This photo of an ape apparently cuddling a baby mongoose like a treasured pet has become viral and is now a candidate for the best wildlife photo in one of the world’s most prestigious competitions.
The photo was taken by photojournalist Christian Ziegler in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His fascinating picture has been selected as a Highly Commended image in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) 58th competition.
The mystery behind the picture is whether this bonobo is really showing his love for the little animal by cuddling it or is planning to kill the mongoose pup for dinner after killing its mother.
Ziegler had been tracking the group of bonobos “chest-deep through flooded forest” in the Salonga National Park for days when he spotted the young male holding a juvenile mongoose in his hand.
The ape held and stroked the small mongoose for over an hour
“I was so surprised to see how he carried the mongoose with such care,” Ziegler told BBC News. “I immediately started to follow him and document it.”
The ape held and stroked the small mongoose for over an hour, he said.
However, he may have been planning to eat him. When bonobos catch prey, they do not immediately kill it but instead start eating when it is still alive, according to Dr Barbara Fruth, director of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project which has been observing these animals for over twenty years.
Occasionally, though, if dinner is too big and the ape gets full, it will treat the leftover living prey as a pet. Usually, these animals are later eaten. Dr. Fruth believes that this is probably what was happening in the picture.
She does highlight that bonobos are known for their gentle, empathetic, and peaceful nature.
“We know from captivity that bonobos care for individuals other than their own species,” she says. In the wild, it’s unlikely that a bonobo would take care of another species as a long-term pet, she adds.
But she does not reject the idea that the apes keep other animals as accessories to attract interest from other group members and thereby increase their status.
In the end, this mongoose had a happy ending and the bonobo eventually released his “pet,” who then got away unharmed, BBC News reports.