It also is a living laboratory, home to the world’s most studied group of wild chimpanzees. The Center’s mission is to operate a world-class research station in which the best available methods are used to continue and further develop the long-term primate research projects begun by Dr. Jane Goodall, and to advance basic science, support conservation, and train Tanzanian scientists.
Thanks to National Geographic and other television specials about Jane, Jane’s books about the Gombe chimps, and countless writings about her life and work, Gombe’s chimpanzees are known the world over. The most familiar to the public are the “F” family chimpanzees, a family line headed by the old matriarch Flo, who upon her death was the subject of an obituary in the London Times.
In the Beginning
In 1965, Jane and Hugo Van Lawick founded the Gombe Stream Research Centre, which meant graduate students and others could come and assist with the chimpanzee observations. The Centre became a place where students could learn about wild chimpanzees and how to study them. The Centre still trains primatologists to this day. Jane visits Gombe every year and is very involved in the research, but she no longer does the actual day to day field work. That work is done by a skilled team of researchers and assistants, many of them from Tanzania.
As the Gombe study continued into the 1970s, events revealed the darker side of chimp nature. Jane says, “When I first started at Gombe,” Jane said, “I thought the chimps were nicer than we are. But time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful. ”Mike’s six-year reign as alpha male ended when the younger, larger and very aggressive Humphrey charged him and pounded on him. At about the same time, seven of the 16 community males withdrew from the central Kasakela area or the park to the southern part of their range, Kahama.
Conflict between the Kasakela chimps and the splinter group erupted and escalated over time. Figan had defeated Humphrey and won the submission of all the Kasakela males. Now he took them to “war” against Kahama. Their strategy was simple: hunt the enemy down, one at a time, attack them brutally, and leave them to die of their wounds. Within four years, they eliminated all seven Kahama males and at least one of the females.
Violent events were taking place among the Kasakela females as well. Passion, one of the high-ranking females, and her daughter, Pom, developed an abnormal taste for other females’ babies. In a 3-year span, they killed and ate between 5 and 10 newborn infants. While this was extreme, other high-ranking females have also been seen attacking new mothers and taking their infants.
While such brutality is disturbing, Jane is quick to point out that chimpanzees are also capable of altruism. For example, two infants, Mel and Darbee, each about 3 1/2 years old, were orphaned by a pneumonia epidemic. Both orphans were at first adopted by unrelated adolescent males, Spindle and Beethoven, who had themselves lost their mothers. Spindle would even share his night nest and allow Mel to ride clinging to his belly if it was rainy and cold.
Through the decades, the Gombe Stream Research Center grew. Jane and fellow researchers continued to look at chimpanzee feeding behavior, ecology, infant development, aggression, as well as other primate species. They also were able to document details of chimpanzee “consortships” -- periods in which males take females away from other community males for unchallenged mating time. Jane suggests that chimpanzees thus show a latent capacity to develop more permanent bonds similar to monogamy or serial monogamy.
Jane continued to spend time at Gombe, even as she began to travel widely promoting conservation. But her main priority was to analyze and write up 25 years’ worth of Gombe research. Her book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior was published in 1986. Its publication was celebrated by a conference in Chicago, “Understanding Chimpanzees”, which brought together many chimp biologists. They were fascinated by one another’s findings, but alarmed to realize how widespread and urgent were the threats facing wild chimps.
The message was clear: We understand chimps much better now. They are more like us than we ever imagined. But now we must help save them. Jane had gone into the conference as a scientist. She left as an activist, determined to save the amazing creatures who she knew so well.
In more recent years the world has come to know a pair who may be unique in the natural world – the chimpanzee twins Golden and Glitter. Twin chimpanzees generally don’t survive in the wild, but Golden and Glitter had the advantage of a doting older sister, Gaia, who helped her mother Gremlin raise the two girls.
The twins and Gombe’s other chimpanzees are followed daily by JGI’s staff of Tanzanian researchers. The longitudinal study they continue furthers our understanding of chimpanzee diet, range use, intergroup aggression, health, and other areas of interest. These areas in turn inform chimpanzee conservation strategies.
The Center also hosts a regular stream of visiting researchers who conduct both basic and applied research, exploring areas such as relationships between fathers and offspring or female social status and range use. One of the critical studies currently underway is led by Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama. Dr. Hahn seeks to understand the natural history of HIV by looking at the factors causing transmission of the closely related simian immunodeficiency virus.
Click Here to see videos of chimps at Gombe, including Golden and Glitter.