lack of government support when it comes to conserving species. 5
8. Chimps are remarkably adaptable
It shouldn’t be very surprising that there are populations of chimps who don’t fit convention. Chimp societies, like human ones, vary by location, and quite significantly.
There are fighters, lovers, builders, politicians and diplomats within chimp culture that can all sway the direction of a particular population in one way or another.
Add this to the genetic diversity that’s available to the species, and you may get the occasional morphological anomaly like the sagittal crest of the prominent brow.
Human disturbance to chimp habitats has been associated with adjustments in chimp nesting behaviour, and ground-nesting isn’t unique to the Bondo apes. It’s commonly found in many countries and may have more to do with poaching threats and food abundance than large predators.
Ultimately, it’s not likely there’s a hidden species of giant, bipedal, tool-wielding ape hiding in the jungle in Congo, though if there was one anywhere, the unclaimed wilds of the second-largest forest on earth would be the most likely place to find it.
Bondo Ape Fact-File Summary
||Pan Troglodytes Schweinfurthii|
Fact Sources & References
- Laurel Wamsley (2022), “It turns out that chimpanzees and gorillas can form lasting friendships“, NPR.
- Jeffrey D. Wall (2013), “Great Ape Genomics“, PMC.
- Samantha Hartery (2020), “Legendary Giant Chimps Known as “Lion Killers” Feast on Big Cats and Walk Upright“, Roaring Earth.
- James Randerson (2007), “Found: the giant lion-eating chimps of the magic forest“, The Guardian.
- Tagg N (2013), “Ground Night Nesting in Chimpanzees: New Insights from Central Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) in South-East Cameroon“, Karger.