Rise Of The Warrior Apes is the award-winning wildlife documentary and a Panda Award nominee at this year’s Wildscreen Festival. The film, by James Reed, tells the twenty-year story of the largest and most powerful chimpanzee society ever known. Through the extraordinary lives of four unique chimps we experience an intense political drama and bloody conflict in the African jungle. Using previously unseen footage, and witness testimony from the scientists who have observed and filmed them since 1993, the film reveals a story of unbreakable friendship, fierce rivalry and unparalleled ambition that gave rise to the warrior apes of Ngogo.
John Mitani, a primate behaviourist and university professor, is one of the scientists featured in Rise of the Warrior Apes. John has studied the chimpanzees of Ngogo for over 20 years, after his first visit in 1995, and shares with us some of his experience.
During your years studying primate behaviour, what separates the chimpanzees from the other primates groups you have studied?
I started my career 40 years ago studying the two Asian apes, gibbons and orangutans. Gibbons live in small, socially monogamous groups, and orangutans often roam the forest by themselves. This limits the number and types of social relationships they can form.
Chimpanzees are quite different as they live in relatively large groups, ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 individuals, called “communities.” Male chimpanzees live in their natal communities their entire lives and form strong long-lasting social bonds with each other reinforced through a variety of behaviors, including grooming, helping each other in fights, and sharing scarce and valuable resources such as meat obtained in hunts.
Beyond this chimps also display a suite of unusual behaviors not often found in other primates. These include the previously mentioned hunting vertebrate prey, tool-making and use, and quite shockingly, killing other chimpanzees.
What were you looking for when you first followed the Ngogo community?
I had been conducting fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park for several years prior to visiting Ngogo in 1995. I was working with one of the pioneers in the study of wild chimpanzees, the late Toshisada Nishida.
I had every intention of continuing to work with Nishida, as he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, who taught me the ways of wild chimpanzees. I wanted to come to Ngogo because it was in Kibale National Park, one of the world’s legendary primate field sites, established by another friend, Tom Struhsaker. I just wanted to see the place. But after only a few weeks at Ngogo, I realized that there was something very strange there. There were a lot of chimpanzees, and they were everywhere! As things turn out, there were well over 100 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community. This was an order of magnitude larger than any other chimpanzee community that had been described before.
So the first question to address was how did so many chimpanzees manage to live together? And by doing so, would they reveal secrets of their lives that had not been documented elsewhere?
The initial challenge of studying the Ngogo chimpanzees was that they were not used to human presence. They would run away every time we would encounter them, it took considerable time to habituate them so that we could follow and observe their behavior. In those early days there were times I wondered if habituating them was the best use of my time. In retrospect, though, it was fun, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding.
What is your favourite aspect of your research?
Behavioral research on chimpanzees has been, and always will be, an observational science. So I enjoy spending long periods following chimpanzees and watching what they do. Occasionally, patience pays off with an “aha” moment that leads to a new discovery.
But now, having studied wild chimpanzees for nearly 30 years, I relish some magical, almost spiritual-like moments that are hard to describe. Imagine this: I am out alone with a large party of chimpanzees. There is an abundance of food, and there are perhaps 40, 50, maybe even 60 chimpanzees together. And it’s a glorious, dry, sunlit day. The chimpanzees have settled down to rest and socialize. Everywhere I look, there are chimpanzees on the ground. A few adult males groom. Moms relax and begin to doze off as their kids start to play. Some of the youngsters wrestle, laughing noisily in the process. Others chase each other in small saplings and then drop to the ground with a thud. I have experienced countless times like this, and as I survey the scene, I am overcome with utter joy.
I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world, and I feel that I am the luckiest person on Earth. Moments like these may be the most important reason I continue to study chimpanzees at the ripe old age of 64!
What has been your most surprising observation?
We have been able to document many surprising findings based on our study of the Ngogo chimpanzees, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to decide which observation has been the most astonishing. One obvious candidate is the split that has recently occurred.
Toward the end of Rise of the Warrior Apes we allude to the fact that the Ngogo chimpanzee community had grown to an astronomical size, with over 200 individuals. Since 2015, and during 2016 while James Reed filmed part of the documentary, males from two subgroups started to fight with each other in the same way members from different communities do. Like many other animals, chimpanzees are territorial. For three years as this was happening, some males would continue to move back and forth between the two subgroups. This stopped earlier this year; males from both sides now show a clear allegiance to one group or the other.
The defining moment that signalled a split in the Ngogo chimpanzee community occurred earlier this year in January 2018 when males from one group killed a young adult male from the other group. Because chimps are territorial, intergroup encounters are hostile, but sometimes hostilities escalate to the point where someone falls victim.
Why did the initial split occur? That’s an issue we are currently grappling with now. It’s complicated as it involves, ecological, demographic, social, and genetic factors. It’s also a story that deserves a follow-up documentary! Stay tuned.
Why is your research important and what are the applications to what you have found?
Chimpanzees fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike, in part due to their evolutionary relationship with us. Along with their sister species, the bonobo, chimpanzees are humankind’s closest living relatives. We shared a common ancestor with them sometime between 6 to 8 million years ago. Because of this evolutionary relationship, we share many features in common with them, anatomically, genetically, and as I’ve alluded to before, even behaviorally. Our research on the Ngogo chimpanzees continues to shed new light on wild chimpanzee behavior, often in surprising ways that reduce the gap between them and us.
Chimpanzees are endangered everywhere they are found across the African continent. Sadly, research on them continues to show, time in and time out, that they are extremely vulnerable and at risk, with populations declining. Happily, the story from Ngogo is different and indicates that when living in specific ecological conditions, chimpanzees can live a very long time, thrive, and actually increase in numbers. We will have to identify areas similar to Ngogo and work hard to protect them and chimpanzees so that our children, our children’s children, and generations into the future continue to share this planet with these fascinating creatures.
What impact to do you hope Rise of the Warrior Apes has upon the field of primate studies?
Primate field research is a small and esoteric discipline. Not many are lucky to be able to do what I do. If the discipline is to grow and thrive, we must educate the public about what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Knowledge is power, and an increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them.
There are multiple ways to engage the person on the street to learn about chimpanzees and other primates. Films like Rise of the Warrior Apes are perhaps the best way to teach the public about these animals because wildlife documentaries attract broad attention from people worldwide. So my first hope is that the film will translate in greater understanding of chimpanzees. This is bound to help the study of primates for the reason mentioned above.
Rise of the Warrior Apes was made by James Reed, a brilliant young filmmaker and master storyteller. All the credit for the film goes to him and to the Ngogo chimps. The film has already received some critical acclaim, and my second hope is that this will provide more opportunities for James to do what he does best, namely make and direct extraordinary wildlife films that educate the public. In doing so, he will be able to contribute to primate and animal behavior studies and conservation in a significant way.
This sounds incredibly exciting, we look forward to seeing what is released next – thank you John for your time!
John Mitani, alongside James Reed, will speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year. You’ll be able to hear more of his work with The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and James’ experience filming this amazing community.