Success at the Chimp Health Workshop but tragedy in the Sonso Chimpanzees

September 14, 2009


Hello, sorry for the lack of news recently, BCFS has been a busy place with the Great Ape Health Workshop coming together at the end of August. A great success with close to 100 participants it generated indepth discussions on everything from the prevention of ape-human disease transmission to the control of out-breaks. One of the major successes of the workshop was the instigation of a nation wide health monitoring program that will be based on the BCFS program. This will run in conjunction with an Africa-wide comparison of study sites looking at aspects such as the effect of human presence on parasite or bacterial loads and immunities. 


There was plenty of activity in the chimp community too – after a successful start to the year with new births and immigrations we sadly lost Bwoba and then Zimba’s new baby boy. Things seemed to settle for a while but after being absent for a few weeks Juliet one of our youngest adult females returned to great commotion. She had brought with her her first baby, a tiny boy only 1-2weeks old. The initial joy at this new arrival quickly turned to horror as we watched Nick (our alpha) and Musa rush over and start to display and then chase Juliet through the trees. Her screams brought many of the other communities members rushing over, some (including most of the other adult males) seemed to try and defend her but Nick finally succeeded in driving mother and baby down to the ground where he started to attack them. She was desperately trying to shelter the baby under her but in a moment’s lull Nora rushed over and grabbed the baby from her arms. This is not the first time Nora has tried this with a new infant, she tried and failed to take Kigere’s new baby when she arrived at the start of the year, and has recently taken to carrying many of the older babies around. She is almost at the age to have her own babies and we’d credited much of this behaviour down to a sort of broodiness. Tragically in this case she attacked the young infant – biting it in the neck. Once Nick realised that Juliet no longer had the baby he left her alone and rushed to take it from Nora; they then both started to cannibalize the body. Juliet ran away, and the baby’s dead body was passed through the community with many of the younger ones carrying or playing with it. Sally kept trying to build tiny nests and put the body in them, almost like a doll. 


Incidents like this show us how much further we have to go in our understanding of chimpanzee behaviour. We managed to recover the body several days later and will try and establish the paternity. Did Nick attack because it was another Sonso male who had fathered the infant? Or a male from another community? Was there another reason entirely? In other incidents where a strange or rare female has returned with a new baby it was the adult females who have attacked her and the males who defended her. There are so many complex social factors involved in a case like this we a long way from going beyond a few simple hypotheses – however further investigation of this case and careful monitoring of any new ones may lead us over time to build up a more complete picture.

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