Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Is this monkey really cuddling a pet ferret?

Written by Ella Hambly
BBC News Climate and Science

Bonobo cuddling a mongooseimage source, Christian Ziegler

An affectionate moment or something more sinister?

The photo appears to show a bonobos embracing a small ferret like a dear pet. But instead, the ferret monkey may have taken the pup out to dinner after killing his mother.

But this would be unusual – bonobos mainly eat fruit and only occasionally hunt.

Christian Ziegler in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has photographed the interesting behavior.

His remarkable photo was selected as the Highly Commended in the 58th Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition.

The shortlist was revealed on Thursday, and the winners will be announced publicly at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) in October.

Christian had been tracking a group of bonobos “chest deep through the flooded forest” in Salonga National Park for several days when he spotted the young man holding a baby mongoose in his hand.

He told BBC News: “I was surprised to see how the ferret carried with such care. I immediately started following him and documenting him.”

He said the monkey held and petted the little ferret for more than an hour.

But he might have been planning to eat it. When bonobos hunt their prey, they don’t kill it right away, but instead start eating when it’s still alive, according to Dr. Barbara Froth, director of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project that has been monitoring these animals for more than 20 years.

But sometimes, if the dinner is too big and the monkey is full, he will treat the remaining live prey as pets. Usually, these animals are eaten later.

Dr. Froth thinks this may have been what was happening in the photo.

She highlighted that bonobos are known for their gentle, sympathetic and peaceful nature.

“We know from captivity that bonobos care about people other than their own sex,” she says. In the wild, she adds, bonobos are unlikely to take care of other species as a long-term pet.

But it does not rule out the idea that monkeys keep other animals as accessories to attract the interest of other members of the group and thus increase their prestige.

In the end, this mongoose had a happy ending – the bonobos eventually released his “pet”, who then escaped unharmed.

The mystery behind the photo is part of its appeal to the Natural History Museum competition judges.

Dr. Natalie Cooper, a senior researcher at the Natural History Museum, narrowed down nearly 40,000 entries across 20 categories with her fellow judges. “We’re looking for really cool pictures from a technical point of view — the ones you see once and wake up in the morning still thinking about,” she says.

WPY has become one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind. Entries were received from 93 countries for this year’s event.

Category and grand prize winners will be announced at the Natural History Museum Gala on October 11th. The museum will then open its annual exhibition of the best photographs on October 14.

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