15 Feb 2015
When I arrived at Kibale for the first time in 2013, the great Kakama, the alpha to rule all alphas, had just died. His cause of death was a bit mysterious and already shrouded in the legend of his reputation. We suspected that he had died from complications arising from the same respiratory illness that killed our oldest male and a rather robust younger female. But a simple cold could not have killed the great Kakama- he must have been trampled to death by an elephant! Perhaps he was thrown from the highest limb of a tree in battle with another male!
And still, his royal shoes remain unfilled. Yes, when I arrived here in January, 21 months of contests had still not produced an obvious alpha.
You see, the problem is that Kanyawara has a number of very young males, and a number of very old males, but very few right in the middle. Among male chimpanzees, maintaining an alpha position requires brute strength and prowess, but also a certain confident attitude and nuanced social savvy. To rise up the ladder and find the top rung, one must strike the balance between physical domination of those below you, and careful cultivation of political allies.
Our best candidates are Eslom and Lanjo, and they could not be more archetypal. Lanjo, the classic hero, is drop dead gorgeous. His long light colored coat flows with the wind, glistening in the sun as he displays. He uses saplings like stage props in some sort of modern ballet, swaying and bending but never breaking. He is majestic and powerful but graceful as well. When other males aggress against his mother, Tongo, Lanjo defends her honor. He keeps the peace, breaking up squabbles as they break out in the canopies of feeding trees. Lanjo also has a certain fascination with people, but that story is for another post.
Eslom is an orphan. No siblings. Just Eslom. And he wants to be alpha so badly that I cannot devise a hyperbolic metaphor to do his ache justice. Eslom has goals and aspirations. And he chips away, slowly but surely, fighting his battles and stacking up victories and supporters. He is not beautiful, but he does not look intimidating either. His bottom lip ticks a melancholy quiver when no one grooms him. Another researcher calls him a teddy bear because of how fuzzy he looks when his coat goes piloerect during displays. I find this comparison perfectly appropriate, even as Eslom tries so hard to convince us all of his fierceness.
I arrived as a staunch supporter of team Lanjo, but recently I’m flip-flopping.
I thought of Eslom as a brute. He reads as the slightly villainous underdog with a chip on his shoulder. But now I see more layers. He is so playful and seems as happy to groom others as his is to be groomed. He has an adorable little entourage of subadults following him around faithfully. He is one of our most accomplished hunters and never hesitates to defend the community against intruders.
My feelings on Lanjo have shifted as well. I still find him absolutely beautiful- if he were a human he would be a Calvin Cline model. Classically chiseled. But he isn’t a leader. He sneaks into the party and slinks away as he pleases. Sometimes his disappears for days or weeks. He doesn’t exhibit the same hunting, protection, or playful drives that live at the core of Eslom.
This is all to say that I realized recently, watching Eslom play with the kiddies, that I’m switching sides. I’m trading in my Team Lanjo kit to sign with Team Eslom, hoping that all the hard-work pays off for my little brutish underdog. In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that Eslom does seem to be winning this war, slowly but surely, but this is yet another story for another day. My point is to say that I’m not jumping ship just to pick a winner. It’s his playing that won me over. How could I say no to supporting the most playful adult male?
I’ll let you know how things develop…
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.