The violence began on January 7, 1974 when a party of six males from the southern Kasakela tribe brutally attacked and murdered Godi, a young, well-liked male member of the northern Kahama tribe. Over the next four years, all six males from the Kahama tribe would be killed by the Kasakela. Female Kahama tribe members suffered similar fates – one was murdered, two went missing and were never found, and three were kidnapped, beaten, and raped by the Kasakela. The war was over a sliver of jungle turf – and the combatants were monkeys. The war was called The Gombe Chimpanzee War (also known as the Four-Year War) and it lasted from 1974 through 1978. Scientists had never witnessed anything like it – and have never seen anything like it since – and before the civil war would end, nearly two dozen monkeys would lose their lives.
A once-united community breaks
The Gombe community had been a united single group until about 1971 when the chimps split into two factions – one based in the north, the other based in the south. Scientists believe the death of the group’s strong leader, Leakey, may have prompted the start of the discord. A large chimp, Humphrey, became the alpha male after the death of Leakey, but Humphrey was weak and faced pressure from two brothers from the south – Hugh and Charlie. Some of the chimps followed Humphrey while others sided with Hugh and Charlie until gradually, the two groups stopped socializing with each other altogether. Before long, for reasons we may never comprehend, the Kasakela community decided they wanted Kahama’s territory – and they began a coordinated, violent campaign to get it.
Clever apes use war tactics to hunt and kill their enemy
Scientists watched in wonder (and horror) as Kasakela members patrolled, in single file, looking for vulnerable penetration points along the borders of the Kahama/Kasakela territory. These were clearly not food-gathering expeditions – they did not make their usual foraging calls and shouts. Instead, they would creep silently, seemingly thoughtfully, through the territory of their neighboring chimpanzee community until they discovered a lone, vulnerable chimp that was separated from the group. They began picking off their “enemy” one chimp at a time.
The death of Godi
The first to die was Godi. Godi was alone, feeding in a tree near the border, when six male Kasakela males slipped behind rebel lines and savagely attacked and killed him. The gang of chimps moved on Godi as a group and while some members held him pinned to the ground, others took turns beating and jumping on the victim inflicting vicious mortal wounds. It was the first time that any chimpanzee had been seen to deliberately kill a fellow chimp. A group of scientists conducting a field study in the Uganda Kibale National Park, including renowned chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, watched in horror. In her memoir, Goodall wrote how the experience changed her perception of chimpanzees forever,
“For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind.”
Kidnappings, beatings, and murder
In 1976, the civil war gathered steam with groups of Kasakela launching routine daily raids into the territory of the neighboring chimps. The second Kahama to die was De who was savagely beaten by the Kasakela for more than twenty minutes. The third to die was Goliath, an old and frail male. One scientists, horrified at the brutality of the attack, noted how viscous one of the primate attackers was:
“'[He] twisted his leg round and round—as though he was trying to dismember him.”
Soon all male members of the Kahama community were dead and the Kasakela turned their attention to the females and infant chimps that were left behind. Three of the females were kidnapped by the Kasakela, dragged into enemy territory, and savagely raped. Even the infants were murdered. Before long, the Kahama community was no more and Kasakela enjoyed their new territorial gains without further conflict.
The end of the war – and beginning of a new era
Soon after the Kasakela obtained all of the Kahama territory, a new challenge arose. Their newfound land holdings butted up against another chimpanzee community, called the Kalande. The Kalande had superior strength and numbers and the Kasakela were not even close to matching their power. After a few violent skirmishes along their border, the Kasakela conceded much of their newfound territory to the Kalande community, retreating back into the original territory where they began.