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Gombe Online Extra Photograph by Anup Shah
Frodo: The Alpha Male

By Allan Fallow

Tumult and calamity have characterized the past ten months in the life of Frodo—the 26-year-old chimpanzee who, in the words of primatologist Jane Goodall, once ruled the Kasakela community of chimps "with an iron fist."

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.

Frodo's lethal attack was detailed by Shadrack Kamenya, director of chimp research at Gombe Park, in the December 2002 issue of Pan Africa News
( Around 11:20 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 (4 meters) 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 (54-kilogram) 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 was not the first case of human babies being taken by chimps in the Gombe area," Dr. Kamenya elaborated. (Abductions resulting in child deaths also occurred in 1987, 1984, and in the 1950s.) "But it was the first within the park, and the first involving a habituated chimp of the research community."

This is not to suggest that the Gombe region is the only one where such incidents have occurred. Other cases of chimpanzees seizing human infants were reported in the Congo in the 1950s and in Uganda in the 1990s.

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 (although that reach constitutes but a portion of the park). Indeed, Goodall—who has done more than anyone to publicize the issue of chimpanzee violence—brands Frodo a "bully" in her IMAX film Wild Chimpanzees.

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.

In December 2002 Frodo was suddenly laid low by an undiagnosed ailment. According to Anne Pusey of the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota, the disease "has put Frodo's position as alpha male in serious jeopardy—if he hasn't lost it already."

"I was shocked when I saw Frodo come into the research camp in January," recalls conservation biologist Lilian Pintea, also of the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota. "At first I didn't recognize him because he was so thin. His hip bones were visible. When he groomed himself, he projected a mellow, quiet, sedentary image. Customarily he is a strong, aggressive alpha male."

"As he lost weight he began to withdraw—and even hide—from the group," reports Pusey. "When in pain he would lie on the ground with his knees drawn up to his chest, panting quietly." Analysis of Frodo's stools revealed the presence of intestinal parasites, Pusey recalls, "so he was treated with antibiotics and his health began to improve.

"That raises all sorts of ethical issues, of course," Pusey volunteered as an aside. "If you provide medical treatment to a wild animal, is it no longer wild? Well, we felt [the intervention] was justified in this case because it was probably a human-borne disease."

Far less manageable was "the political stuff," as Pusey phrases it, that began to surface between Frodo and the group he formerly controlled. According to field researcher Elizabeth Greengrass—an expert in chimpanzee social dynamics—events came to a head on January 27, when Frodo made one of his increasingly rare appearances among the group. "All the adult males were present," Greengrass noted in her log from that day, "and they reacted to Frodo by continually displaying and attacking him. Sheldon [a beta male with alpha aspirations] in particular was persistent in attacking and intimidating Frodo. While the other chimps reconciled with Frodo in calm moments, Sheldon would not."

Fifi, Frodo's mother, tried to shield him from the usurpers' onslaught. Her loyalty earned her superficial wounds at the hands of the attacking males, who got to Frodo and inflicted a severe leg wound that sent him back into isolation.

The other family members present, reports Greengrass, may have glimpsed that the inevitable toppling of Frodo was near at hand. "Frodo's elder brother, Freud, did not attack Frodo, but he also did not support him," she wrote. "Frodo's younger brother, Faustino, joined in the attack on him, but only halfheartedly."

"When Frodo was at his worst," recalls biologist Pintea, "it was crucial for him to avoid a large party of males long enough to recover. Otherwise he could have been badly wounded—or even killed in an overthrow."

That crisis point may now be past. "The news from Gombe is that Frodo is on the mend," Pusey
announced on March 11. "He has even been spending time with larger parties with multiple males—but now he shows submission to Sheldon."     

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