Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Lion-Eating Apes Of The Congo

Apes that can catch fish, kill lions and like to howl at the moon are, apparently, part of local legend in the Congolese jungle. Local hunters have spoken of "massive creatures" that sound like a hybrid of a gorilla and a chimpanzee.

Surely such stories can't be real, can they? Monster apes that kill lions? Come on.

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has meant that western scientists have been unable to investigate the legendary apes for decades. They are said to live deep within impenetrable forests, and to even reach the outskirts of these forests, scientists would have to get through the patrols of local rebels.

But recently, scientists have reached the inner sanctums of the monster ape forest, and they found some parts of the legend to be merely that : legend.

But only the stories of the monster apes being some sort chimp/ape hybrid and enjoying a good howl at the moon, Remarkably, scientists now claim that these larger-than-normal apes actually do eat big cats :

The most detailed and recent data comes from Cleve Hicks, at the University of Amsterdam, who has spent 18 months in the field watching the Bili apes - named after a local town - since 2004. His team's most striking find came after one of his trackers heard chimps calling for several days from the same spot.

When he investigated he came across a chimp feasting on the carcass of a leopard. Mr Hicks cannot be sure the animal was killed by the chimp, but the find lends credence to the apes' lion-eating reputation.

"What we have found is this completely new chimpanzee culture," said Mr Hicks. Previously, researchers had only managed to snatch glimpses of the animals or take photos of them using camera traps. But Mr Hicks used local knowledge to get closer to them and photograph them.

"We were told of this sort of fabled land out west by one of our trackers who goes out there to fish," said Mr Hicks whose project is supported by the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation. "I call it the magic forest. It is a very special place."

Mr Hicks reports that he found a unique chimp culture. For example, unlike their cousins in other parts of Africa the chimps regularly bed down for the night in nests on the ground. Around a fifth of the nests he found were there rather than in the trees.

"How can they get away with sleeping on the ground when there are lions, leopards, golden cats around as well as other dangerous animals like elephants and buffalo?" said Mr Hicks.

Mr Hicks said the animals also have what he calls a "smashing culture" - a blunt but effective way of solving problems. He has found hundreds of snails and hard-shelled fruits smashed for food, seen chimps carrying termite mounds to rocks to break them open and also found a turtle that was almost certainly smashed apart by chimps.

Like chimp populations in other parts of Africa, the Bili chimps use sticks to fish for ants, but here the tools are up to 2.5 metres long.

The most exciting thing about this population of chimps though is that it is much bigger than anyone realised and may be one of the largest remaining continuous populations of the species left in Africa. Mr Hicks and his colleague Jeroen Swinkels surveyed an area of 7,000 square kilometres and found chimps everywhere. Their unique culture was uniform throughout.

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