Happy Birthday Ferdinand!

Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 10:54am

Bill Wallauer, JGI wildlife cameraman and research videographer, celebrates the birthday of Gombe National Park’s Ferdinand.

Ferdinand, the alpha male of the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, turned 19 years old last Friday, August 19, 2011.

Regardless of where I am in the world, I celebrate Ferdinand’s birthday every year.  Last Friday was not only the day that brought Ferdinand into the world, it was also the day I was able to film the first great ape birth ever recorded in the wild.

Dr. Jane Goodall arrived in Gombe a few days after Ferdinand was born.  I will never forget how nervous I―a total neophyte to primatology―was to describe the birth to one of the world’s foremost chimpanzee behavioral experts.  Though Dr. Goodall was thorough in her questioning about my observations, she was as excited as I was and very encouraging.  For 10 days after Ferdinand’s birth, I followed Fifi, Ferdinand’s mother and grand matriarch of the Kasakela community, every day.


As a tribute to Ferdinand, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the images my wife Kristin and I have captured of him over the years. 

Ferdinand’s first week of life on Earth is one of my favorite memories.  After the lengthy ordeal of giving birth, Ferdinand’s mother Fifi chose a dark shady area in Kakome Valley to rest.  It was too dark for me to shoot images so I sat watching as the two slept.  It was a sunny day, but a little light was able to filter through the thick canopy of the valley.  As I continued to watch the pair, a single beam of sunlight fell directly onto Ferdinand’s face, lighting him up like a star on center stage.  I sat mesmerized for a few moments, then remembered my camera and snapped a quick shot.  Though this image does not do the moment justice, it takes me back to that amazing flash in time.


After taking a brief nap, Fifi decided to travel to a nearby food source.  Ferdinand whimpered a bit as Fifi began to move. Then Ferdinand seemed to fall back asleep, despite the fact that he was solely supporting himself by clinging to Fifi’s long hair.  It has always amazed me that from birth, most baby chimps are able to partially, if not fully, support themselves during travel by clinging to their mothers’ bellies.

Once on the move, Fifi disappeared into a thicket.  I moved around so that I was positioned in front of her.  When she re-emerged, Ferdinand had a perfect ‘leaf facemask’ covering his eyes, much like the masks we use on airplanes.


Ferdinand was one of the most adorable baby chimps I have ever known.  Call me biased, but I believe the image below of a six-month-old Ferdinand makes this case.  As a young chimp, Ferdinand was playful and good natured.  He very seldom whimpered or cried.  By anyone’s standards, he could be considered a perfect baby.


As Ferdiand grew older, he became great friends with the ever-active Titan.  Titan is a year younger than Ferdinand, but as a juvenile chimp, he held his own with his slighly larger playmate, Ferdinand.  Ferdinand and Titan spent many hours together playing chase and fighting over toys.  Some of the best chimpanzee play footage I have ever recorded are of these two, whose mothers’ ranges overlapped throughout their childhood.

The images above were taken in 1997.  Today, it is amazing to return to Gombe and watch these two chimpanzees who have becom high-ranking adult males in the Kakombe community.



As a young chimp, Ferdinand seemed to enjoy playing with baboons.  His playful nature is one of the many aspects I loved about his personality.  Play between different species is fairly rare in the wild, but during my time filming chimpanzee behavior at Gombe I witnessed countless play sessions between chimpanzees and baboons.  One of the coolest aspects about these play sessions is that both species laugh! 

At seven years old, Ferdinand became more serious about life.  He had a younger sibling and was responsible for finding food for himself (though his mom still led the way most of the time).  In this image, taken in February 1999, Ferdinand gazed up into the vegetation as he searched for Mabungo fruit.  He sat for a long time, which gave me the opportunity to position myself for this low-angle shot.  



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