The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: How Animals Form Coalitions Out of True Friendship

opinion

There is this phrase that is very common within the social circles. You have heard about a 'true friend' or 'my best friend'. What benchmark do we use to grade a friend?

Without using the Biblical quotes, who is your best friend, or a true friend for that matter, and how can you tell? How far would you go to bail out a friend without hoping for a return? How much can you tolerate a wayward friend before you bolt to a safe zone?

Being a bushman and literally living and earning my keep from the bush, I have witnessed many instances where true expressions of friendships are displayed for all to see.

Powerful demonstration of intimacy between friends where the lives are put on line for the sake of a mate. Yet humans, who are called 'the higher minds', can go to the extents of planning for a total elimination of a friend or a life partner without a second thought.

One time I was on a game drive in Samburu during a very dry period. During such times, people living close to the reserve bring their domestic animals inside the park to graze.

They would do that at night when they knew it would be difficult for the rangers to patrol the park. Some animals are left inside the park when the rest retreat to their manyattas in the early morning.

Those left could either be too weak to keep up with the rest of the herd, or injured during the grazing. This time it was a small goat who was wondering in the bushes calling out for help.

At a distance, a group of Olive baboons were busy digging for roots of young plants for food. Even when food is scarce, baboons, being highly social, will share a grazing zoon and even help their disabled.

Leaders in a baboon group have friends. The closest friend of a leader will be the grooming partner and if anything happens to the leader in question, the grooming partner most often becomes the natural successor to the throne.

After being in the bush for that long, I can easily tell who among two friends, is the leader. In this case, the leader was badly injured on his right front leg.

He could not dig for roots, or retrieve small insects from under the dung of elephants, which the rest of the group was doing to feed themselves. In human thinking, or at least in Kenya, the friend will immediately start scheming for a coup d'état and take over leadership.

If that would look bad in the eyes of the community, the friend would help starve the leader to death so that the succession would look legal. Not in the bush.

I noticed that the friend of the leader continued to groom him from time to time. During the digging, the friend would uproot a plant, take out some roots and drop the rest behind him.

The leader, who was patiently cowling behind his friend, would pick up the roots with his left hand or bend down to pick with his mouth and eat.

After a while, the friend noticed the lost goat wondering out of the bush to the clearing where they were grazing. He dashed towards the goat.

I did not even begin to imagine a hunt was imminent. I have never seen a baboon actually hunting small mammals for food. What I have seen is baboons coming across injured baby gazelles and choose to eat them. But not hunting.

This time the friend actually gave chase and caught the small goat. He knew well enough that the leader was hurt and could not handle the exercise of tearing meat from the goat.

So he started eating the little goat, which was still alive. He had eaten almost half when the goat finally died. He could have eaten the baby goat alone in the face of the prevailing situation.

But in a show of true friendship, he brought the goat to a shade and allowed the leader to eat the rest. He was intent in nursing his leader to full health so they can govern together. A coalition of leaders out of true friendship, not for fear of competition. How I wish!

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