Monkey Helpline replies to media questions about Chimp attacks!

Since the recently reported attack on a human by two Chimpanzees at the JGI Chimp Eden Sanctuary in South Africa, Monkey Helpline has received a number of media enquiries related to the incident.  Questions such as those below were asked:

– In your opinion, are chimps aggressive by nature?

– What can cause chimps to show aggression?

– The chimps in question were apparently tame. Is there such a thing as a tame chimp?

– There  have been cases of chimps attacking humans. Are these cases common or isolated incidences?

– What are the contributing reasons why sanctuaries for chimps are having to be established?

– Tell us a bit about the ‘bush meat’ trade.

– Why do chimps defend their territory?

– Do chimps show certain behaviour and or body language that could indicate they want to attack?

Monkey Helpline joint-coordinators, Steve Smit and Carol Booth, whilst making no claims of being experts in Chimpanzee behaviour, provided the following general information:

No, Chimpanzees are not aggressive by nature. Aggressive behavior is particular to specific circumstances. Aggression is relative. No animal is generally aggressive except under circumstances where it is defending itself, its territory, its mate or its ‘family’ against a real or perceived threat.

In the case of this Chimpanzee attack, it is obvious that the person attacked was perceived by the Chimpanzees to be a direct threat to them after “invading” space/ territory.

Large, strong wild animals such as Chimpanzees can also be overly aggressive during the time that a female Chimpanzee in close proximity happens to be in oestrus.

Yes, Chimpanzees can be tame. However, wild animals have evolved to live in the wild in circumstances where their intra-and inter-species relationships with other animals influence their position and status within their own family group and species and also within the broader animal community that shares their habitat. Wild animals kept in captivity, either as pets or exhibits, lead deprived social and emotional lives and develop aberrant behavior.


This can be the direct cause of incidents such as the reported attack by the two Chimpanzees. Consider that humans who are physically and emotionally traumatized often require intensive psychiatric and psychological counselling if they are to again become emotionally and socially functional human beings.

Even though Chimp attacks on humans receive huge media attention and are very emotive, such attacks are relatively few and far between. In the few cases where humans have been attacked by wild Chimps there has been extreme provocation from the Chimpanzees point of view i.e. a ‘perceived’, threatening intrusion by the human into the Chimps space, such as when there is a baby Chimp or injured one in close proximity, and the attack is motivated by the need to defend and protect.

Humans attacking Chimpanzees in order to kill them for the bush meat trade or to steal a baby Chimp for sale into the pet slavery market could also illicit a defensive attack by the Chimpanzees on their attackers.

Sanctuaries are an essential component in the rescue and care of orphaned, displaced, rescued, sick or injured Chimpanzees. Without Sanctuaries such animals would be abandoned to their fate, many to death or a lifetime of cruel deprivation in captivity. Sanctuaries also highlight the extent of the bush meat trade with its affiliate pet trade. Primates in Africa are under extreme threat as the demand to supply the bush meat market increases in direct proportion to the destruction of natural habitat and the growth in human population and poverty.

The role of Sanctuaries is becoming increasingly important with the increasing assault by humans on the populations of African Primates.

Chimps do not defend their territory against human beings – they defend it against other Chimps. However, Chimpanzees, as do all territorial wild animals, ‘defend’ their ‘personal space’ against what they perceive to be an imminent threat, human or otherwise. In such cases the Chimpanzee will choose to either defend or flee. Specific circumstances will decide which choice the Chimpanzee makes. However the Chimp will almost always threaten before attack in an attempt to neutralize the threat without actually having to engage in a physical confrontation. To avoid a physical confrontation people should be alert to the signals that would always preempt an attack.

Yes, there would undoubtedly be signs that would indicate that the Chimpanzee is unhappy with the presence of human beings or a specific individual. Anyone who is active in the presence of Chimpanzees, be they in captivity, in a sanctuary or in the wild should be aware of the potential danger that exists and should be alert to the body language and vocalizations that would indicate the Chimpanzees emotional state.

It must always be remembered that Sanctuary Chimpanzees have been rescued after having experienced some level of negative interaction with human beings, which in all likelihood included watching at least some or even all of their family murdered, and probably carry serious emotional baggage that could lead to sudden and unpredictable behavior, even aggression, towards human beings or even other Chimpanzees within their enclosure.

Negative incidents involving Chimpanzees and violence against humans, can be avoided, if human violence against, and enslavement of, Chimpanzees were to cease. The killing of Chimpanzees for the bush meat trade, and the kidnapping of their babies to be sold on the illegal international wildlife market, as well as the procurement of Chimpanzees for use in research institutions and by the entertainment industry perpetuate the ideology of human superiority over other animals including the great apes, and are therefore equally responsible for the crisis faced by the remaining populations of wild ranging chimpanzees.

(Pics are of Chimpanzees at a “sanctuary” in the Western Cape, South Africa)