An adult male chimp is five times as strong as a human (credit: International Primate Protection Society)

In July, a human being was seriously attacked by chimpanzees at Chimp Eden, a sanctuary near Nelspruit, South Africa, founded by Jane Goodall. Although chimps are not native to that country, the facility houses orphaned apes who have been rescued from the widespread illegal trade in bushmeat and pets that occurs in many parts of Africa. The animals roam semi-wild in large fenced enclosures.

A young American graduate student studying for his masters degree in anthropology and primatology at the University of Texas, was showing a group of tourists around and they stopped at an enclosure that holds adult males. The chimps had thrown a stone at passers-by and he wanted to remove it. He stepped over a small barrier fence and went right up to the electric safety fence and retrieved the stone. As he went to climb back over the fence, two chimps grabbed his foot, pulled him down and dragged him away. They tore off some of his fingers, a testicle and mauled his head.

The sanctuary, which is home to 33 chimpanzee, was closed temporarily while the incident was investigated. The chimps were not put down. The two chimps were part of a group that had been rescued from Angola and brought to South Africa more than a decade ago. After the attack they were placed in their night enclosure and held there while sanctuary officials investigated what led to the attack and confirmed the fencing is safe.

Chimp Eden is a member of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, a group of 21 sanctuaries across Africa that rescues and cares for primates from illegal hunting and trade.

The lesson in all of this, one that we humans seem to have a hard time learning, is that chimpanzees and other primates are wild animals who organize their lives by rules we don’t fully understand. They are defensive of their territories in the wild and in captivity. In our interactions with them, we need to respect their essential wild natures. Caution is always a necessity.