'Chimp Empire': ASU professor studies community featured in Netflix series

Primatologist hopes documentary leads to conservation action

May 1, 2023

For more than 20 years, Arizona State University primatologist Kevin Langergraber has studied the Ngogo community of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

The new Netflix series "Chimp Empire" was filmed about the Ngogo over a one-and-a-half-year period and directed by James Reed, who won the 2021 Best Documentary Feature for "My Octopus Teacher." The show is narrated by fellow Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.   A chimpanzee looking off into the distance surrounded by greenery. Miles is the largest chimpanzee ever seen in the Ngogo community. He held the alpha position for many years before he was deposed by his paternal brother, Jackson. Photo courtesy Kevin Langergraber

“I think the filmmakers have done an amazing job turning our scientific stories into compelling emotional drama that brings people in,” Langergraber said.

“'Chimp Empire' captures a year of many changes at Ngogo — one previously unified chimpanzee community, the largest ever known, split into two warring factions. And there were dramatic changes in leadership. The film ends contemplating the chimpanzees’ perspective on the events that happened. It speculates that Even Garbo (the oldest chimp at Ngogo) has not seen many years as eventful as this one.

"The filmmakers got incredibly lucky to film the events in the lives of the chimps that they did. It will take us years of scientific research to even attempt to understand the reasons for these events and the consequences they’ll have for the community in the future.”

Langergraber is an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research scientist with the Institute of Human Origins.

Langergraber hopes the documentary will engage people’s interest in chimpanzees and spur efforts toward supporting their conservation.

“Films like these are important for getting people interested in chimpanzees. But in the end, awareness and appreciation of wildlife isn’t enough to conserve them … it has to result in action,” Langergraber said.

The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project, an nonprofit organization that supports conservation work with anti-poaching patrols and programs to reduce conflict between chimpanzees and humans over crop raiding, is hoping that the publicity generated by the film will result in more direct support. Learn more about the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

This is the second documentary focused on this group of chimpanzees. The 2017 Animal Planet documentary "Rise of the Warrior Apes" was told through the view of the scientists who study the chimpanzees, including Langergaber.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


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Human impacts erode behavioral diversity in chimpanzees

March 7, 2019

Compared with other animals, chimpanzees show tremendous variation across groups in their behavior — from the types of tools they use in their feeding behavior to the specific gestures they use in communication. Research in captivity suggests that chimpanzees acquire information socially, learning to do things in a certain way based on how it is done by other members of their group. Thus, much of the variation in the behavior among wild chimpanzee groups may be akin to “cultural” variation in humans.

As part of an international team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, ASU researchers Kevin Langergraber and Kevin Lee were co-authors in a study published this week in the journal Science, examining the relationship between human impact and behavioral diversity in chimpanzees. Langergraber is a research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins and an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Lee is a graduate student working with Langergraber on his doctoral research.

Unfortunately, chimpanzee populations are declining across their range in equatorial Africa due to deforestation, hunting and diseases, many of which originate in humans. Much of the empirical work and debate surrounding the loss of biodiversity has focused on declines in genetic diversity or population size.

However, behavioral diversity is also a facet of biodiversity, but it has not been considered as an additional concern until recently. Several international conservation organizations, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, of the United Nations Environment Programme, now call for the protection of biological diversity in its entirety, including behavioral diversity of culturally rich wildlife.

Due to limited empirical data, until now it had been unclear whether behavioral diversity would similarly be negatively affected by human impact.

“Chimpanzees are highly intelligent and adaptable creatures,” Lee said, “and there have been various reports of chimpanzees, both in captivity and in free-living conditions, that have relatively more frequent contact with humans exhibiting some ‘novel’ behaviors not observed in more remote populations, but it was not clear how overall behavioral diversity would be affected.”

The international research team compiled an unprecedented data set on 31 chimpanzee behaviors across 144 social groups or communities, located throughout the entire geographic range of wild chimpanzees. Though part of this information was already available in the scientific literature, the team also conducted extensive fieldwork at 46 locations, including on a group near Langergraber’s long-term research site in Kibale National Park, Uganda, while Lee led a separate team in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

The particular set of behaviors considered in this study included the extraction and consumption of termites, ants, algae, nuts and honey; the use of tools for hunting or digging for tubers; and the use of stones, pools and caves.

The occurrence of behaviors at a given site was investigated with respect to an aggregate measure of human impact.

“We measured multiple levels of human impact, including human population density, roads, rivers and forest cover,” Langergraber said. “The analysis revealed a strong and robust pattern — chimpanzee behavioral diversity was reduced by 88 percent when human impact was highest compared to locations with the least human impact.”

There are a number of potential mechanisms that may explain the loss of behaviors observed. As is known for humans, population size plays a major role in maintaining cultural traits and a similar mechanism may function in chimpanzees. Chimpanzees may also avoid conspicuous behaviors that inform hunters about their presence, such as nut cracking.

Habitat degradation and resource depletion may also reduce opportunities for social learning and thus prevent the transfer of local traditions from one generation to the next. Lastly, climate change may also be important, as it may influence the production of important food resources and make their availability unpredictable. Very likely a combination of these potential mechanisms has caused the observed reduction in chimpanzee behavioral diversity.

Top photo: Abrams is a chimpanzee who lives in the Kibale National Park, Uganda, which is Kevin Langergraber's research site. Photo by Kevin Langergraber