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from The Australian News
Report filed by AAF Correspondent: D.M.


Monkeys make a meal of human babies

From The Times
January 01, 2004

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 have been injured. The children were found with limbs and other body parts chewed off.

Primate experts blame deforestation and human encroachment on the chimpanzees' habitat for the aggressive behaviour, but are divided on whether the animals are defending their territory or seeking a replacement food source.

Chimpanzees were believed to be largely vegetarian until British ape expert Jane Goodall discovered in the 1960s that they are predatory animals who 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.

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. In one of the most recent fatalities, 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.

Dr Gavin said the technique used by the chimps to kill or maim the children mirrored the way they tore apart other prey, suggesting 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.

But Dr Gavin defended the chimps as simply trying to survive in the face of human expansion: "They 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 an 86 per cent reduction of forest has cut that number to fewer than 5000. As their habitat disappears so do their food supplies and that, combined with greater proximity to humans, 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 Atlanta's Emory University, said: "I am not sure these cases have much to do with territoriality. I think they rather have to do with predation. Chimpanzees hunt and eat monkeys. "It is especially the males which hunt. I don't think chimps mistake a human baby for a monkey. They're far too smart for such a mistake."

But Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance secretary Doug Cress said the attacks were the symptoms of a territorial "fear reaction" to being squeezed out of their natural habitats.

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