About 20 years ago, a disaster struck the Forest Troop of baboons in Kenya. There was a tourist lodge within their range, and the biggest and toughest males in the troop would regularly go to the garbage dump there to forage for food. Subordinate males, however, did not go â€” so when the brutal and despotic alpha males of Forest Troop all ate meat infected with bovine tuberculosis at the dump and promptly died, the less aggressive 50 per cent of the group’s males survived. And the troop’s whole culture changed.
Male baboons are so obsessed with status that they are always on a hair-trigger for aggression â€” and it isn’t just directed at male rivals of equal status. Lower-ranking males routinely get bullied and terrorized, and even females (who weigh half as much as males) are frequently attacked and even bitten. You really would not want to live your life as a baboon.
Yet after the biggest, baddest males of Forest Troop all died off at once, the whole social atmosphere changed. When it was first studied by primatologists in 1979-82, it was a typical, utterly vicious baboon society, but after the mass die-off of the bullies the surviving members relaxed and began treating one another more decently.