Television Review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
David Attenborough introduced the bonobo chimp, subject of last night's Wildlife on One (BBC1), as "one of the rarest and least-known of all the continent's creatures". As far as "rarest" goes, I think we can bow to his superior knowledge, but "least-known" is a bit more debatable, because bonobos are rapidly becoming a top-biller in the natural history world. Two years ago, Karen Bass, who made this film, produced a Natural World programme which included bonobos and, if my recollection is correct, the chimps also featured in Channel 4's recent series about animal sexuality. They owe their recent celebrity to two facts - they are our closest animal relative and they have a sex-life which makes Peter Stringfellow look as if he's growing old gracefully. Indeed, I have had a soft spot for bonobos since that earlier film demonstrated that they could comfortably have group sex while hanging from a vine. Attenborough confirmed their reputation for polymorphous promiscuity: "Everyone does it with everyone," he said, describing sex as the "social cement of bonobo society, the binding force that keeps them together." And sure enough, every now and then, the camera would close in on one bonobo glued inextricably to another one, juddering like a man roller- skating over cobblestones. Now, more than ever, your average bonobo can fairly be described as "the king of the swingers, a jungle VIP".

Their proximity to us in genetic terms also has an unusual effect on the standard narrative techniques of the natural history film. In this case, at least, anthropomorphism is not so much a cheap trick to secure our attention, as something approaching a respectable biological theory. "This young male is still at his mother's breast at six years old," said Attenborough near the beginning of the film. It's just like Crouch End, I thought, and, had the beast been anything but a bonobo, the notion would have been little more than a thin joke about the indulgence of North London mothers. Here, though, you had been specifically invited to look into this jungle society as into an imperfect mirror.

Bass's film was also a little bolder in witholding the consolations that natural history films often arrange to mask the heartlessness of animal existence. The star of her film was a young orphaned chimp, struggling to survive without a mother in a matriarchal society. And, while Bass was at pains to point out that he would have been unlikely to survive at all if he had been any other kind of chimpanzee, her account of his daily travails was still a little melancholy. Forced to associate with senior males, he enjoyed none of the protective solace a mother would have given him and, when the troop moved during the day, he soon fell behind, unable to move with as much agility through the trees as the older chimps. Arriving late at feeding sites, he was left with only scraps, because mothers, who would naturally share with their own children, simply stared down his requests for food; as a result his growth had been stunted - he was the same size as chimps three years his junior.

Even more poignantly, he found himself left on the margin of other chimps' games - joining in with an untutored boisterousness that soon caused trouble. After one over-aggressive rumpus, he was badly bitten by an anxious mother (a scene oddly reminiscent of human playground rows, even if the outraged parents draw the line at toothwork). In a scene presented to you as one of touching sympathy, his playfellows came over quietly to inspect his wounds, though it did strike you that this might equally be an evolutionary precedent for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Children's Hospital. The prospects of the orphan, never very good, suddenly looked a great deal worse, but Wildlife on One had an even more lowering thought to leave you with - just as bonobos are getting famous, their prospects are shrinking, as human settlements encroach. If the orphan eventually loses the battle for survival, his fitter rivals may not be far behind him.