By Gerald Tenywa
The hunt for Mika, the alpha male who was king of the 48 chimps on Ngamba Island, Lake Victoria ended in tears yesterday.
His decomposing body was discovered on the island amidst broken tree branches and twigs, putting to rest speculation that Mika was either eaten by a crocodile or kidnapped by wildlife traffickers.
“We got Mika’s body just before lunchtime. A postmortem is underway to establish the cause of death,” said John Makombo, the acting executive director at UWA.
According to Makombo, the broken branches around his body suggest that Mika could have lost his life in a battle with other chimps.
He added that breaking tree branches is also a sign of mourning. In some cases, the chimps stay by the carcass for days or weeks to mourn the passing of their loved ones.
Makombo said Mika will be given a decent burial at Ngamba Island where he has been the third king to reign over the Island community after Eddy and Robbie, the first king.
Mika has been king for about a decade after dethroning Robbie and Eddy who still live at the sanctuary .
Chimps live in families led by an alpha male who mates with the females and in most cases eats first.
The leader also disciplines errant chimps and in some cases, they also gang up against him. This, according to Makombo, could have led to the fight that took Mika’s life.
This article was first published in the New Vision on May 14, 2006
Meet Mika Gamba King Of Ngamba Island
It comes and goes. At different times ever since the sanctuary for 39 orphaned chimpanzees started about a decade ago there has been three reigning kings of Ngamba Island tucked away in Lake Victoria.
First, it was Robbie then Eddy and Mika, the reigning king. To become king, one has to outwit his rivals to the throne. "He is entitled to mate the females on heat and gets his food before others," says Dr. Richard Ssuna, a veterinary doctor at the sanctuary.
As the group of tourists settled, the 56-kilo Mika swaggers into the open lush green vegetation enveloping Ngamba. He leads his group as sanctuary attendants throw mangoes, oranges and pawpaws to them.
Micah and his group hunt for food in the forest sheltering Ngamba, but the food is not enough to make them survive. So the sanctuary attendants have to supplement them with fruits.
Out of 100 acres of Ngamba 95 is forested and occupied by chimps during daytime. In the evening, the chimps retire to the holding grounds built with strong iron bars to sleep.
More drama ensures when it comes to power struggle. The male adults that are almost of the same age, display their skill and talent to assert themselves.
"It is all about politics," says Lilly Ajarova, the executive director of Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, a local non-governmental organisation.
At this point, Mika asserts himself by beating others and pulling tree branches.
If there is a fruit he is entitled to, he must get it. "Even if someone gets before him he must surrender it," says Ajarova.
Should there be any female on heat, it has to be the king to settle it out. In case of two females are on heat, the alpha male chooses the best. Sex with other males is punishable when found out.
Mika comes closer, but a greedy, Kidogo, holding fruits with all her limbs attracts his attention. It becomes evident that she is in trouble as Mika approaches. She takes off amid screams, but Mika is faster. He snatches some fruits from her as the younger hapless chimps look on. They tremble in the face of terror.
Though Mika appears ruthless, Ssuna says he has got allies that have seen him catapult to glory. On the onset there was talk that Mika would engage in upsetting the old order that had seen Robbie and Eddy overthrown.
As the alpha male at the time of opening the sanctuary, Robbie assumed the title; "father of the nation". He had led the group at the time of independence.
Then the population was overwhelming at the holding facilities at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre formerly Entebbe Zoo.
The groups were separated into two. One led by Zakayo has remained resident at the centre and the other group relocated to Ngamba.
There are no term limits here. "It all depends on intelligence and the strength one wields," says Dr. Lawrence Mugisha at the Sanctuary.
Each of the chimpanzees at Ngamba has a history. The authorities of Ngamba have inscribed it on metallic sheets to cause awareness.
Bill Farmer, a consultant at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), who was among the tourists at Ngamba watched the chimps, he nodded his head as he read the profiles of the primates.
Chimps are endangered animals meaning that if nothing is done to stop agriculture that is eating up the habitat of the chimps or control hunting they would soon disappear from the face of the earth. There is a quarter a million of them that live in the tropics of Africa with only 5,000 left in Uganda.
"The disappearance of chimps spells disaster for humans because their habitats (forests) are water reservoirs that go to farmland, rivers and lakes," says Farmer.
Three years ago, I saved an infant female chimp from smugglers, unfortunately she died a few days later and I wept. The trafficker had kept her without food and was emaciated by the time she got into the hands of the Jane Goodall Institute, one of the trustees of Ngamba.
However, another chimp was recovered near Munyonyo and Debbie Cox, who heads the Goodall Institute (Uganda), gave me a chance to give her a name.
Though the chimp was female, I christened her Ndyakira, in tribute to a former scribe who selflessly fought for the integrity of nature in the last decade. Ndyakira, the chimp, lives under Mawa's group at Ngamba.
Dr. Ssuna, a keen observer of the Ngamba chimps, says Eddy and Mika hatched a plan of overthrowing Robbie about two years ago. "They beat him into submission," says Ssuna.
However, when Mika discovered his abilities two months later, he took war to Eddy's court. All the females were on his side cheering as he fought, ending Eddy's stint on the throne. "It was the politics of allying to defeat a common foe," recalls Ssuna.
Mika suddenly picks up a stick and beats Natasha. "That is a way of disciplining her for some crime she may have committed," says Ssuna.
Then Mika leads his pack as they retreat into the cover of the vegetation.
There are 18 adult chimps and a baby known as Kyewunyo meaning surprise.
She was born by accident. The chimps are given contraceptives (implants) to control population growth. But sometimes, however, there are "accidents" and some chimps conceive.
The First Lady, Janet Museveni, opened sanctuary is its patron. Other prominent personalities who have visited Ngamba, include the Kabaka of Buganda and Jane Goodall who is a peace ambassador recognised by the United Nations.
Different chimps behave differently. Mawa for example has got a niche for himself as a thrower of stones. "He nearly hit one tourist and earned himself an echelon as the top marksman of the group," says Ajarova.
She adds, "others have picked up the habit and tourists have to be on the look out in case any member of the group intends to upstage Mawa at the weird feat."
He throws stones when there are visitors to attract their attention. But staff now understands him better. When he tries to pick up a rock they reward him with a banana.
"If he refuses and goes on throwing stones he is denied the reward," says Ajarova.
Mawa heads a group of 20 infants that live alone on Ngamba with the hope of integrating them with the adult group.
"He even dares the older males, Robbie, Eddy and Mika and they don't like him," says Ajarova. But this got him into trouble recently. Robbie beat him thoroughly.
Another baffling act comes out of Yoyo, believed to be so intelligent and critical. This was tested in a research with a single groundnut that was put in a bottle. The chimps could not break the bottle or insert a finger into the bottle.
After several attempts without success, Yoyo filled the bottle with water and got the groundnut.
"Unlike all other subjects, Sunday is smart and has grown into fishermen teaser. One time, he jumped onto a fishing canoe as it occupants scampered for safety. He drifted away to the middle of the lake unnoticed," says Mugisha.
"He held firmly onto the canoe and did not look scared until the canoe pulled to the shores of Ngamba," says Mugisha.
Tumbo, though huge and muscular, is not interested in scamming a king, but a maker. He causes consensus. He tends to re-unite the rivals and is much preferred. Besides, his non-aggressive character has earned him female companionship. He is a "peace maker," the custodian of harmony.
In the forest, the chimps like human beings are omnivorous, feeding on fruits and meat. They also organise hunting missions and capture small mammals for food.
Chimps keep a territory of about two square kilometres in the wild depending on the food distribution.
They live in communities and they are the closest relatives to the humans. But poachers exterminate the adults before they can touch the infants. That is how chimps ended up at the centre and Ngamba.
The chimp goddess, Jane Goodall, blames the cleverness of chimps for causing their misery. She says the pet trade has thrived because the pet keepers want intelligent animals.
Goodall is a primatologist who undertook research at Gombe near Lake Tanganyika in northern Tanzania that brought to light some of the amazing feats of chimps.
So inspiring is her work documented in the films; My life with the chimpanzees, reasons for hope, in which a mother chimp that had lost her offspring moaned with tears streaming down her eyes, went without food for weeks and died.
I watched the films during an educational excursion for Makerere University students at Kibale National Park in 1994 and that was the start of my passion for animals.
As we left Ngamba, the chimps were panting and hooting in the forest.
I promised to myself that I would be back soon.
The chimp island can be reached through Entebbe near the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. It is likely to attract many researchers and animal lovers that will attend the International Primatological Congress in the lush green town of Entebbe in June 25 to 30.