Frodo: Alpha Chimp

excerpted from National Geographic:

Frodo's predations within Gombe National Park have been amply documented. In one four-year period, Outside magazine reported in November, he alone eliminated an estimated 10 percent of the park's colobus-monkey population within his hunting range.

Frodo seized the position of alpha male in 1997, taking advantage of his brother Freud when the latter came down with mange. By then, however, his instinct for dominance had already produced a series of violent run-ins with prominent Homo sapiens. In 1988, for example, "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson was the target of Frodo's belligerence. Larson walked away from the tussle with only bruises and scratches, but his caricatures of primates as malevolent geniuses gained a sudden authenticity. A year later Frodo jumped on Goodall and thrashed her head so thoroughly that he nearly broke her neck. In the wake of that incident Goodall has consistently refused to enter Frodo's territory without a pair of bodyguards along for protection.

Like most of his hundred or so fellow chimps who live protected existences within Tanzania's Gombe National Park, Frodo remains a fiercely efficient predator. The chimpanzees regularly hunt down other mammals—notably colobus monkeys—and kill them for fresh meat. This behavior is normal for wild animals, but it brought tragedy to a human family in May 2002, when Frodo snatched and killed the child of a Tanzanian park worker.

On the morning of May 15, 2002, the wife of one of the park attendants was following a forested public footpath through the park near Lake Tanganyika's shore. Her destination: the Kasekela research camp where her husband worked two miles away. Walking behind the woman was her 16-year-old niece, who carried her aunt's 14-month-old baby in a sling held firmly to her back.

The trio had just crossed a dry streambed when they surprised Frodo feeding on oil-palm fronds only 12 feet from the path. As the spouse of a park employee, the mother probably knew that park rules bar children under 12 from visiting the park, and she almost certainly was aware of the mortal danger posed by chimps. Her shock and terror must therefore have been unimaginably extreme as she watched the 121-pound Frodo draw near, wrest the baby girl from the niece's back, and disappear into the forest. By the time help arrived from the research team, Frodo had scrambled up a tree and was holding the limp form of the baby, which he had begun to eat. Lacking the defensive support that the larger group would have lent him, Frodo was easily scared off, and the baby girl's dead body was recovered.

While representatives of the Tanzanian National Parks Department debated euthanizing Frodo, the Gombe research team weighed alternative courses of action and struggled to put his behavior into context. Pressed to clarify the circumstances surrounding the assault, Dr. Kamenya furnished the primatologists' perspective: What we see as murderous conduct, he explained, is standard for chimps in the wild. Characterizing Frodo's attack as the "natural hunting behaviour of chimpanzees," Dr. Kamenya pointed out that the animals regard human babies "just as they view the young of other species such as colobus monkeys and baboons—as potential prey.

This incident wasn't mentioned in Frodo's biography on Goodall's website, presumably because it might disturb children or more importantly, discourage potential doners. Read about the sorry souls who, to this day, live in fear of Frodo here. And see his more gentle side here.

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