Incredible footage shows a brutal battle between two warring tribes of chimpanzees.
The two tribes once formed part of the same group—the largest ever recorded by scientists—but they split into two rival factions due to internal conflict and are now hostile to each other.
The footage of the so-called Ngogo chimps, which live in a remote region of Uganda’s Kibale National Park, comes from an upcoming Netflix documentary series Chimp Empire. It premieres on April 19, 2023.
The series, narrated by Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, follows the world’s largest chimp society as the apes navigate complex social interactions, family dynamics and dangerous—sometimes lethal—territory disputes. One scientist who worked on the film, John Mitani, compared the lives of the chimps to a “Shakespearean drama.”
Chimps who are known relatives have ended up on different sides of the conflict, split between the two Ngogo factions—known as the Western and Central groups.
“Chimpanzees have a very black and white version of us and them,” series director James Reed told Newsweek. “If you are not part of their group, you are an enemy. As sophisticated and as advanced as they are, they are very hostile to other chimps. You are either part of a group or you are not. Even if I knew you once I’m going to be hostile to you.”
The Ngogo chimp community, which was discovered around 25 years ago, is considered to be the largest known chimp society ever recorded. Since its discovery, scientists have lived alongside the chimps, tracking their lives as they formed alliances, cared for one another and engaged in conflicts in a never-ending power struggle.
Typically chimps live in groups numbering around 50-60 individuals. But the Ngogo group, before the split, contained around 240 members, said Reed, who previously co-directed the Academy Award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher.
This is around twice as big as the next biggest known groups that have reached sizes of around 100-120 individuals.
“In a sense, everything about the Ngogo chimpanzee society is unique. How their society works is just completely different, because there’s just so many of them,” Reed said.
“For example, the alpha male position is much more complicated at Ngogo than it is at other groups because there are potentially 25 or 30 rival males to be managed. With a group that has 40 or 50 in total population, there might be five rival males within that particular group. That’s an easier job being the manager of that situation than in such a big group.”
Reed had made a previous film about the Ngogo chimps, tracking their story from being discovered to around the year 2016.
“At the time of filming, it looked like there were sort of signs that the group was starting to show some internal conflict—like there could be some problems in this mega-chimp society,” Reed said. “We left that as kind of an open-ended question at the end of that film.”
Scientists who Reed had worked with for the previous film subsequently informed him that the Ngogo group had split into two distinct tribes—in what they described as a “completely unprecedented” situation.
“Within those two groups, there were relatives, allies and enemies all split along unusual lines. This was a unique new situation from a scientific point of view. But it also provided a unique opportunity from a filmmaking point of view because both sets of chimps were habituated to human presence, they were well known and they are now rival groups. And we didn’t know whether these groups will reconcile or whether they would go to war. We had no idea what would happen.”
“Chimpanzees are complex, intelligent creatures,” Reed said. “They’re also extremely active, energetic, and arguably melodramatic. Within a day in their life things never stay the same. A day can begin quite normal and peaceful, just hanging out with friends and grooming. And it can end with a battle against a rival group.”
The video clip shows chimps from the Western group in battle with those from the Central group, as the former pushes deeper into the territory of the latter in an attempt to claim more of a valuable fruit resource. In the battle, the Westerners manage to push the chimps of the Central group back.
The two tribes are constantly patrolling the borderlands between their territories, always on the lookout for incursions by their rivals.
Chimps are our closest relatives, and understanding their behavior can provide insights into our own societies and evolution, according to the film’s scientific consultant John Mitani.
“It’s impossible not to get caught up in their lives because events unfold like a Shakespearean drama: young chimps struggle to find their place in the world; older pairs of individuals form strong social bonds and forge long-term alliances; some chimps thrive while others fail; and not all characters survive the play,” he said in a statement.
Reed said chimps are not simply primitive versions of us but we clearly share a lot in common with our closest relatives.
“You can’t help but identify with all sorts of things that the chimps do and appear to feel, and how they express themselves,” he said.
“There are some incredibly touching moments where the chimps will touch your heart in a way that very few other animals can—moments of real compassion and tenderness. There’s a strength to their bonds and their relationships, which is incredible to watch and experience. But they’re also capable of acts of real violence and those are hard to watch. Both those sides are part of being chimpanzees.”
Chimp Empire premieres on Netflix on April 19.
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