Friends, Foes, or Food: Among Cannibal Warrior Chimps

Male chimpanzees hug one another before encountering neighbors (photo by Aaron Sandel)

The chimpanzees stopped. Silently, each mouth parted into a grimace, teeth and gums exposed. They turned to one another and embraced, arms around each other’s shoulders and backs. Then they ran. I bolted after them, hugging my binoculars to my chest, ducking under branches and wriggling my way through vines that grabbed at me.

We came face-to-face with a neighboring group of chimpanzees: the formidable enemies who live to the south of the Ngogo community. Chimpanzees on both sides hooted and drummed the exposed roots of trees. The Ngogo males scattered, running back and forth screaming. The neighboring group of males continued to yell and cry as they retreated south. I followed Rollins, a slender-faced Ngogo adult male. He gave the trunk of a tree one last kick that echoed through the forest. The battle was over.

Male chimpanzees hug one another before encountering neighbors. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Chimpanzees are highly territorial, and the Ngogo chimpanzees are especially famous for their war-like behavior. They regularly go on patrols of their borders, walking in single-file lines as if on a covert military operation. Inter-group encounters can result in lethal aggression and at Ngogo this has lead to territorial expansion. This time there were no casualties in the face-off. But the neighbors of Ngogo are not always so lucky.

In early January a group of Ngogo chimpanzees—male and female—went on a patrol. As we reached the top of a valley, the males took the lead, leaving behind the females with their infants and juveniles. Suddenly, they became silent and stood upright on their back legs. They turned and hugged one another. Then they broke apart and sprinted down the hill. I ran after them. I heard a chorus of screams. When I caught up to them, they were in a pig-pile grappling over —> Read More