Kanzi, the world’s most famous bonobo, turns 40

Kanzi is a bonobo at the Ape Initiative nonprofit research and conservation center in Des Moines. Known around the world for his communication skills, he turned 40 on Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Ape Initiative)

The world’s most famous bonobo turned 40 today. 

Kanzi, who resides at a research center in southeastern Des Moines, can use abstract symbols to communicate with people, and understands some spoken words. Scientists who study these things have written books suggesting Kanzi is better at this than any other bonobo.

He has jammed on piano separately with Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney, interacted with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He has been featured by National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution

Kanzi is a bonobo at the Ape Initiative in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Ape Initiative)

Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees and are found in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. They are among humans’ closest relatives, genetically speaking. 

Seven bonobos reside at the Ape Initiative, the nonprofit Des Moines research and conservation center. Ape Initiative took over after Great Ape Trust founder Ted Townsend decided to gradually remove his financing for the project, which was intended to raise its own money with research grants. 

Kanzi is one of the few remaining bonobos from the original Des Moines group. Bonobos tend to die younger in captivity; in fact, Kanzi now is at the average life expectancy. But Jared Taglialatela, president and director of Ape Initiative, said some bonobos in capitivity live 50 or 60 years.

Kanzi’s half-sister, Panbanisha, who also could communicate with the symbols, or lexigrams, died at the Des Moines facility at age 26. But Kanzi’s mother, age 51, and aunt, age 53, are still alive at other facilities, Taglialatela said.

The staff at Ape Initiative over the years helped Kanzi lose 75 pounds using what they called a “species-appropriate diet.” He gets regular checkups and is in good health, Taglialatela said in an interview. “He’s very healthy. We are, given his age, stepping up health monitoring.”

The staff typically offers a special treat to the bonobos when one of them has a birthday, something like frozen fruit stacked in layers like a cake. Ape Initiative also launched a $40,000 fundraiser in honor of Kanzi’s 40th birthday.

Kanzi is a bonobo at Ape Initiative in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Ape Initiative)

Bonobos are commonly very sexually active, Taglialatela said. Last year, 13-year old Mali, and 10-year-old Clara joined the group. Both are females who had reached the age when they would leave their original groups in the wild. Bonobos are sexually mature around age 9.

The presence of Clara and Mali has had an effect on Kanzi’s life. “Mali is quite smitten with Kanzi,” Taglialatela said.

Because access to the apes already was severely limited and involved wearing masks and staying behind glass, not much has changed since the pandemic started. Plans for more public access have been delayed, however, Taglialatela said.

Taglialatela said Ape Initiative will soon add a section to its website for use by schools, another expansion of its educational programming.

Kanzi and the rest of the Des Moines group continue to participate in cognitive and behavioral studies run by researchers at Harvard University, Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Michigan and others in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Much of that is done remotely.

It was unknown Wednesday if any of the researchers sent Kanzi a birthday card.

Perry Beeman
Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.