The tranquillity of Eden was shattered when two chimpanzees mauled a research student to within inches of his life.
Research student Andrew Oberle has always had a deep-rooted love for animals, particularly primates. A post-graduate student in anthropology and primatology at the University of Texas in San Antonio in the United States, the 26-year-old was in South Africa to spend some time with the chimpanzees living at Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) Chimpanzee Eden in Mpumalanga – a specialised chimpanzee rehabilitation centre run by the world renowned Jane Goodall Institute.
In just a short space of time Oberle had won the hearts and trust of the chimp residents. Recently he was giving a lecture to a group of tourists at Eden when he was attacked in what experts believe was a territorial-fuelled defence attack.
“We have never had an attack like this happen at Eden before,” says Eugene Cussons, managing member for Chimpanzees Eden. Cussons, who is also the host of Animal Planet’s Escape To Chimp Eden, explains that Eden was established six years ago to help the many chimpanzees who fall victim to the bush meat trade. On June 28, Oberle was speaking to a group of visitors who were standing about 10 metres away from the chimpanzee enclosure – as required by safety rules. According to eye witnesses, Oberle noticed a rock jammed underneath the fence and was concerned that the chimps would throw the rock at the visitors, as they had done before. He climbed over the first of two fences separating the chimps from the group. Alfa male chimp, 20-year-old Amadeus, and another male, 15-year-old Nikki, grabbed Oberle’s foot from underneath the fence. A violent struggle ensued and the fence was badly damaged. The chimps were then able to escape their enclosure and attack Oberle.
“When management heard what happened they raced to the camp in a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” explains Cussons. “They saw two chimps on the outside of the enclosure and tried to push them away from Oberle, but they attacked the vehicle. Protocol then changed to deadly force and I was asked to intervene.” Cussons fired some warning rounds before hitting Nikki in the abdomen. He fell off the vehicle onto the ground and immediately the chimps’ behaviour changed from aggression to submission. They began to retreat and moved slowly back into their enclosure.
Cussons rushed to Oberle’s side where he found him conscious and speaking. He had deep lacerations on the top of his head and all the way down his whole body so he was rushed to hospital and his parents were notified.” Oberle’s mom, Mary Flint, says her son knew the risks of working with chimps and would not want them blamed for the attack. “The last thing he would do is blame a chimp for this. He adored them,” she says. “Since he was a little boy he just loved them, and I just have faith that when all is said and done, he’s going to go right back into it.” Oberle has since undergone two surgeries and has been moved to Millpark Hospital in Johannesburg to continue his recovery. His family has requested privacy in the matter of their son’s medical condition. The lead government investigator in the case has meanwhile confirmed that the two chimps that attacked Oberle were defending their territory and as such, will be allowed to live.
chimps, Andrew Oberle, Jane Goodall Institute, Animal Planet, Millpark