Inside the complex and extremely violent world of warring mongooses

Banded mongooses have long been used as a model of animal cooperation. Now, researchers in Uganda are starting to get to grips with the harsh realities of their long-running and bloody battles

Life



30 January 2023

Banded mongoose group approaching with curiosity (Mungos mungo). Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. March 2018.

Banded mongooses live in colonies of between eight and 55 individuals and often start wars with rivals

Anup Shah/getty images

WHEN you first encounter a band of banded mongooses, your initial instinct is to think: “Aww! They are so adorable, so cute, so fluffy.” My first encounter with them was in Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda, which is beautiful and thick with wildlife.

I was under the expert eye of Robert Businge, one of the researchers on the Banded Mongoose Research Project based there. Businge located the group with a radio tracker and made a special call: pu-pu-pu-pu-pu. Out of the bushes tumbled seven bundles of chirruping, inquisitive enthusiasm. He checked they were all present and correct, recorded some data, then told me a horror story about beheadings.

The more I learned about banded mongooses, the more I understood just how deceptive appearances can be. They are aggressively violent animals that wage war on neighbouring groups, brutally murdering and maiming their rivals. They ruthlessly expel close relatives from their group and kill them if they won’t leave, commit infanticide – sometimes against their own offspring – and even engage in cannibalism. “Their whole society is built around warmongering,” says project leader Michael Cant at the University of Exeter, UK.

Such brutal, organised violence is unusual in the animal kingdom. I had come to the park to try to see it for myself, watching as the researchers put mongooses on a war footing with their enemies’ faeces and a Bluetooth speaker, and took drone footage to reveal new details about this gruesome behaviour. These experiments …

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