Gombe Gets a New Alpha – The Fall of Ferdinand

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Ferdinand grooming

Ferdinand grooming another chimpanzee.

A King Dethroned

When it comes to chimpanzees, the fight to be on top is key for access to mates and food. At Gombe National Park, Tanzania, where Jane Goodall first studied wild chimpanzees, this struggle has been displayed many times. In chimpanzee societies, males live in a hierarchy and all adult males dominate females, while females have their own hierarchy. Things that impact your ability to be an alpha or higher or lower on the ladder include age, fitness, aggressiveness, intelligence and what we would consider “leadership” or ability to get others on your side. All of this might sound familiar to anyone who has lived through middle school, a traffic jam, or basically any other human group interaction!

Ferdinand, 24, ironically named for the peace-loving bull, is the alpha male of his group at Gombe. He has maintained his position by intimidation, threats and surprise attacks including biting and marking all his rivals with a tell-tale scar on their backs. A testament to his combative nature, after Ferdinand had deposed the preceding alpha, Kris, he had continued to hound and ambush him. Kris disappeared from the group badly wounded, and was never allowed back into the group. This warrior chimpanzee – Gombe’s alpha male of eight years, Ferdinand – has been toppled from his rank position in a violent challenge by none other than his nephew, the 19-year old male named Fudge.

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Director of Storytelling & Marketing for Communications & Partnerships at the Jane Goodall Institute USA, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Jane Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission to create a better world for all by protecting the interconnections between people, other animals, and the environment. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is pursuing a Master's of Science in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on Environmental Justice. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, now a D.C. resident, she has a varied background including 10+ years of expert communications and digital marketing in the social and environmental non-profit sector. Her intersectional approach to this work has been shaped by a holistic world-view, having traveled to Madagascar and Ecuador for conservation research projects, leading communications for youth social justice filmmaking organizations, and as a part of several professional groups advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in environmental spaces including Greens REALIGN. With skills ranging from conservation fieldwork, policy and advocacy campaigns, strategic communications, art, digital media, and design, Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to transform hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she is igniting positive change to create that better, more equitable world, every day.