Homepage – Hans-Georg Michna

Chimpanzee War

A short citation from "Through a Window", by Jane Goodall, author of "In the Shadow of Man".
If you're interested, please buy the book or, better, buy both books.

Chapter 10 – War


HE KASAKELA PATROL moved forward slowly and cautiously as it penetrated ever deeper into the territory of the Mitumba community. Satan was in the lead; five other males and Gigi, fully pink, followed close behind. All had their hair erect, bristling with apprehension and excitement. First one and then another bent to sniff the ground. Evered picked up a leaf and smelled it carefully; Figan stood upright to sniff the lowest branches of a tree. Repeatedly they paused to listen, staring into the dense undergrowth on either side. It was a wind-still day and the forest was silent but for the periodic shrilling chorus of the cicadas. Suddenly a twig snapped, a sharp, brittle sound. Satan turned to the others, his face split by a wide grin, part fear, part excitement—a gash of white teeth set in bright pink gums. Silently he embraced Jomeo who was behind him. Figan and Evered also threw their arms around one another, Mustard reached to touch Goblin. Like Satan, all were grinning hugely.

As they stood there, silently staring towards the source of the sound, another twig snapped. Leaves crunched under a heavy tread. And then the chimps relaxed as the large dark shape of a bushpig appeared, rootling his way through the undergrowth. Intent on his own concerns he never even noticed his audience, and he soon disappeared.

Satan moved on again, but when he looked back and saw the others were not following he paused: he was not prepared to go on by himself. After a moment, however, Jomeo followed, then the rest.

Ten minutes later the soft whimper of an infant was heard just ahead. Instantly, after glancing at each other, the males and Gigi raced towards the sound. Just as they reached a tall, sparsely foliaged tree a female leapt down. She might have got away, but her infant, between two and three years old, was still up in the branches, screaming now in fear. The mother raced back, seized her child and once more hurled herself to the ground. But she had lost valuable time—the Kasakela patrol was upon her. Goblin was the first to seize the stranger, hitting and biting her and stamping on her back. A juvenile, who had also been in the tree, quietly climbed down and vanished into the dense bush. Satan and Mustard leapt to join Goblin as he continued the attack, and a moment later Figan and Jomeo hurled themselves into the fray.

During this fierce assault, Evered seized the infant and charged off through the bushes, flailing it against the ground as though it were the branch of a tree. Then, hurling the little body ahead of him, he turned back, racing to join the other males who were still attacking the mother. Gigi was there too, on the outskirts of the mass of screaming, yelling bodies, getting in a hit whenever opportunity offered.

Some ten minutes after the start of the attack the female managed to pull herself free and, still screaming in terror, clambered into a tree. Goblin was the only male who followed. He attacked her briefly, then watched as Gigi, obviously determined to have the last word, climbed up and delivered a final series of hits. The stranger pulled free, took a huge leap to a neighbouring tree, another to the ground, then headed towards her infant, who was still screaming in the undergrowth. The whole encounter had lasted some fifteen minutes. There was a great deal of blood on the flattened vegetation where the worst of the fighting had taken place, and some under the tree where Goblin and Gigi had meted out the final punishment.

For the next five minutes the Kasakela chimpanzees, in a state of excitement that bordered on frenzy, charged back and forth around the scene of conflict, dragging and hurling branches, throwing rocks, uttering the deep, low-pitched hooting calls that sound like roaring. Eventually, still in a noisy and boisterous mood, they turned and moved back the way they had come.

At least once a week the Gombe males, usually in groups of not less than three, visit the peripheral areas of their community range. There is no clearly marked boundary between neighbouring social groups; usually, in fact, there is an area of quite extensive overlap between them. When the males discover some good source of food in such an overlap zone, they often go back the next day to feed, accompanied then by females and youngsters. On expeditions of this sort, the chimpanzees typically ascertain the whereabouts of their neighbours before commencing to feast. Thus when they reach some high ridge overlooking neighbouring territory the expedition members pause and very carefully scan the country ahead. If all seems clear they usually utter loud pant-hoots, then listen intently. Only if they hear nothing, or if there is a reply from very far away, will they advance confidently and begin to feed.

Sometimes, as a group of chimpanzees wanders along foraging, pausing occasionally to rest and groom, the adult males suddenly begin to travel in a brisk manner, heading towards some outlying part of their community range. This sudden sense of purpose, this air of determination, usually indicates that they are setting off to monitor the whereabouts of their neighbours. At this point mothers and young who have been travelling with the males typically drop back—except pink females, who usually tag along behind.

When patrolling males detect the presence of strangers, they begin to move cautiously, sniffing the vegetation, alert to the slightest sound. The discovery of discarded wadges of fruit peelings or abandoned termite fishing tools arouses immediate interest. If a fresh sleeping nest is seen, the males usually climb up to investigate it thoroughly, then display wildly through the branches until it has been virtually destroyed. If they actually see chimpanzees from the neighbouring community their response will depend on the size of that group relative to theirs—particularly with regard to the number of adult males. If one of the groups is larger than the other, or has more adult males, then the smaller one typically retreats discreetly and silently to a safer place. If the other males notice they will call loudly and give chase but, provided there is more than one male in the fleeing group, the pursuers will not try to catch up: they are content simply to provide a show of strength. If honours are about equal—with similar numbers of males in each patrolling group—then members of both sides, usually keeping several hundred yards apart, hurl threats at each other. First one group, and then the other, performs wild displays, charging through the undergrowth, slapping and stamping on the ground, drumming on tree trunks, throwing rocks, and all the while uttering loud, fierce calls. Finally, after half an hour or more, each side retreats towards the safe central part of its own home range. This vigorous and noisy behaviour serves to proclaim the presence of the legitimate territory owners and to intimidate the neighbours. Fighting is not necessary.

It is when two or more males encounter a lone stranger, or a couple of stranger females with infants, that fierce and brutal attacks take place. Indeed, if patrolling males hear the calls of an infant in some outlying part of their range and suspect the presence of a mother from a neighbouring community, they sometimes stalk her, persisting for an hour or more in their attempt to hunt her down. And, if they are successful, they will attack. A stranger male may be attacked also, but during the course of our years of research at Gombe we have observed only two, relatively mild, attacks on males from neighbouring communities, as compared to eighteen severe assaults on stranger females. Males, after all, are far more dangerous adversaries, particularly when they are strangers and their strengths and weaknesses unknown. Of course a lone male could be defeated by a group of males—but he might inflict some serious injuries on one or more of his aggressors during the battle. A female, especially if she is protecting an infant, poses no danger to her assailants.

Why are these females attacked so savagely? In some mammalian societies—those of lions and langur monkeys, for example—a male who has defeated the leader of a group and taken over the females will sometimes kill all small infants. With luck, his newly acquired females will become sexually receptive sooner than would have been the case had they weaned their infants normally. The new leader will then have a double advantage: first, he will be the father of all subsequent babies born into his group; second, he has eliminated some of the offspring of his defeated rival who, had they survived, would have competed with his own. In terms of evolutionary theory, this exercise will be to the reproductive advantage of the killer male if it leads to a higher proportion of his biological kin in future populations than would otherwise have been the case.

The attacks observed at Gombe, however, were very clearly directed at the adult females themselves. Although there were four occasions when infants were, in fact, killed, each time it seemed that this was incidental to the savage assaults on their mothers. Whenever it was possible to get a good view of the victims after they had escaped we could see that they had been badly wounded, whereas their infants, except for the unfortunate four, seemed to be unharmed. It would be relatively easy for even one male on his own to seize an infant from its mother, and kill it, if that was his goal. It seems, then, that the attacks are an expression of the hatred that is roused in the chimpanzees of one community by the sight of a member of another. Strangers of either sex may trigger this hostility, but the unthreatening females are attacked far more often. In this way males dissuade them from moving into their territory—if, indeed, they survive—and food resources within the community range are protected for their own females and young.

There are, however, certain times when females are safe from savage intercommunity aggression of this sort. Late adolescent females typically move into neighbouring communities during periods of oestrus. And not only are they tolerated by the adult males there but, when fully pink, they may be actively recruited by patrolling males—who clearly find them highly sexually stimulating. Sometimes a young female remains in the new community after becoming pregnant. This is a tough decision. For one thing, her presence will be intensely resented, at least to start with, by the resident females. For another, she is effectively severing all ties with her family and the companions of her childhood since, once she has given birth, she will not be able to return to her own community. If she tried she would run the risk of being brutally attacked—unless, again, she were fully pink. We have observed a few encounters between community males and stranger females in oestrus and, although there were some attacks, there were many copulations also. But such incidents are rare—most females are carefully guarded by their own males when pink.

There is absolutely no question but that intercommunity encounters are highly attractive to some of the males, particularly when they are between fourteen and eighteen years old. Once I followed as Figan, Satan and young Sherry travelled slowly along the southernmost ridge of Mkenke Valley, at that time part of the overlap zone with the powerful Kalande community to the south. Suddenly Figan stopped, hair on end, and staring southward gave a loud call of alarm. I followed the direction of his gaze and there saw a group of at least seven adult chimpanzees. Obviously they were members of the Kalande community and now, alerted by Figan's call, they began to display, vigorously and noisily.

The three Kasakela males ran silently northward for a short distance, then stopped and looked back. As the strangers displayed again, moving in our direction, Figan and Satan turned and fled in silence, back to safety. But Sherry, with adolescence just behind him, did not follow at once. He stood watching the advancing strangers, absorbed and fascinated. Only when two adult males charged to within fifty metres did he turn and run after his companions. And later in the day he left Figan and Satan and returned, by himself, to the Mkenke Valley ridge. There he climbed a tall tree and sat, staring southward, for over half an hour. It was as though he simply had to have just one more look.

Another young Kasakela male, Sniff, once taunted a large group of Kalande chimpanzees, including at least three fully adult males, quite by himself—his two companions had fled. The Kalande group was in a shallow, steep-sided ravine, calling loudly and charging about in the undergrowth. Sniff, uttering deep roar-like hoots, performed a spectacular display along a trail near the top of the ravine. As he charged he hurled at least thirteen huge rocks down onto the strangers. An occasional missile—a stone or a stick—flew up from the undergrowth below, but they fell far short of Sniff. Only when two Kalande males raced towards him did Sniff retreat. And he was still roaring his defiance, still slapping and stamping on the ground and drumming on the tree trunks, when he caught up with his chickenhearted companions.

1974 marked the start of 'the four-year war' at Gombe. Ten years after I arrived at Gombe, the community whose members I had come to know so well began to divide. At that time, towards the end of Mike's reign as alpha, there were fourteen fully adult males: six of them, including the brothers Hugh and Charlie and my old friend Goliath, began to spend more and more time in the southern part of the community range. Sniff, who was an adolescent at the time, and three adult females with their young, also became part of what we called the 'southern sub-group'. The 'northern sub-group' was much larger, with eight adult males, twelve females and their young.

As the months passed, the relationship between the males of the two sub-groups became increasingly hostile. The northerners tended to keep out of the area used by the breakaway group, but every so often, led by Hugh and Charlie, the southern males moved northwards. And, because they almost always made such forays in a tightknit group, and because of the fearless natures of Hugh and Charlie, the northern males usually avoided them. Still, though, the two oldest of the northern males, Mike and Rodolf, sometimes wandered about peacefully with Goliath, the oldest southerner.

Two years after the first signs of a split, it was clear that the chimpanzees had now become two distinct communities, each with its own separate territory. The southern 'Kahama community' had given up the northern part of the area where it had once ranged, while the 'Kasakela community' found itself excluded from places in the south where it had previously roamed at will. When males of the two communities encountered one another in the overlap zone between the two, they typically hurled noisy insults at each other, displayed long and vigorously, then retreated, each side back into the safe heartland of its own newly demarcated territory. But even then the three oldest males sometimes renewed their friendship.

For a year things continued in this vein. And then came the first brutal attack by Kasakela males on a Kahama male. It was observed by Hilali and one of the other field staff. The assault began when a Kasakela patrol of six adult males suddenly came upon the young male, Godi, feeding in a tree. So silently had the aggressors approached that Godi was not aware of them until they were almost upon him. And then it was too late. He leapt down and fled, but Humphrey, Figan and the heavyweight Jomeo were close behind, running shoulder to shoulder, with the others racing after them. Humphrey was the first to grab Godi, seizing one of his legs and throwing him to the ground. Figan, Jomeo, Sherry and Evered pounded and stamped on their victim, while Humphrey pinned him to the ground, sitting on his head and holding his legs with both hands. Godi had no chance to escape, no chance to defend himself. Rodolf, the oldest of the Kasakela males, hit and bit at the hapless victim whenever he saw an opening and Gigi, who was also present, charged back and forth around the melee. All the chimpanzees were screaming loudly, Godi in terror and pain, the aggressors in a state of enraged frenzy.

After ten minutes Humphrey let go of Godi. The others stopped their attack and left in a noisy, boisterous group. Godi remained motionless for a few moments, lying as his assailants had left him, then slowly got to his feet and, giving weak screams, stood gazing after them. He was badly wounded, with great gashes on his face, one leg and the right side of his chest, and he must have been badly bruised by the tremendous pummelling to which he had been subjected. Undoubtedly he died of his injuries, for he was never seen again by the field staff and students working in the Kahama community range.

Over the next four years, four more assaults of this sort were witnessed. The second victim was the young male Dé. He was equally badly wounded as a result of a twenty-minute battering inflicted by Jomeo, Sherry and Evered. Again Gigi was present, and that time she actually joined the males in their attack. Dé, emaciated and with a number of unhealed wounds, was seen for the last time one month after the attack. Then he too disappeared for ever.

The third victim was, for me, the most tragic of all. It was none other than my old friend Goliath, the second chimpanzee who had ever allowed me to approach him closely. Goliath who had been topranking before Mike's reign, was always one of the boldest and bravest of the adult males. Why he had moved to the south at the time of the community division will always remain a mystery to me. The other Kahama males had, from the start, shown close affiliations with each other and spent much time together. But Goliath had always seemed to be more friendly with the Kasakela males who, at the end, so suddenly and brutally attacked him. He was old and frail when it happened, with his once powerful body wizened, his once glossy black hair faded and brown, his teeth worn down to broken stumps.

One of the students, Emilie, was present during the attack that led to Goliath's death. What shocked her most was the terrifying rage and hostility of the five aggressors—Figan and Faben, Humphrey, Satan and Jomeo.

'They were definitely trying to kill him,' she told us afterwards. 'Faben even twisted his leg round and round—as though he was trying to dismember an adult colobus after a hunt.'

When the assault was over Emilie followed the assailants back to the north and recorded their wild excitement. Repeatedly they drummed on tree trunks, hurled rocks, dragged and threw branches. And all the time they called out, as though in triumph.

Goliath, like the other victims, had been horribly wounded. He managed to sit, but with difficulty, and as he gazed after his one-time companions he was trembling violently. He cradled one wrist with his other hand as though it was broken, and his body was covered with wounds. The next day we all turned out to search for him but he too vanished without trace.

After the death of Goliath, only three Kahama males remained. Charlie, Sniff, now a young adult male, and Willy Wally, still crippled as a result of the 1966 polio epidemic. Hugh had vanished, probably killed like the others.

Charlie was the next to go. No one saw the attack on him, but fishermen reported hearing the sounds of fierce conflict and, after searching in the area for three days, field staff found Charlie's dead body lying near the Kahama Stream. The nature of his terrible injuries was proof enough that he too had been killed by the Kasakela males.

It was clear by then that the Kahama males were doomed: sooner or later the remaining two would be hunted down and killed. But I was deeply shocked when the next victim was neither of them but one of the three females, Madam Bee. I suppose I should have been prepared for this, knowing of the brutal attacks on stranger females. But Madam Bee was not a stranger, and I had thought that the Kasakela males, once they had disposed of their Kahama rivals, would probably try to take back the three females who had 'defected' to enemy ranks.

Like Goliath, Madam Bee was old. And she was even more frail, with one arm paralysed by polio. At the time of the fatal assault she had already been subjected to a series of attacks and was weak from a number of unhealed wounds. Yet this defenceless female was set upon in the same vicious way, pounded and hit, kicked and dragged and rolled over. After the final battering she lay face down, completely motionless, as though she were dead. But, as the aggressors displayed away, calling noisily, she somehow managed to drag herself into some thick vegetation.

She hid so well that it took two days of diligent searching to find her—and then it was only because her adolescent daughter, Honey Bee, was seen feeding in a tree above. For the next two days the stricken female lay on the ground, sometimes dragging herself a few feet only to collapse again. Gradually she became weaker and was seized by uncontrollable spasms of shivering. Four days after the attack she died.

There was nothing we could have done to prevent her death. If she had recovered, there would have been no future for her: even healthy males in the prime of life had not been able to avoid the implacable hostility of their Kasakela enemies. We did try to ease her passing by taking food and water to her where she lay, but she accepted very little. Only in the presence of her adolescent daughter did she appear to find some comfort, for Honey Bee remained close by throughout those last cruel days, grooming her mother and trying to keep the flies from her wounds.

Willy Wally was the next to vanish. And then, for a year, Sniff was the lone survivor of the Kahama males, confined to a tiny area sandwiched between the Kasakela community to the north and the powerful Kalande community further to the south. I hoped so desperately that, against all odds, Sniff might make it. If only he could somehow gain admittance to the Kalande ranks. Or move to some unclaimed land outside the park boundary, east of the rift. He was so young, and so well-loved.

I remember when, in 1964, Sniff's mother had visited camp for the first time. While she hovered nervously in the bushes at the edge of the clearing, Sniff, with his insatiable curiosity, approached my tent, lifted the flap and peered inside. He had not seemed at all scared when he saw me, peering out! We had watched him grow up, from an engaging and playful youngster to a sturdy adolescent. We had been deeply touched when, after the death of his mother, Sniff (then eight years old) had adopted his fourteen-month-old sister. Still dependent on her mother's milk, she had only survived for three weeks, but during that time he had carried her everywhere he went, sharing his food and his nest at night, doing his best to protect her during the frequent aggressive incidents that broke out in camp at that time of intensive banana feeding.

But Sniff was brutally murdered like the others. Hunted down, attacked and left incapacitated, bleeding from innumerable wounds and with a broken leg. Once again we all went out to search for him: once again we failed to locate the place where he had crept away to die. His passing marked the end of the Kahama community. For a while there were occasional glimpses of the two remaining adult females and their infants, but then they too vanished. Probably they met the same fate as the rest of that ill-fated little group. Only the adolescent females had been, from the start, immune from the violence.

The four years from early 1974, when Godi was attacked, until late 1977, when Sniff was killed, were the darkest years in Gombe's history. Not only was an entire community annihilated but, in addition, there were the cannibalistic attacks of Passion and Pom, the gruesome feasting on the flesh of newborn babies. And it was during that same time that the Zairean rebels had landed on Gombe's sandy beach and plunged us into the nightmare weeks that followed. I suppose we should thank God that the human drama, though it resulted in untold mental anguish, at least claimed no lives.

The kidnapping, despite the shock and misery, did little to change my view of human nature. History is peppered with accounts of kidnap and ransom and there have been many studies, particularly in recent years, of the effect that incidents of this sort may have on the individuals concerned. Of course the personal involvement gave me a new perspective: all of us who went through those weeks acquired, I am sure, a deeper sympathy for those whose lives have been violated in this way.

The intercommunity violence and the cannibalism that took place at Gombe, however, were newly recorded and those events changed for ever my view of chimpanzee nature. For so many years I had believed that chimpanzees, while showing uncanny similarities to humans in many ways were, by and large, rather 'nicer' than us. Suddenly I found that under certain circumstances they could be just as brutal, that they also had a dark side to their nature. And it hurt. Of course, I had known that chimpanzees fight and wound one another from time to time. I had watched with horror when adult males, all inhibitions lost during the frenzy of a charging display, attacked females, youngsters—even tiny infants who got in their way. But those outbursts, shocking though they were to watch, had almost never resulted in serious injuries. The intercommunity attacks and the cannibalism were a different kind of violence altogether.

For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind—Satan, cupping his hand below Sniff's chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face; old Rodolf, usually so benign, standing upright to hurl a four-pound rock at Godi's prostrate body; Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé's thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes. And, perhaps worst of all, Passion gorging on the flesh of Gilka's baby, her mouth smeared with blood like some grotesque vampire from the legends of childhood.

Gradually, however, I learned to accept the new picture. For although the basic aggressive patterns of the chimpanzees are remarkably similar to some of our own, their comprehension of the suffering they inflict on their victims is very different from ours. Chimpanzees, it is true, are able to empathize, to understand at least to some extent the wants and needs of their companions. But only humans, I believe, are capable of deliberate cruelty—acting with the intention of causing pain and suffering.

Meanwhile, oblivious of the concern they had caused me, the chimpanzees got on with their lives. And, for the Kasakela chimpanzees, retribution was at hand. After Sniff's death the victorious Kasakela males, along with their females and young, travelled, fed and nested without fear in their newly annexed territory. The size of their range increased from twelve to more than fifteen square kilometres. But this happy state of affairs did not last for long. The Kahama community, it seemed, had acted as a buffer between the Kasakela chimpanzees and the powerful Kalande community in the south. And now this community began to push further and further northward. A year after the Kasakela males had gained their final victory over Sniff, they were forced to begin a retreat. Again and again as they travelled in the area they had wrested, with such brutality, from the Kahama chimpanzees, Kasakela individuals encountered Kalande patrols. They began to move in the south with increasing caution and gradually their range began to shrink again.

Some dramatic encounters between Kasakela and Kalande groups were observed. Once, for example, Figan and four other males were routed by a larger group of Kalandeites and fled, in silence, back towards the north and safety. Two Kasakela males disappeared: first the strong young male Sherry and, the following year, old Humphrey. And, while we shall never know for sure, we thought it more than likely that they were victims of intercommunity aggression. After this, with only five adult males remaining, the Kasakela community not only continued to lose ground in the south, but also in the north where the large Mitumba community, seizing the opportunity, began to extend its territory southward. By the end of 1981, four years after Sniff's death, the Kasakela range was only about five and a half square miles—scarcely big enough to support the eighteen adult females and their families. I even feared that we might lose the whole community. Two of the more solitary and peripheral females who ranged most often in the south lost their infants, and, as with Sherry and Humphrey, we suspected that the Kalande males may have been responsible.

During the following year things came to a head. Four Kalande males actually arrived in camp and attacked Melissa. Fortunately—presumably because of their unfamiliar surroundings—it was a mild attack and her infant was unharmed. A few weeks later, when Eslom was out fishing one day, he heard Kalande males calling from the Mkenke-Kahama ridge just south of camp and, perhaps in reply, Mitumba males calling from the Linda-Kasakela ridge, just one valley north of camp. The Kasakela chimpanzees were being subjected to some of their own medicine. For several days after this they went about in silence. They even left one crop of succulent fruit hanging on trees by the Kakombe Stream—because, we thought, the rushing noise of the water would have made it impossible for chimpanzees feeding there to hear the approach of their 'enemies'.

Fortunately there were, at that time, an unusually large number of young males growing up in the Kasakela community. As time went on, they gradually began to spend more and more time away from their mothers, accompanying the adult males on their excursions to the north and south. These youngsters—Mustard and Atlas, Beethoven and Freud—lacked the strength and social experience to be of much use during an actual attack, but the sound of their calling and noisy displays, added to that of the four remaining senior males, may have given their neighbours the illusion that the Kasakela community was more powerful than it really was.

The danger was averted, and once again Kasakela patrols began moving south to Kahama, north beyond Rutanga. When they encountered males of the neighbouring communities, although both groups hurled challenges at one another as before, we saw no more dramatic chases. No more adult males, no other infants of peripheral females, disappeared. The status quo, it seemed, had returned.

Homepage – Hans-Georg Michna


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