Monday, July 16, 2007

The leopard-eating chimps of the Congo

Giving lie to the notion of cute, cuddly monkeys, researchers now believe that there's a sub-species of killer chimps (any Bush jokes will be summarily deleted) stalking the forests of the Congo.
Forest dwellers have told visiting explorers and scientists of a ferocious grey ape, with the cunning of a chimpanzee and the power and size of a gorilla - and a taste for meat rather than the shrubbery loved by most apes.

For, unlike most apes, these are predators - capable of hunting not only forest antelope but, incredibly, lion and leopard too. And to cap it all, like wolves, these fearsome beasts howl at the Moon.
Well, maybe not quite so dramatic, but pretty scary nonetheless:
And yet, despite the aura of mythology that surrounds these improbable creatures, many scientists believe that something new and unusual does indeed live in the impenetrable forests of Africa's Heart of Darkness.

In particular, the locals' tales about the giant, unusual apes which have been noted by Western explorers since the late 1890s are simply too similar, too coherent, to be dismissed as fanciful exaggeration.

And now, it seems that Congolese mystery ape is finally coming into the spotlight of scientific respectability.

At last, a group of researchers has succeeded in studying these animals first-hand over a long period, and has not only confirmed their existence, but also described a fascinating animal about whom not all the myths are true, and yet which lives up to - in some respects - its legendary reputation.

Congolese people have long told Western explorers and biologists about a species of ape which looks like a big chimpanzee, yet which sleeps on the ground like a gorilla and hunts big cats for food.

[ ... ]

Then, in 2004, Shelly Williams, a primatologist affiliated to the Jane Goodall Institute, revealed the first recorded close encounter by a scientist with these creatures, in the New Scientist.

"We could hear them in the trees, about 20ft away - and four suddenly came rushing through the bush towards me," she wrote. "If this had been a bluff charge they would have been screaming to intimidate us.

"These guys were quiet, and they were huge." At first, she feared they were 'coming in for the kill', but perhaps sensing an unknown danger, they thought better of it and retreated.

She said the apes had a flat face, with a wide muzzle and - most strikingly - grey fur all over their face and bodies. It seems that Crichton's fictional grey killer apes had been found.

[ ... ]

Now, a researcher called Cleve Hicks at the University of Amsterdam has spent 18 months observing the Bili apes at close quarters. What he found was intriguing - a population of extremely large chimpanzees with their own distinct 'culture' and, indeed, a liking for the meat of big cats.

One was seen scavenging on the carcass of a leopard, although it is not known if the ape had killed the cat.

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