Why Are Gorillas Committing Mob Violence?

For the first time, these great apes have been seen ganging up on single males—and researchers don’t know the reason.

Kenny Katombe / Reuters

It started with a scream.

It either came from a fleeing gorilla named Inshuti, or from the three males who were chasing him. Whatever the case, seconds later, Inshuti was on the ground, surrounded by a mob of 25 other gorillas. They pinned him down by his arms and legs. They screamed and grunted as they bit, kicked, and hit him. They pulled out chunks of his hair. The biggest of the attacking silverbacks repeatedly sank his teeth into Inshuti’s body and shook his head, like a dog with a bone.

Four minutes later, the mob dispersed silently and Inshuti slunk away. His injuries were severe, but he survived.

Gorillas are not meant to behave like that. Males will sometimes kill babies or youngsters, or even each other in one-on-one fights. But here was a large group, including females and juveniles, attacking a single male. Humans do that. Chimpanzees do that. Gorillas supposedly don’t, but try telling that to Inshuti.

“I’ve spent a lot of time watching wildlife and that was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen,” says Stacy Rosenbaum, from the University of Chicago. She witnessed the attack in October 2004. “It was the incredible speed, and how coordinated they were. In a typical gorilla interaction, you get lots of running around and chest-beating, but it never seems like they’re doing the same thing at the same time. In the incident I saw, all the gorillas attacked at the same time. It was very fast, no hesitation at all.”

Such “mob violence,” as Rosenbaum puts it, is especially surprising because it took place near Rwanda’s Karisoke Research Center, the institute established by the prominent primatologist Dian Fossey in 1967. The gorillas there are some of the most well-studied primates in the world, and yet no one had seen anything like the 2004 attack before.

It wasn’t a one-off incident, either.  In June 2010, the Karisoke staff saw another mixed-sex group of 42 gorillas beating, biting, and dragging a lone male for 18 minutes. The victim escaped, but died from his injuries. In May 2013, another group of nine gorillas was seen attacking two victims—again including poor Inshuti.

These acts are somewhat similar to those documented in chimps, where groups of males will deliberately kill individuals from rival groups, attacking them in teams and beating them to death. One such campaign, which lasted for four years, has been described as chimp warfare.

But while the Karisoke gorillas were attacking in groups, they didn’t stalk their victims like chimps do. “We didn’t have any evidence of premeditation,” says Rosenbaum. Instead, it seems that Inshuti and the other targets just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, in chimps, it’s only the males that wage war. Among the gorillas, females and juveniles also took part in the beatings.

That was the most surprising part of the discovery, says Martha Robbins, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who has studied these gorillas. “I find it extremely unlikely that an adult female with a small baby attached would start biting a silverback, who is twice her size,” she says. And yet that’s exactly what Rosenbaum saw. “They were actual participants: hair-pulling, biting, kicking.”

“You might think this is the kind of thing animals do all the time, but they rarely do,” says Joan Silk, from Arizona State University. This suggests that for most species, the costs of such violence outweigh the benefits. And in a minority, the balance shifts.

Outnumbering your opponents, for example, greatly reduces the cost of violence; you're less likely to suffer retaliatory injuries if you attack together. In chimpanzees societies, groups frequently split apart and reform, which creates many chances for coalitions to come across lone individuals. Such encounters are rare for gorillas, which typically live in large stable groups with several females and a single dominant male. But since the 1990s, the Karisoke gorillas have been slowly forming larger groups, containing three or more adult males each.

No one knows why. “There’s been some speculation about the role that humans might have played, or climate change, or that the population is denser now, but none of those are convincing explanations,” says Rosenbaum. Whatever the reason, these large groups created an imbalance of power, where individual bachelors like Inshuti would suddenly find themselves greatly outnumbered. “If you only have one attacker, it’s dangerous,” says Rosenbaum. “Gorilla males have huge teeth and are extremely strong. But once you get enough males in the group, the cost to individual participants is low.”

That said, in the three documented incidents, some of the attackers were injured. That never happens in chimps—the attackers always emerge unscathed. “Does this mean that although the gorillas understand the imbalance-of-power principle, but aren’t very good at implementing it?” asks Richard Wrangham from Harvard University, who has studied chimp violence. “Perhaps because they have relatively few occasions to practice it? It is a fascinating possibility.”

Wrangham wonders if the attacks aren’t quite as needless as they might seem. He has long argued that bachelor male gorillas are a threat; they’ll sometimes kill a female’s babies to lure her away from her current silverback. Perhaps the groups—females included—attack bachelors as a way of preventing infanticide. This idea fits with the recent spate of such attacks. The Karisoke gorilla population has increased dramatically in the past decade, and Robbins told me that she heard about many more cases of infanticide in recent years. This population boom may have provided both the motive and the opportunity for mob violence.

Whatever their drivers, Rosenbaum thinks that such attacks are worth studying. “It tells us something about when this sort of behavior appeared in the hominid lineage,” she says. “There’s been a stark contrast between chimps and humans and everyone else in the primate order, but this suggests that the psychology is much older.”