Nothing like a good lurid headline on which to end the day, and to give us with an apt example, the Guardian has conjured up this gem to furnish their report on the mysterious Bili apes. For many years the stuff of legend, the apes, named for the local area, were eventually observed in the flesh, in once instance chomping away on the carcass of a leopard. This, if true, is surprising enough, but not as odd as the idea that it may even have killed its feline prey, a behaviour never before reported in apes, but corresponds to rumour that has persisted locally for some time. There doesn’t appear to be any explanation of how this killing of a leopard by one or more apes might have been accomplished, or whether or not they could have made and/or used weapons, such as rocks, or trapped it in some fiendish device. The Bili or Bondo Mystery Apes are to be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and are described thus in Wikipedia

The Bili Ape is massive by chimpanzee standards. Heights can exceed 5 feet (about Gorilla height), their skulls are larger than chimp skulls, and their footprints are larger even than gorillas. Unfortunately, there have been relatively few detailed observations of the Bili Ape and no thorough examination of either remains or a living Bili Ape in captivity. They are also various(ly) described as having silver backs and even snouted faces (uncommon).

The locals in Bili refer to Bili Apes as “Lion Killers”. While chimps tend to stay in the trees and make good prey for big cats, Bili Apes nest on the ground like gorillas and have been reported to hunt lions.

Until recently, very little has been heard of these apes, as apparently they were only reported in the West as late as 1996, and the Wikipedia article claims Jane Goodall was able to send in an expedition to find them in 2004, at a time when there must have been a lull in the local warfare that has plagued the region for years. However, when I ran a quick search at Jane Goodall’s website, nothing came up for ‘Bili’ or ‘Bondo’, so I can’t as yet confirm her involvement in the discovery. This from the Guardian…

The most detailed and recent data comes from Cleve Hicks, at the University of Amsterdam, who has spent 18 months in the field watching the Bili apes – named after a local town – since 2004. His team’s most striking find came after one of his trackers heard chimps calling for several days from the same spot.

When he investigated he came across a chimp feasting on the carcass of a leopard. Mr Hicks cannot be sure the animal was killed by the chimp, but the find lends credence to the apes’ lion-eating reputation.

“What we have found is this completely new chimpanzee culture,” said Mr Hicks. Previously, researchers had only managed to snatch glimpses of the animals or take photos of them using camera traps. But Mr Hicks used local knowledge to get closer to them and photograph them.

“We were told of this sort of fabled land out west by one of our trackers who goes out there to fish,” said Mr Hicks whose project is supported by the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation. “I call it the magic forest. It is a very special place.”

I daresay that a fair amount of scepticism will greet this news, at least until further corroborative observations have been made, but if it’s confirmed that these apes really do behave in the manner described, it will be interesting to see whether there is a debate as to whether they should become classified as Pan or Homo. In the meantime, here’s a good link which reports on Cleve Hicks’ field studies back in 2004

Apes at night are generally to be found sleeping in nests which are built in the branches of trees as a precaution against being attacked on the ground in the night by anything with harmfully large teeth and sharp claws, but many of the Bili apes appear to prefer ground level dormitory accommodation…

Mr Hicks reports that he found a unique chimp culture. For example, unlike their cousins in other parts of Africa the chimps regularly bed down for the night in nests on the ground. Around a fifth of the nests he found were there rather than in the trees.

“How can they get away with sleeping on the ground when there are lions, leopards, golden cats around as well as other dangerous animals like elephants and buffalo?” said Mr Hicks.

“The ground nests were very big and there was obviously something very unusual going on there. They are not unknown elsewhere but very unusual,” said Colin Groves, an expert on primate morphology at the Australian National University in Canberra who has observed the nests in the field.

And most surprising of all, was the revelation that there seem to be plentiful numbers of these apes in the surrounding countryside, especially as we often hear how many other apes and other fauna in the area are falling victim to poachers, hunters and trigger-happy others. (TJ)

see also: National Geographic – Elusive African Apes: Giant Chimps or New Species?

and: Karl Ammann – The Bondo Mystery Apes