Kanyawara has a new alpha male

By Kris Sabbi and Drew Enigk

In the male chimpanzee world, status is everything. The pinnacle of male achievement is gaining alpha status, with the benefits of priority access to food and females, but the responsibility of maintaining community cohesion. In May 2013, the sudden death of Kanyawara’s alpha, Kakama, left the community in a state of limbo. With most males either past prime or barely full-grown, there was no obvious candidate for the alpha position.

When we first arrived at Kanyawara, in the wake of Kakama’s death, 18-year-old Eslom was already vying for the open slot. An orphan with no surviving siblings, he was an underdog, but what he lacked in familial support he made up for in tenacity. Eslom’s primary rivals were Makoku and Lanjo. Makoku had been Kakama’s beta male, a bit old at 31, yet an active hunter with a resilient nature. He was clearly a central node in the male social network, but with a critical weakness – his right leg had been crippled during a childhood fall from a tree. 17-year-old Lanjo was the oldest son of Tongo, a high-ranking, central female. Lanjo had the support of a large family, including his younger brother, Tuber. Unlike Eslom, Lanjo had a formidable presence that he did not have to announce with brash displays every time he joined a party.

In the beginning, Lanjo showed his defiance of Eslom by simply refusing to engage. Eslom would charge into a party, hair erect, breaking saplings, throwing branches, drumming on the buttresses of large trees, and chasing other males. Occasionally Lanjo would respond with his own display, but often he would remain seated, pretending not to notice the commotion, while his mother groomed him. Ten weeks later, when we headed back to the US, we left an unstable hierarchy, with the alpha rank hanging in the balance.

It took nearly two years, but the wait is finally over. It happened on a Tuesday afternoon, just before one o’clock.

Eslom joined the party in his usual fashion: a raucous vocal display culminating in the pursuit of an old male, Yogi, who screamed, fled up a tree, and was kicked to the ground. Eslom mounted Yogi for reassurance, and started to groom him. Just as things appeared to settle down, Eslom, in a flash of aggression, lunged at Lanjo. Now it was Lanjo up the tree, screaming as he went. Eslom mounted Lanjo for reassurance, but then bit hard into his back, prompting Lanjo to leap from the tree. Eslom crashed through the undergrowth in pursuit.

Less than a minute later, the two males emerged from different parts of the forest. Yogi and Makoku immediately approached Eslom, making submissive pant-grunt vocalizations, and grooming him assiduously. An infant male, Winza, escaped from his mother’s arms and ran toward Eslom, who gently received him and groomed him for a few moments. Meanwhile, the younger males approached Lanjo and began to groom him.

Eslom finally stood up and stared at Lanjo, advancing with a fierce look and his hair erect. The younger males scrambled to safety. And that’s when it happened – Lanjo extended his arm and quietly pant-grunted.

With a light touch, Eslom batted at Lanjo’s hand and sat beside him as Kanyawara’s new alpha male.

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