It was a day off from the field, an opportunity for a bit of mental respite and physical relaxation. The quiet peace of the day was halted, however, when I received an alarming text message from my field assistant, Nick. In it, he relayed the news he’d just heard on the local radio station: a chimpanzee attacked a six-month old infant in a nearby village. The infant had been taken for medical care in town. The parents sought compensation from the government and a local NGO.
I thought back to our visit to this village just days earlier. While there, we met with the village chairman, who said that chimpanzees harassed people there but no one had been attacked to date. Though many trees have been cut for timber and to plant gardens, he assured us that community members were interested in reversing this trend through tree planting efforts. More trees would translate into more habitat for chimpanzees and, hopefully, fewer instances of conflict with them. The chairman and his wife already had some knowledge of chimpanzees, their relationship with the forest, and the need to protect them.
Now, just days later, I wondered…How severely was the child injured? What were the circumstances leading to this unfortunate event? How would an attack on an innocent child affect human attitudes toward chimps?
A few answers emerged when we visited the infant’s family. They said that the children were sitting in the garden, and that one child--aged 4 or 5 years--was holding the infant. No adults were around. (This is a common scenario, since children here often care for one another while adults work in the garden or engage in other chores.) A party of chimpanzees passed by the house on their way toward the forest. What happened next remains uncertain. When chimpanzees come near peoples’ homes, they are often threatened and chased. Whether the children did anything like this is unclear. What we do know is that one of the chimpanzees took the infant from the arms of the child holding her. The older child yelled for help and others, including several adults, came running. They chased the chimp, who proceeded to drop the infant in a cassava garden and run to the forest. Though the infant was injured, the injuries were not life threatening and the child is now making a full recovery at home.
The father explained that he wants to help chimpanzees, that he understands that they are losing their forest and that they are forced to come into gardens. He had no wish to retaliate toward the chimpanzees as a result of the incident. He also feels that people should receive at least some small measure of support if they are to protect chimps, however. Chimpanzees are a protected species, but what recourse do people have if chimpanzees take their food or behave aggressively? What protections are in place to compensate or aid people who suffer crop losses or personal injury? One family member suggested that there could at least be some funding in place for medical care in the event of an attack such as this. Hospital costs due to chimpanzee injuries, though rare, are prohibitively expensive for families such as theirs. We left their home feeling sympathetic for all involved, humans and chimpanzees alike. We could offer no easy solutions.
The truth is that there are no easy solutions. Educational programs can help teach people why chimpanzees behave aggressively and how to avoid conflict. For example, there is a common belief among villages we visit that chimpanzees are becoming increasingly aggressive. On numerous occasions, people have suggested that we might be replacing their old friendly chimpanzees with mean chimpanzees. Children peer inside our vehicle when we arrive to see if there are angry chimpanzees inside, waiting to be led to their new home. In reality, the behavior of these same chimpanzees is altering accordingly with habitat loss and increasing human pressures, including frequent interactions with humans.
Indeed, this sadly is not the first time such an incident has occurred in this region. Deforestation has led to chimpanzee habitat loss and fragmentation, with humans logging more of the forest on a daily basis. Forest trees are logged for timber and clear-cut to make way for agriculture, often for cash crops like sugar cane, rice, and tobacco. Human population growth accelerates environmental changes. Uganda is consistently ranked as having one of the highest population growth rates of any country on earth. With less forest and more cultivated crops, chimpanzees must forage in gardens and come into frequent contact with people.
In The Chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest, Vernon Reynolds (2005) described other instances of chimpanzee aggression toward humans in this region. For example, he reported that “a girl was attacked by a chimpanzee in the forest while she was with her mother and other women and children collecting firewood in the forest. The girl was bitten on the upper leg, genitals and hands, and hospitalized for two months. In revenge for this attack, the villagers of Kirima hunted and killed a juvenile chimpanzee in March 2002” (p. 218).
This example illustrates the bi-directional nature of the conflict. Humans become fearful, annoyed, and at times angry with chimpanzees who eat their crops and threaten their families. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, must forage somewhere for food in their rapidly changing landscape. When their perceived encroachment onto peoples’ land leads them to be chased, threatened, and aggressed upon by people, it comes as no surprise that chimpanzees sometimes behave aggressively as well.
Reynolds (2005) further described the chimpanzees’ situation in this way: “While their image in the eyes of local people is thus deteriorating, we should not blame them. Their actions are the direct result of human interventions in their habitat. The bad character now attributed to them in this area is wholly understandable; human beings equally threatened would react in similar ways” (p. 216).
From a biological perspective, this situation can simply be viewed as a competition for resources. It is to be expected when members of two species must compete for access to limited resources. From the human perspective, however, it’s a complex and heartbreaking situation. It is also a situation that reminds us of a shared trait that binds us with chimpanzees, one that we prefer not to focus on when highlighting our similarities with them. When families and livelihoods are threatened, members of both species can behave with seemingly ruthless aggression. Only by digging to the roots of the conflict can we begin to find solutions that will aid both chimpanzees and humans.
Author’s note: This post was originally published at Scientific American in 2013.
A recent National Geographic article also discusses these challenging issues in vivid detail.