Tsotsi was the alpha male Chimpanzee at Monarto Safari Park. He sadly passed away on Thursday 8 June 2023. Senior Keeper of Primates, Laura Hanley has penned this farewell…
It is so hard when you lose a being of this magnitude. As much as I just want to hide for a while I know that so many people loved and admired Tsotsi and with that in mind I want to thank each and every one of you who appreciated him and his magic and who have reached out at this difficult time. I want to thank my team who knew Tstosi so well and gave him the love and respect he so deserved. Most of all I want to thank Tsotsi for all that he gave to me, for all that he gave to his family and for the incredible legacy that he started and will not end with his passing.
Tsotsi was the catalyst for the whole Monarto project. He lived with his mum Fimi and sister Sandy at Adelaide Zoo. Genetically this family was extremely important to the region and a decision was made to move Fimi and Sandy to Hamilton Zoo and to form a new troop around Tsotsi at Monarto. Tsotsi started it all for Monarto – he was the reason for everything and he was the reason I lost my heart to chimps.
Tsotsi had limited experience with male chimps. The first stage of the Monarto project was to introduce Tsotsi to adult males. In the early stages of introductions he was nervous but full of bravado. During these times he would often come and sit with me at the mesh, he would put his fingers through; I’d offer a touch to his knuckles in a gesture of reassurance; he’d take a deep breath, puff himself up and go back in to try again. I remember these moments so well, I have and always will hold them so close. In these moments I also remember how incredibly proud I was of Tsotsi. He had the biggest of hearts and a huge amount of courage.
Tsotsi lived his first 18mths at Monarto with a bachelor squad. Sandali who he met first from Taronga, then Boyd and Gombe, father and son, a dynamic duo from Wellington Zoo. These four males were all huge characters who didn’t quite fit the puzzle where they were but together made a quirky match. In the early years Tsotsi was still learning a lot about male chimps and often looked to Boyd (who was the alpha of the bachelors) for guidance. Over the years they developed a unique friendship.
In late 2010 four females arrived at Monarto from Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands and essentially joined our motley crew. It was at this time Tsotsi started weaving his magic, and in Feb 2011 he became our alpha male – a position he held right until the end. This journey was amazing to see, Tsotsi who had never lived in this type of social group had learnt so many skills in such a short space of time and now he had become the guy I often referred to as Boss Man – we was the most incredible of alpha males.
Male chimps display, they all have their own unique methods and rhythm. One of the key components of Tsotsi’s rise was his ability to carry out the longest and loudest displays. What Tsotsi often lacked in athleticism he made up for with innovation. In the earlier years Tsotsi would carry out a move that we referred to as sweeping the floor, he would find a bottle (previously filled with herbal tea) squash it and push it all around the top mezzanine level as he skidded around the floor, this would result in bedding flying everywhere and make quite a noise. Over the years these displays progressed to the use of rocks that he would scrape across checker plate to make the craziest noise. Tsotsi’s displays were impressive and they did the trick of letting the whole troop know who was boss – I would do anything to hear this unique calling card again.
Tsotsi formed amazing friendships with all the chimps in the troop, these friendships were complex, full of so many intricate parts, politics and moving pieces. I loved watching his often subtle gestures to guide the troop in the direction he wanted them to go. I’d often look back on footage just to make sure that what I thought I had observed playing out had really started with just one touch and head nod from him. Tsotsi often looked like he was just sitting back and watching the world around him play out but this was never truly the case, he was the centerpiece of the Monarto troop and his ability to lead, direct and reign things in when needed was a privilege to watch.
Tsotsi was such a goofball but he also had the most serious of sides. There will be a million photos of him sitting with his arms folded, resting on his knees, watching over his world. He then had moments where he would lope around the dens grabbing the other chimps feet, playing a game of chasey and tag, he had the most beautiful goofy grin – a big floppy mouth smile that lit up my world. He had times with the youngsters in the troop where he would grab them in his big embrace, tickling and mouthing them all over, the laughter from him and them was something that made us all stop work and just bask in their sound for a little while.
Tsotsi was a protector of his family, although not the sire to all the youngsters he watched over them equally. Tsotsi had a very special relationship with our head female Zombi. Zombi played a huge roll in keeping Tsotsi in his position when challenged. Zombi watched over him right until the moment he left the chimp house. In turn, Tsotsi adored Zombi’s offspring and he formed a strong bond with Monarto’s first born chimp and Zombi’s daughter, Zuri. One of my many favourite pieces of footage is the moment Zuri was born. He stayed with Zombi throughout the birth and the moment Zuri enters the world Tsotsi literally jumps and his eyes showed pure amazement at what had just entered the world. One true testament to Tsotsi protection of the youngsters was the day a brown snake entered the chimp house. The younger members of the troop were getting far to close and despite the adults alarm calling and encouraging them away they continued to push the boundaries. In true Tsotsi form he puffed up, marched over, grabbed the snake and threw it outside – what a hero.
When the troop went through a difficult period and Zombi adopted Boon after the loss of his mother Soona; Tsotsi took Zuri under his wing, even sharing his nest with her each night. When we lost Boon from complications I was devastated and concerned about what the troop would be thinking. It was at this time that Tsotsi came and sat alongside me in the dens and offered his hand out in reassurance. I will never forget what that gesture did for me in my time of grief, he let me know it was ok, as we sat there he made his soft raspberry sounds. This sound is unique to Tsotsi and over the years he has used it for many reasons but one of the biggest is to soothe and comfort – in that moment it is exactly what I got from him.
One of the key moments of Tsotsi really coming full circle and showing that he was as incredible as we thought was when we imported Hannah and Lani from Taronga Zoo. Hannah had moved around quite a few times and had struggled to find her fit. Because of this at the time of introductions Hannah was nervous and unpredictable. As the alpha Tsotsi went in to meet the two girls first, he went in all puffed up, keen to meet these new additions. Hannah panicked and started acting quite erratically, Tsotsi took a deep breath, marched towards her and wrapped her up in the biggest of bear hugs, not one keeper had a dry eye and it was clear Hannah had found her home. It seems so fitting that Hannah’s first daughter Hope is also Tsotsi’s biological offspring.
Tsotsi, right up until the end your troop respected you. They still looked to you for reassurance, sat with you in comfort and let you rest when needed. This is a true sign of what you meant to them, they will grieve your loss in their own unique way and at some stage a new alpha will rise but your legacy, your family will always carry part of you with them.
I cannot thank you enough for all you taught me. I feel like we started this journey together – both learning, both growing, you becoming an alpha and me becoming a senior, our two worlds crossed paths in so many wonderful ways. I will miss our quiet moments and your very loud ones. Feeding primate cake will never be the same without you- I think I will forever hear you calling me, demanding more, or hear your excitement when you see the tray. You were the teacher of tools and mastered any challenge, you had patience in spades – something that also served you well as alpha. I will miss your goofy grin and your perfect fish lips. I could write your story for days and it still wouldn’t capture all that you were. I loved you, I respected you and I will carry you with me always. I thank you for bringing me in to your circle, I feel like we had a million conversations without sharing words, I will miss you my hairy friend – thank you for all that you were.
Laura Hanley, Senior Keeper Primates, Monarto Safari Park