A grim 2013 video of chimps dragging and eating bits of their former leader surfaced recently. The chimp Foudouko, nicknamed Saddam in 2005 for his dominant nature and rugged brow, was murdered by the younger males whom he commanded until 2007, as reported in the International Journal of Primatology.
The events of that day disturbed the researchers and provided an even clearer, ugly look into primate politics. At the Fongoli chimpanzee study site (a 10 square-mile grass patch in Senegal), screams filled the early morning air just before daybreak. When researcher Michel Sadhiako tracked the commotion to a nearby nest-site, he discovered Foudouko ‘s bloody body: beaten, mangled, and bitten in brutal acts of cannibalism. Before providing Foudouko a burial, the researchers video-recorded several minutes of other male chimps moving the lifeless corpse around in the dirt. Professor of Anthropology and Primatologist Dr. Jill Pruetz admitted she felt terrible for three days after the event, admitting that “It was incredibly hard to watch.”
Who was Foudouko? This 17-year old chimp was well-known to the primatologists of Fongoli. Between 2005 and 2007 he led more than thirty chimpanzees on the Senegalese savannah. In a dramatic play, Foudouko’s right-hand chimp, or “second in command,” Mamadou suffered a debilitating leg injury. This accident left Foudouko completely exposed to revolt from the younger, more aggressive male chimps. They seized control and banished him to the outskirts of Fongoli.
His tormented exile lasted five years.
Thought dead for nine months, Foudouko returned to Fongoli shaky and skittish: a ghost of his former self. For five years, he haunted the borders of the group, sometimes meeting with the new alpha-male David, Mamadou’s brother.
Both David and Mamadou welcomed him home. Unfortunately, he still had enemies. A group of males who still resented his former aggression and dominance, repeatedly chased him out of the area.
The assaults intensified until the early morning of June 15, 2013 when Foudouko was found brutally slain.
According to primatologists, every single chimpanzee site studied for over ten years involved at least one fatal conflict between clashing groups. Intergroup fatalities, though, are rare; this is “just the ninth recorded case of a chimpanzee community killing one of it’s own.”
Social dynamics within chimp groups are, not surprisingly, like boiled-down, raw human impulses fueled by rage, sex, and power. Civilization, culture, and the rule of law have of course provided us hundreds of years-worth of insulation from these violent instincts. But chimps, while not all brutal killers, operate within a primal social structure not unlike those of early man. We share 98.8% of DNA, afterall. Michael Wilson, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota studies chimp aggression and compares it to ‘The Soprano’s television series: “Killing enemies is pretty easy to explain, but killing your friends is a puzzle… There’s this really interesting tension between cooperation and conflict. It makes me think of the Sopranos.”
Why exactly was Foudouko killed? Pruetz and her colleagues lean towards reproductive competition as the likely final straw leading to his death. Her assistant Michel Sadhiako (who discovered the grisly scene), suspected the former leader approached a group female in-heat. A 2014 study polling over 25 primatologists concluded that lethal chimp interactions majorly occurred due to “competition for mates and resources.” So, competition for reproduction in these small groups like this is extremely high. There was already bad blood in the air. Stealing a mate was the last offense: he had to go.
Though we don’t know specific acts of violence doled out by the Foudouko administration, on a surface-level this story is incredibly sad. The chimp-in-charge is yanked from power by his hostile underlings, aggressively cast out from the entire social group, desperately tries to return to his community, and is ultimately murdered. The tale of Foudouko is an fascinating glimpse into the “soap-opera” world of our closest-relatives. Rest in peace, Foudouko.
Greshko, Michael. “In Rare Killing, Chimpanzees Cannibalize Former Leader.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 30 Jan. 2017. Web.
Story originally covered by National Geographic and reported by the International Journal of Primatology