As a child, most of the images I saw of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) on television primarily focused on grooming and other social interactions. It was not until years later that I actually saw footage that I can’t help but find disturbing; chimpanzees hunting, and eating, monkeys. Even though I know better than to try and push my morality on apes, it still remains to me a brutal sight. Recent documentaries, like the BBC’s Life of Mammals, have taken a more balanced look at the cooperation and competition amongst chimpanzees, but it was not until I picked up Franz de Waal’s Our Inner Ape that I heard of chimpanzees that hunt humans. The subject is not covered in much detail, de Waal primarily states that such “interactions” occur and that human parents are helpless to protect their children from chimpanzees without firearms or other weapons, but I was intrigued by this story and trawled the internet to find out more. What is happening in Uganda that led to the chimpanzees there becoming so aggressive?
[Note: I realize my comments about chimpanzees being represented as kind/benign echo those found in the beginning of the book Demonic Males, but given that I only picked up Demonic Males after I started writing this post, my comments are merely a case of convergent intellectual evolution of an argument.]
In January 2004, the magazine BBC Wildlife devoted an article to the strange of horrific behavior of the Uganda chimpanzees, noting that there had been at least 15 attacks on human children during the seven years prior. One of the most recent, occurring in 2000, was carried out on the child of Anet Alikiriza, her child dying from injuries caused by the attacking chimpanzee;
“The chimp ran much faster than I could,” Anet said. “It grabbed my leg, and I fell hard. Then it took my baby.” The chimp dragged the child down the trail and into the bush. By the time a man arrived to scare the animal away with a spear, Anet’s baby had suffered horrific injuries, and died in hospital a week later. Anet and her mother abandoned the fields near the lake in fear of another attack and later sold the land to pay for the large debts incurred from their trip to the hospital.
According to another article featuring the same story, “By the time help was summoned and the chimp was chased away by a man armed with a spear the baby’s nose and upper lip had been eaten away.”
While such attacks are chilling, there does not seem to be a chaotic epidemic of attacks where chimpanzees have developed a desire for human flesh; much like shark attacks, these incidents seem to be rare and have little to do with territoriality. While it is disturbing to think that chimpanzees do not see human babies as any different from the colobus monkeys or other prey they normally pursue, the way in which the chimpanzees capture and consume the children reflects that such encounters are predation events, not aggressive murders. As with many other animals that live in areas under pressure from habitat destruction, the Ugandan chimpanzees are continually having to cope with reduced habitat and reduced resources, human habitation existing right on the edge of the parks. In other mammal species, like Asiatic Lions, dry years that result in less resources for lions in a given area cause young males to have to search further for food when they are kicked out of their pride when reaching maturity, and the further afield they have to go for food the more likely they are to come in contact with farmers. While a similar pattern might hold true for some cases (I am far from familiar with every chimpanzee attack known), chimpanzees have an advantage that lions do not have; they can eat a wider range of foods and make use of a larger number of resources, and in many cases the attacks do not seem to be carried out by “rogue” chimpanzees that have been ostracized from a group. Instead, it appears that people are pushing into chimpanzee habitat, and when people enter the habitat chimpanzees do not grant people any special allowance; while they likely recognize the difference between a colobus monkey and a human baby, they do not grant human children any special privilege.
The fact that encroachment and habitat destruction leading to increased contact isn’t widely accepted by all, however. Some rather fanciful reports have been issued suggesting that the chimpanzees are getting drunk of illegally brewed beer, and a drunk chimpanzee will not hesitate to attack a human. Others, like Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance secretary Doug Cress, maintain that the chimpanzees are exhibiting a “fear reaction” to habitat destruction, again trying to remove human predation from the suite of “normal” chimpanzee behavior. Indeed, Uganda does not want any bad press concerning its great apes (a major draw for tourists), and so it seems that many Ugandan wildlife officials or agencies would rather paint the incidents as freak accidents outside the realm of normal behavior for the animals than as a real problem that is likely to come up over and over again anywhere that chimpanzees and humans live in close proximity without barriers.
Indeed, the natural behavior of these chimps, whether a result of hunger from reduced resources of mere opportunity (chimpanzees can easily overpower even fit young human males), is highly disturbing. Still, as seems to often be the case, it is those most affected by such tragedies that are overlooked. As recalled before, Anet Alikiriza not only lost her child but her farm due to debt from medical bills accrued at the hospital. Farmers on the edges of parks in which chimps live, even if not attacked, also pay a price. From the BBC article;
The boys’ father complained bitterly about the chimp and its intrusion on their lives. The trouble had started eight months before, when the clearing of the forest for the tea estate got into full swing. “It has not killed anyone here,” he explained, ” but it chases people and eats our crops. My wife and our sons, they can’t go to the field. We need that field for food, but we will have to let it go.”
And so the poor are once again stuck in the middle. They are inhibited from earning a living for themselves because the land that they have encroaches on chimpanzee habitat, some of the children are killed (some even stolen from their beds at night, as the chimpanzee Sadaam repeatedly did), and those that are only injured require so much medical care that the families are driven into debt. I am not an expert, but I know of no assistance or compensation plan for the families, and often times problem chimpanzees are left alone to continue to harass and even attack people as they are only doing what is “natural.” This is obviously a very sticky socio-political area, chimpanzees being so like us and important to the tourist trade, but at the same time the problems of the poor apparently are not addressed at all. While “alternatives” to euthanizing chimpanzees might sometimes be discussed, I can’t think of many that would really be effective; relocating a problem animal would likely result in it coming right back within a certain amount of time, and given that the attacks on humans are an extension of natural predation behavior, there is no way to inhibit a chimpanzee from doing it again.
Accounts of chimpanzee attacks on humans are not restricted to Uganda, however; in 2002 Frodo, the leader of a group of chimpanzees that Jane Goodall was studying in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, stole a 14-month-old child from two women traveling in the park, killing and partially consuming the child. A dispassionate report on the attack was published soon after it occurred, suggesting that it was the fault of the women traveling in the park for not respecting the power and aggressiveness of chimpanzees. Although the park staff considered euthanizing the alpha male, seemingly no action was taken, Frodo even receiving medical assistance when suffering from intestinal parasites (I assume the assistance was granted by members of Jane Goodall’s camp). Other attacks are known from various locations from the 1950’s at least, although I have been unable to find any references to the attacks specifically, some even insisting that the attacks are a relatively new and aberrant phenomenon (which I don’t believe for a second).
Some scientists are looking beyond the horror of the situation to potential implications for disease, however. It has long been known that disease can easily travel from apes to humans because of the bushmeat trade, apes being killed and consumed by various people in Africa. Now that we know that chimpanzees sometimes consume humans, it could be possible that microbes in our bodies could more easily pass into chimpanzees. Unfortunately I do not have access to the article, but the described behavior could have very important implications when it comes to disease and conservation.
So what can we conclude? Here in the U.S. chimpanzees and other primates are often tortured and mistreated in the name of medical or scientific “progress,” but in reality (or at least in the wild) chimpanzees are not simply benevolent “forest people.” No, their societies are often violent, males and females both carrying out various atrocities in addition to the more peaceful bond-building that goes on every day, just like us. Although males of both species are often singled out as being the most violent, females too are capable of terribly acts, namely infanticide (this recent article on chimpanzees and one of today’s headlines reveal that it is not only males that are prone to violence). I am not sure, however, if chimpanzees that are a continual problem, raiding houses at night or continually attacking children, should be given an excuse because they are so close to us. In places like Florida, alligators over a certain size are shot every year in order to ensure that large crocodilians do not show up in people’s backyards, and we have no problem with killing spiders or insects that might do us harm of discomfort. Even amongst mammals, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone still seems to be controversial, the image of the wolf as evil dying hard. Chimpanzees in Uganda, however, seem to have more of a special status, and it might even be considered murder to kill one that has repeatedly harmed children (even though we don’t wish actually give them anything close to human rights in Western society). This problem likely stems from the multiple public faces of the chimpanzee; the clown, the animal, the ancestor, and the demon, everyone having their own combination of these traits that molds our beliefs as how to react to them. What the solution is to the problems in Uganda, I don’t know, but I do feel that the troubles of the poor are being overlooked in favor of often-idealized animals and tourism dollars, a problem that there is no excuse not to rectify.