CHIMPANZEES struggling to survive amid the destruction of their forest habitat are snatching and killing human babies.
At least eight children have died in the past seven years in Uganda and Tanzania after being taken by chimpanzees, and a further eight injured. The children were found with limbs and other parts of their bodies chewed off.
Primate experts blame deforestation and human encroachment on the chimpanzees habitat for the more aggressive behaviour but are divided on whether the animals are defending their territory or seeking a replacement food source.
In Kibali and Budongo, in western Uganda, there have been 15 severe attacks, seven of them fatal, and scores more less serious attacks. Another fatal attack, on a baby, has been recorded in Gombe National Park in Tanzania and several more attacks have been reported in other regions of the country.
In one of the most recent attacks Jackson Alikiriza, a three-month-old baby, was snatched as he was being carried by his mother, Anet, while she harvested potatoes.
Mrs Alikiriza fled when she saw a chimp approaching, but could not outrun the animal. She said: It grabbed my leg and I fell. Then it took my baby.
By the time help was summoned and the chimp was chased away by a man armed with a spear the baby’s nose and upper lip had been eaten away. He died a week later.
Another chimp carried out several attacks until he was hunted down and stabbed to death by villagers.
Chimpanzees were believed to be largely vegetarian until it was discovered by Jane Goodall, a British scientist, in the 1960s that they are predatory animals that often hunt smaller primates in packs.
Further studies have identified striking similarities between chimp and human aggressive behaviour, including rape, wife-beating, murder and infanticide.
Attacks on human young, however, are a recent development resulting, Debby Cox, director of the Jane Goodall Institute in Uganda, said, from closer proximity over the past decade.
Deforestation, an increase in the human population and a change in agriculture that has seen crops grown right up to the edge of the forests has, she said, both destroyed the chimps habitat and brought them much closer to human beings. The attacks in Uganda have been documented by Michael Gavin, a conservation biologist, in an eight-month study reported in the January edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine.
Dr Gavin said that the technique used by the chimps to kill or maim the children mirrors the way they tear apart other prey, suggesting that they snatched the human young to eat. In most cases they bite off the limbs first before disemboweling them, just as they would the red colobus monkey which is one of their favourite prey, he said.
Despite the horrific nature of the attacks, Dr Gavin defended the chimps as simply trying to survive in the face of human expansion. He said: â€œThey are just trying to get by. If they can’t get enough food in the forest they are going to wander out in search of what’s available.
Until the 20th century Uganda boasted a chimp population of several million but they have been devastated by the 86 per cent reduction of forest.
Destruction of forests remains a severe problem and in the past 15 years large areas have been lost, mainly in the Kibali and Budongo regions of western Uganda where most of the attacks took place. Today fewer than 5,000 chimps survive in Uganda and those are concentrated in the west where remaining forests are often small and isolated.
As their habitat disappears so do their food supplies and that, combined with greater proximity to human beings, has led them to discover that small children and babies are easily caught and a good source of protein, according to experts.
Frans de Waal, Professor of Primate Behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta, said that increased contact with human beings has allowed chimps to lose their inhibitions about preying on them. I am not sure these cases have much to do with territoriality, he said.
I think they rather have to do with predation. Chimps hunt and eat monkeys. It is especially the males that hunt. They may look at a human infant as easy prey.
I don’t think chimps mistake a human baby for a monkey. They’re far too smart for such a mistake. They just try to take whatever they can put their hands on.
But Doug Cress, secretary of the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance, a consortium of 20 African animal sanctuaries, believes that the attacks are simply the symptoms of a territorial â€œfear reaction to being squeezed out of their natural habitats.
You’re not seeing armies of chimpanzees ransacking villages and kidnapping children, he said. Increasingly the two species are right up against each other and at some point the chimpanzee is going to push back.
A child is the easiest target but chimpanzees have been known to hospitalise adult humans. A chimpanzee is about five times as strong as the average male adult human, can climb higher, run faster.
Ian Redmond, of the Great Apes Survival Project, a UN initiative, accepted that the chimps were capable of reacting to the sight of their territory being invaded and destroyed by human beings but believes that the hunt for food is a more likely explanation.
From Times Online (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article840838.ece)