Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees (part 2 of 4)

In part one of the story, “Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees”, Lara M. Southern, a world-renowned chimp researcher, followed the chimpanzees on what they thought would be a routine patrol. It was February 6th, 2019- a day that changed scientific history forever. Part two of our story picks up when the chimps first encountered the family of gorillas.

Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees (part 2 of 4)

Loango National Park in Gabon. The end of the day was when the chimps re-entered their territory after their patrol. Lara Southern and her team of researchers were following the day’s “focal”, an individual chimpanzee named Candy. They entered a dense part of the forest. After a while, they started to lose sight of the chimps. Then, they heard a distinctive scream of another chimpanzee named Freddy. It was immediately after that scream that they heard a bark. Lara’s head did a double take.

“Because they’re always screaming, but this bark really stuck out to me. And after that, it just exploded. A chimpanzee and a gorilla sound nothing alike. And then it was just this crazy cacophony of noise.”

The chimpanzees made alert calls, barks, and roars. The gorillas responded with roaring and barks of their own. The team didn’t have excellent visibility at first.

“We try and really keep our distance because they are completely wild animals, and we also have very high safety protocols,” Lara explained.

“There’s always these negotiations in the forest between when’s the time to leave versus your observation of what kind of data you’re going to get.”

The field guides were more interested in not getting their team injured. They tried to convince Lara that this situation was unsafe and that everyone needed to leave, but as a scientist, she felt they needed to stay and see what would happen. She repeatedly begged the field guides to let them observe for “just five more minutes… five more minutes”.

During this encounter, the chimps attacked a group of five gorillas: one silverback, one infant, and three females.

“This is unprecedented. I’ve never seen this before, I’ve never heard about this before,” Lara remembered thinking.

They tried to find a good vantage point to see what was happening. Lara and her team hid behind a massive log, peeping over the top. They made themselves known while staying far enough away to avoid interfering.

“I could describe it as kind of like a ball of chimps and gorillas, and we could see that the silverback was in the middle.”

Finally, the silverback charged the female adolescent chimpanzee named Gia (pronounced Gee-AH) and sent her flying into the air. Lara was worried when she saw the silverback attack the chimp.

“She was one of my favorite chimpanzees. She was always a big explorer,” Lara describes.

“She didn’t seem like a young female. She was really always with the males.”

The male chimps responded by surrounding the silverback and attacking him. He retreated with his family. The researchers later observed that the chimps captured the gorilla infant before the other gorillas could escape. The chimps passed the baby around for an hour and beat it to death. To this day, no one has found the body of the infant gorilla the chimps abducted.

In part three of our story, tensions between chimps and gorillas begin to escalate to an even deadlier level.

Listen to the full Gorilla Project podcast episode where Lara Southern tells the story in her own words.