Gombe Chimpanzee War: A Violent Four-Year Civil War Between Two Groups of Chimps

The closest living relatives to humans are the chimpanzees, and another ape, the bonobo. The species have a lot in common, including body and behavioral characteristics. Humans and chimps have similar DNA structure as well. In Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, there was a group of chimps who lived in harmony. But by 1974, the unified community fell apart and erupted into a blazing war that lasted for four years. The conflict resulted in violent clashes between two groups of chimps and even deaths.





WARNING: Some of the images in the article might be unpleasant for some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

The conflict between the chimps was first spotted by Jane Goodall, a primatologist.

Gombe chimpanzee war, Jane Goodall
Image Credit: Pinterest

Jane Goodall is known as one of the most iconic conservationists on planet Earth; for a good reason. At the age of 26, she left England with nothing more than a notebook, binoculars and a dream to live with chimpanzees in Africa. Because of her dedication and life’s work, we are able to better understand primate behavior.

As Goodall was learning about chimpanzee behavior and their way of life in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, she discovered a change within the group. She has been studying them since 1960 but in 1974,  a pattern started to emerge; something she never witnessed in her career.

The unified chimpanzee community fell apart. They started dividing themselves into sub-groups.

Angry chimpanzees
Image Source: 1, 2

The unified community divided themselves into the northern and southern sub-groups. Although Goodall only noticed the shift in 1974, a computer-aided analysis of Goodall’s notes revealed that the social rift began as early as 1971.

After splitting into sub-groups, the Kahama group and Kasekela group, the chimps occupied different territories. The Kahama group, who claimed the south, had very few members; six adult males, three adult females and their young, and an adolescent male (named as “Sniff” by Goodall). The Kasekela group on the other hand claimed the north and consisted of twelve adult females and their young and eight adult males.




The violence erupted on January 7, 1974. 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.

Gombe National Park
Image: screengrab via YouTube

It all began when the male members of the Kasakela tribe attacked and murdered one of the most well-liked male chimpanzees in the northern Kahama tribe. Throughout the next four years, the Kasakela tribe silently patrolled the borders of the Kahama tribe and took down one chimp at a time. After the unified community fell apart, scientists started studying the chimpanzees and kept a close eye on both groups to determine the exact reason as to why they split.

Gombe chimpanzee war
Image Source: rebrn

A team of experts from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, analyzed Goodall’s notes to determine the exact cause for the war. From her notes, they discovered that the problems started in the close-knit community soon after the death of a chimp called Leakey. Leakey was a senior male who was the alpha male for the group until his death, close to 1970. Soon after that, the important role was taken over by Humphrey, a weak male with two siblings.





Humphrey had two brothers; Hugh and Charlie. They were both interested in becoming the alpha males. Goodall’s notes revealed the unusual behavior in chimps, where they were confused as to whom to follow. Many wanted to follow Humphrey, while a few saw the brothers as stronger than their leader. Thus, the large group split into two. Humphrey lead the Kasekela group, while his brothers lead the Kahama group; which was considerably smaller.

Throughout the next four years, the clever apes used war tactics to hunt and kill their enemy.

Gombe chimpanzee war
Image Source: BBC

The Kasekela group lead by Humphrey, crept silently throughout the territory of their neighboring chimpanzee community. Whenever they saw a lone, vulnerable chimp, separated from the group, they brutally attacked them. All six males from the Kahama tribe were attacked and killed by the Kasakela. The female members suffered the same fate as the males in their tribe. Some of them were attacked, dragged back into their territory and assaulted. Some of the females went missing and experts who were studying them were never able to learn what had happened to them.

By 1976, the Kahama tribe had perished; thus marking the beginning of a new era.

Gombe chimpanzee war

Soon after the Kahama group perished, the Kasakela took over their territory. Although the victory didn’t quite turn out the way they expected. Another chimpanzee community, called the Kalande, were stronger and greater in numbers than the Kasakela group. They started invading their border, which resulted in several violent clashes between the two. When the Kalande group started to acquire more of their territory, the Kasakelas decided to retreat back into the original territory where they began.





Source: BBC, New Scientist.

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