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The Mystery of the Giant Bonobo Chimpanzees of Congo

Congo is arguably the richest country in Africa when it comes to cryptids. The most famous among them is the Mokele-Mbembe, a creature described as resembling an extinct dinosaur. The latest addition to this list is the giant Bonobo chimpanzees, also known as the Bili apes.

The world learned about them in 2007 when the British newspaper The Guardian published an article titled “Discovery: giant chimpanzees that eat lions in a magical forest,” followed by subsequent publications in other media outlets. The first official report about them emerged in 2003 when a National Geographic Society expedition stumbled upon strange, oversized sleeping “nests” in the Congo jungle near the Bili River, too large for chimpanzees but very similar to those woven by them.

Observations by Karl Ammann

As far back as 1996, Karl Ammann, a Swiss wildlife photographer and active opponent of hunting African wildlife, was studying the remains of gorillas killed by hunters and accidentally came across peculiar skulls among them. They resembled chimpanzee skulls, but they had a sagittal crest, similar to gorillas.

Ammann was intrigued by this strange primate and soon acquired photographs of primates to which these unusual skulls belonged, obtained from poachers. The creature resembled a chimpanzee, but unusually large, almost the size of a human.

It is important to note that common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) typically reach a maximum height of 150 cm for mature males, with females growing no taller than 130 cm.

It was claimed that the mysterious Congo apes were not just very large but reached heights of 180 cm. They also predominantly walked on two legs and suspiciously resembled ancient human ancestors in their appearance when in such a vertical position.

Ammann attempted to locate these giant chimpanzees but only found their tracks and feces, both unusually large for chimpanzees. In 2000, Ammann returned to the Bili River area in Congo to try to find these mysterious primates but again encountered no one, although he saw very large “nests” built by them.

It was after Ammann’s accounts that a National Geographic Society expedition was sent to Congo in 2003, but they were not lucky enough to see the Bili chimpanzees in person. However, primatologist Shelley Williams, also invited to Congo by Ammann, was much luckier.

“We heard them in the trees, about 10 meters away from us, and suddenly four of them jumped out of the bushes straight towards me. If they wanted to drive us away, they would have screamed to scare us. But these guys were silent, and they were huge… As soon as they saw my face, they stopped and then disappeared,” Shelley recounted.

Few pieces of evidence but impressive descriptions

So, the giant Bili chimpanzees turned out to be not a hoax but real animals inhabiting a small area of the Congo jungle. In a country that had just experienced a civil war, it was very risky even for scientists to venture there. Therefore, only a very small number of researchers dared to study the Bili chimpanzees.

Perhaps this explains the very scant photographic (let alone video) evidence of the reality of these apes. Only a couple of modern photos, presumably capturing the Bili chimpanzees, can be found online, as well as one taken in Congo in the early 20th century.

It depicts two hunters holding the carcass of a freshly killed chimpanzee, presumably of considerable size. However, without knowing the height of the hunters themselves, it is difficult to determine how large this chimpanzee was compared to the ordinary ones.

The photos of the Bili chimpanzees considered to be authentic are of very poor quality. Of course, smartphones were not as widely available in those years, but it still seems suspicious.

In The Guardian article, it was described that local residents believed these giant monkeys were capable of killing even lions and that they were so massive they resembled a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid. One scientist, Clive Hicks, saw a group of these primates eating a leopard carcass in 2004. It wasn’t clear whether the apes themselves killed the leopard or stumbled upon the dead animal, but the fact remains.

Hicks also discovered that these chimpanzees indeed built very large “nests,” not in trees like regular chimpanzees, but on the ground, similar to gorillas. “How can they peacefully sleep on the ground when lions, leopards, as well as other dangerous animals like elephants and buffaloes roam around? I don’t like portraying them as more aggressive, but maybe they do hunt some of these predators, so the predators leave them alone,” he said.

Presumably real photos of the Bili chimpanzees

Hicks also claimed that the culture of these large chimpanzees is “destructive,” meaning they enjoy breaking things while foraging for food. They easily crack snail shells, break hard nut shells, and can even tear apart a turtle shell.

Hybrids or products of hybridization?

Later mitochondrial DNA studies showed that these primates belong to the species of common chimpanzees. However, this does not completely refute the theory of a chimpanzee-gorilla hybrid, as mitochondrial DNA only shows the maternal line. But if they are hybrids, then who could have been their fathers without gorillas? Could it really be without gorillas?

There is also a theory that this is some kind of isolated branch with strong close-related blood mixing. Hence the anomalies such as the sagittal crest and unusually large size.

What’s happening with them now?

The Bili River area is located in the far north of Congo, about 200 kilometers east of the Ebola River, where dense tropical forests alternate with savannahs. After the end of the civil war, poachers and illegal gold miners flocked to these areas, making it very uncomfortable for scientists. Therefore, mostly only Hicks worked here in subsequent years, but he gathered very little new information.

In 2014, he reported that the Bili chimpanzees are actually a fairly large population that inhabits a large area and that they are not afraid of humans and can approach cities closely. Perhaps because they are very large themselves and understand that humans are not a threat to them, or because they have already attacked humans and know that they are weak before them. After all, even an average chimpanzee is stronger than any human.

So, somewhere in Congo, we have a population of very unusual chimpanzees that have even been proven by scientists, and… we still know almost nothing about them and have no proper photographs or videos, although more than twenty years have passed since their discovery.

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