The Gombe Chimpanzee War

Between 1974 and 1978, researcher Jane Goodall recorded an ongoing conflict between two communities of chimpanzees in what is now Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. A four year conflict eventually led to at least 11 deaths, likely including all the male members of one faction.

British naturalist Jane Goodall is generally accepted as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. Goodall spent 60 years studying the social interactions of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, a small national park on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Much of her research focused on the Kasakela chimpanzee community, a group of eastern chimpanzees living in the park. While Goodall recorded aggressive, territorial behaviour, she didn’t foresee such a violent conflict erupting.

Renowned primatologist Dame Jane Goodall. Image: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Over an eight month period, a group of Kasakela chimps separated from the rest of the community, forming their own group consisting of six adult males, three females and their young. This new group, named the Kahama by Goodall, was around half the size of the remaining Kasakela community, which comprised 20 adult members.

On January 7th 1974, the Kasakela males formed a raiding party of six chimpanzees, venturing into Kahama territory and eventually finding a lone male. The Kahama male, named Godi, was ambushed and violently beaten to death. The killers celebrated their victory with loud hoots and screams as well as throwing branches. 

Three more Kahama males were killed, including an elderly member of the group named Goliath that had remained relatively friendly with the Kasakela. Eventually, Kahama leader Charlie was killed, while another male went missing shortly after. This left just one young male of the Kahama, who was left alive for over a year before a Kasakela raiding party attacked the remaining Kahama. The young male, named Sniff, was killed. One of the kahama females that resisted was also killed, while two went missing and the three remaining females were beaten into submission and taken back to the Kasakela community.

An adult male chimpanzee hunting bushbuck in Gombe National Park. Image: Wikicommons/Ikiwaner

While the Kasakela gained control of the Kahama territory, they relinquished it shortly after due to coming into contact with the larger Kalanda community. Their existing territory was also raided by members of the similarly large Mitumba community, but after a period of unrest hostility eventually died down.

Goodall described the war as an example of the dark side of chimp behaviour, as well as citing an incident of cannibalistic infanticide by a female chimpanzee in 1975. She later wrote that she still had nightmares about the violence she witnessed. Her account of the conflict was met with some cynicism by the scientific community, with some accusing her of overly anthropomorphising the chimpanzees. Later research, however, has also found examples of warfare between chimpanzee communities. 

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