Reflections From Gombe - Mike Wilson

On my first visit to Gombe, in July 2001, I arrived at night. The mountains of Gombe stood silhouetted against the night sky as our small boat sped along the gentle swells of Lake Tanganyika. Over the noise of the engine, Anton Collins described the places we were passing. I had just finished my doctoral dissertation, studying intergroup aggression in chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda, and was about to start working as a post-doctoral researcher with Anne Pusey at the University of Minnesota. I would be analyzing intergroup aggression data from the long-term data, and was first visiting Gombe to get a sense for what all those data represented.

Eventually we passed along the shores of Kahama Valley, the place where Jane Goodall and her research team observed the “war” between the Kasekela and Kahama communities of chimpanzees. I felt a chill to see in person this place I had been reading about for years in books by Jane Goodall and others. Here is where the illusion of chimpanzees as being somehow nicer and more peaceful than people was shattered. Here one community divided into two, and over the course of four years, males from the larger Kasekela community brutally attacked and killed members of the smaller Kahama community. Now the Kahama community was long gone, their valley fully incorporated into the Kasekela range.

The next morning, Shadrack Kamenya took me into the forest to search for chimpanzees. We walked along narrow trails through steep valleys until we came across a large male chimpanzee foraging in the undergrowth along the side of the trail. He had a ruff of gray fur around his face, and the hair on his back was silvery gray. I thought it must be Frodo, as I’d seen him on TV, and Shadrack confirmed it.

Frodo regarded us calmly, picking a few fruits from the low shrubs. When Fifi bore a son in 1976, Jane named the cute, cuddly baby “Frodo,” after the hobbit in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Frodo was gentle, mild, noble and self-sacrificing. The adult male chimpanzee Frodo couldn’t be more different. He had a reputation for being a bully, a brute, a thug. That first day I met him, though, Frodo paid little attention to us, and calmly walked away down a trail until he met up with other chimps high in the hills above Kahama, where they ate the tiny red little orange-red berries of Mshashai bushes.

Over the next few years, I would learn much from Frodo and the other chimpanzees. Early on, Frodo did knock me down a couple of times, as if to show me who was boss, but since then he has never bothered me. Instead, Frodo and the others have gone about their lives, letting us observe and record every intimate detail: searching the forest for fruit and leaves to eat, hunting, killing and eating monkeys, fighting with other males, courting and mating with females. A year and a half after I first met Frodo, he grew sick and weak, was deposed from the alpha position, and retreated into exile. Months later, he returned, healthier but far from his former self, no longer able to dominate the other males. Nonetheless, he still competed vigorously for mating opportunities. Famously selfish, Frodo demands grooming from other males, yet rarely grooms in return. One morning, though, not long after his mother Fifi died, I found Frodo with his younger sister, Flirt, and was amazed to see the selfish old brute grooming the little orphan.

 Although Frodo is not the nicest chimp on the block, he represents much of what makes Gombe special. As the star of television shows and movies, he has helped teach global audience about the fascinating lives of chimpanzees – though he has never seen these movies and will never appreciate his fame. Scientifically, he has starred in studies of hunting and meat sharing and aggression. As an active participant in border patrols and intercommunity attacks, Frodo figures prominently in the data on which I work. Thanks to data collected systematically over the decades, we can rigorously test scientific hypotheses. And yet, at the same time, the individuals shine through. The numbers and ID codes represent vivid, dynamic individuals with complex personal histories, vibrant personalities, and the ever-present capacity to surprise and confound expectations.

Frodo is big and brash, selfish, bullying, cruel, and sometimes cowardly. And yet, when he comes running in a charge display, looking larger than life with his long grey hairs standing on end, hand slapping the ground, he simply looks magnificent. And terrifying, if you realize he might be coming for you. Frodo teaches us that full-grown male chimps are not cute little monkeys. They are big, potentially dangerous apes, and should be respected. And he also teaches us that, as much as we dislike aggression and cruelty in our civilized world – and rightly so – in Frodo’s world, bluster and bullying are tools to accomplish the goals of a male chimpanzee: to father children and carve out and defend a good territory for them to forage and flourish in amidst a world of hostile neighbors.

On my most recent visit to Gombe, in 2009, Frodo was the last chimp I saw. I had spent the morning with Frodo’s sister Fanni, her growing family, and many others who were feeding in the hills above Kakombe Stream. I reluctantly left around midday to prepare for my departure. On the trail back to camp, I met the familiar gray male. I watched him carefully, and a bit nervously, wondering what he would do. Just Frodo and me. He sits down on the trail and we watch each other for a good long time. He wedges a mass of fruit between his teeth and large, mobile lower lip, and watches me calmly. Thanks to Jane and the Jane Goodall Institute, we know so much about Frodo, his mother Fifi, and his grandmother Flo. Thanks to DNA testing, we know who Frodo’s many children are – something he himself can only guess. And what are we to Frodo? Strange upright apes, tall but weak and easy to knock down, slow and noisy in the forest, yet persistently following for hours on end, eating almost nothing, never mating as far as he can see, never even giving a good charge display, just watching and scratching on paper. He is fascinating to us, but we are of only passing interest to him. Whether Frodo knows or cares who I am, he clearly has more pressing matters to attend to: finding food, finding females. He soon walks away to join the others.

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