Conflicted opinion: Yale chimpanzee expert weighs in on ‘Chimp Empire’

Yale’s David Watts, who has studied Uganda’s Ngogo chimpanzees for decades, describes the strengths and shortcomings of Netflix’s popular “Chimp Empire.”
A group of chimpanzees

Members of the Ngogo chimpanzee community.

Yale anthropologist David Watts watched “Chimp Empire,” the recent four-part Netflix docuseries on the Ngogo chimpanzee community in Uganda, with an informed perspective: He has spent decades studying the chimps featured on the show.

In 1995, Watts founded the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project with his colleague John Mitani, a primate behavioral ecologist from the University of Michigan. Through the project, Watts and his students and colleagues have uncovered important insights into chimpanzee behavior and its relevance to human evolution.

The Ngogo chimpanzee community, which inhabits Uganda’s Kibale National Park, is by far the largest ever discovered. It also is one of only two communities known to have split into rival factions: a large central group, and a smaller western one. This rift forms the central narrative of the docuseries, as the filmmakers focus on the hostilities that flare between the larger central group and their western rivals. The plot also follows attempts by younger males in the central faction to unseat a chimpanzee named Jackson, the community’s alpha male.

While Watts praised the filmmakers’ skill in capturing compelling and often beautiful footage, he acknowledged that the series’ narrative at times sacrifices scientific accuracy for drama.

It is a standard story-telling wildlife ‘documentary’ that has some problems when it comes to the relationship of the script to the real world of chimpanzees, as is typical of the genre,” said Watts, the Alison Richard Professor of Anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “But the photography is just stunning. I was continually awestruck by the quality of the images. I’d love to get access to some of their footage someday to analyze it for research purposes.”

In several sequences, the filmmakers capture males from both groups patrolling the boundaries of their territory and making forays into their rivals’ turf. For Watts, this footage was particularly interesting.

You can see them looking back and forth at each other and checking on each other,” he said. “When I follow them [in the wild], when they go on patrol it’s always kind of mystifying. How do they decide to do it? I’ve often thought it would be great if I could film the eye contact and communication going on. But I’m always following them and seeing their backs.

So I watched those scenes and thought, ‘Wow, someone could do a fine-grained analysis of footage and see what they learn,’” he said.

A lone chimpanzee named Abrams

A scene in the second episode, however, exemplifies the series’ shortcomings, Watts said. It depicts a young female, Joya, whose mother had recently died, tugging at another chimp’s baby that is dangling in the branches just above her. The narrator, Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, explains that Joya, having lost her mother, needs to learn parenting skills, suggesting that she is somehow mistreating the baby.

Not true, said Watts.

They’re playing,” he said. “The little kid was having a good time. They’re both doing the chimp version of laughter. I see something like that and just think, ‘Oh, come on.’”

Chimp Empire” is not the first wildlife documentary to feature the Ngogo chimpanzees. James Reed, who directed the series, also helmed the 2017 documentary “Rise of the Warrior Apes,” in which the filmmaker relied on interviews with researchers, including Watts, to describe the Ngogo chimps’ behavior in place of scripted narration.

I think it is an excellent film,” Watts said. “He made a very bold move by not using a script. He wanted it to be about the history of the Ngogo Research Project and individual chimpanzees there. It was not your standard wildlife documentary that tells a story and follows a script read by a famous actor who probably has never visited the site.

I didn’t expect Netflix to give him the same liberty with this series,” said Watts, who did not participate in the making of the series, although a snippet of footage he shot in the field is used at the start of episode three.

He worries that the show’s focus on aggressive behavior among the males could distort people’s impressions of chimpanzees, making them think the animals are bad or immoral.

I want people to be interested in chimpanzees and to care about their predicament in a world dominated by humans, but I think, ideally, we need people to understand that chimpanzees are chimpanzees,” he said. “They aren’t humans, and whatever they do, it’s neither good nor bad, so don’t judge them about it. Viewers need to accept that they sometimes do things that are unpleasant to see.”

The series does offer glimpses of the serene side of chimp life, including scenes of them resting, grooming each other, and mothers holding babies.

This is what they do most of the time,” Watts said. “And sometimes, there’s aggression between males. And occasionally, there’s potentially very serious aggression between communities. But that’s not close to the whole story.”

The chimpanzees become an important part of the emotional lives of the researchers who spend so much time in the forest observing them, he said.

They do become important figures in our lives, but at the same time, we’re not important to them,” Watts said. “They don’t develop the kinds of attachments to us that we do to them. I wish I knew what they think about us. I’m sure they do.”

(Warning: the following sentences contain a spoiler for the series finale.)

In the series’ final episode, Jackson, the central group’s alpha male, is attacked by several males from the western group and slowly dies from his wounds.

For Watts it was difficult to watch.

It was hard to see Jackson suffer,” Watts said. “I was rather fond of him. He didn’t feel the same way about me, but I’d known him since he was a small child, and I hated seeing that happen.”

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