Photo by Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The lives of other apes

How to think about our hominid cousins

Artillery Row

“If a lion could talk,” said Wittgenstein, “we could not understand him.” Like many oft-quoted maxims, it only sounds wise. “It’s clear that Wittgenstein hadn’t spent much time with lions,” the conservationist John Aspinall remarked. Few of us have, so thank goodness that a new TV series lets us hang with the true kings of the jungle: the chimpanzees of Uganda’s Ngogo forest. 

Chimp Empire is a Netflix documentary that unfolds over four densely-plotted episodes, telling a Shakespearean tale of a realm ruled by Jackson, a despot scarred by memories of civil war. 

Jackson’s power is backed by Miles, a grizzled 41-year old, himself a former alpha. Miles is loyal but not dumb; he lets himself be groomed occasionally by Abrams, a 21-year old buck with a lean and hungry look. Abrams is no fool either. Knowing he’s not ready to challenge Jackson, he builds alliances. In subtle ways that every subject understands, he undercuts the king. His raucous rain dances show disrespect. The contempt is reciprocated when Jackson withholds meat after a successful hunt, sharing instead with Miles and Bartoli, a calculating matriarch whose young son needs protection.

This Machiavellian powerplay is conducted by such distinctive personalities entirely without language, which should confirm that popular conceptions of how language works are inadequate — outdated, too. Since Frans de Waal published his seminal account Chimpanzee Politics in 1982, the power brokers of Capitol Hill and Wall Street have known that words are only a superficial form of communication.

Effortless wordless organisation is again displayed as Jackson leads his crew on a team building exercise. This border patrol is a purposeful feat of coordination that should dispel any remaining Descartian prejudices. It would not surprise the philosopher John Gray, a great champion of animal minds. “The traces left by wolves to mark off their territories,” he says, “are no less forms of language than the songs of humans.”

What the Western chimps lack in soldiers, they make up in cohesion

A degree of egomania is expected of directors, but James Reed (best known for My Octopus Teacher) is self-effacing enough to approach animals on their own terms. The remarkable intimacy and detail of Chimp Empire also comes from Uganda being familiar territory: Reed made another documentary here in 2017. 

“Paradise”, the subtitle of Chimp Empire’s first episode, is more apt than it initially seems. Political squabbles aside, Jackson’s troop is a community — and the Edenic scene seems complete when a great fig tree on the borderlands bursts into fruit. Before the feast can begin, something terrible is discovered at the foot of the tree: a murdered ape! 

We discover whodunnit next episode. That’s also when we discover the filmmakers’ audacity. 

As the apes mourn their slain comrade — whose body is fretted with butterflies — narrator Mahershala Ali whispers, “War is coming to Ngogo. Cut to Western Ngogo, with a title card saying, “Two days earlier”. It’s an edit that made me sit up in admiration. Non-linear storytelling is increasingly common in TV drama but employing it in a documentary is bold. It’s risky too, because it draws attention to authorial manipulation. 

Chimp Empire briefly becomes a chronicle of death foretold before returning to the present. This fancy footwork increases tension, and it exposes an uncomfortable truth — that our history is similarly contrived. Again John Gray says it best (and bleakly): “If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans … some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself.”

Meaning is not something the cast of Chimp Empire agonise over. In Ngogo, status is all that matters. We gradually learn that this is a tale of two households. The Westerners are not just rivals of the Central Ngogo chimps — they were once family. Ngogo is a balkanised Eden. 

The Westerners, in a more conventional documentary, would be faceless villains. Instead, we come to see the forest from their perspective. What they lack in soldiers, they make up in cohesion. Two brothers provide stable leadership. The older one, 34-year old Richmond, has rare charisma. When he lost an arm to a poacher, he lost some status but he quickly adapted to his injury. He hobbles around on his stump with inspiring pluck.

If Chimp Empire provides thoughtful viewers with philosophical fodder, there’s just enough violence for the rest of us. Indeed, as tensions that eventually explode in the Battle of Ngago built steadily, I found myself pounding my chest and shouting, “Prison rules, bitch!” at the TV. My wife wisely made me some chamomile tea and told me to shut up. 

I was only a little hurt that she preferred to hear the narrator talk. It’s understandable. Mahershala Ali, the black guy from Green Book, is very good here — sombre and sardonic at just the right moments. Thank goodness — documentaries like this live and die by voiceover. 

David Attenborough and Morgan Freeman have set the bar high. John Hurt’s narration of BBC’s Human Planet series was exemplary, but he was inconsiderate enough to die. Pretenders have since come and go. A voice that is too enthusiastic, too coy, too ponderous is unbearable. Ali hits all the right notes. 

After the war, a meditative epilogue goes a little Werner Herzog, asking, “As our closet relatives what does it mean for us? Who are we? How did we become the way we are?” Aside from that, Chimp Empire’s script doesn’t belabour its point. Nor does it indulge in the heavy-handed editorialising that so mars Attenborough’s recent work, where he can’t see a penguin waddling its arse without launching into a lecture on climate change.

The problem, in short, is more one of population than petrol

This tiresome habit distorts our view of nature but accurately reflects how completely one issue overshadows all for rich western environmentalists. The so-called Holocene Extinction, a calamitous loss of global biodiversity, is very real, but it’s driven by habitat destruction — a deeply unsexy subject. A 2016 UN study estimates that Africa has a quarter of the world’s biodiversity. More than four million hectares of indigenous “old-growth” forests are lost annually, double the global average of deforestation. The problem, in short, is more one of population than petrol. 

Jackson’s tribe live, fight, feast, love and die in Kibale National Park in Uganda. Like many African countries that rely on ecotourism, Uganda saw a dramatic rise in poaching over the pandemic. It’s a reminder, if one was needed, that current arrangements are precarious. Africa’s population is now 1.4 billion. By 2050, a quarter of the world will be African, perhaps as many as 2.5 billion. Even a continent with steady leadership, good infrastructure and abundant resources would struggle to meet this challenge. 

Africa soon won’t have any animal bigger than a cow. We only need eyes to be sure of that. Here in Western Europe, we have farms aplenty and no real wildlife. What little remains is under mortal pressure. Blaming capitalism is delusional. It’s simply “a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate”, the ever-cheery John Gray says. “Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.”

Another unacknowledged, indeed unspeakable, fact is that the USA, capitalism’s gaudy cutting edge, is the only industrialised country that has succeeded in conserving its megafauna in a sustainable way. The home of industrial farming of the grossest kind has healthy populations of wild deer, coyote, bear, mountain lion, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, turkey, moose and bison. True, most Americans will never see them, or hike or hunt in those 610 million acres of protected land, but that’s because nature simply isn’t a part of everyday life anymore.

How did it happen? It may be due an unrepeatable combination of Jeffersonian ideals and Teddy Roosevelt’s moustache — but the US stopped short of that historic boundary that Europe crossed when the commons were enclosed. Conservation preserves wilderness that farming, mining and poaching would otherwise consume. The secret sauce is licensed and well-regulated hunting. It’s a practical accommodation between modernity and tradition. 

There are few environmental success stories. The American Conservation movement should be celebrated. Outside the flyover states, however, few talk about the key part that hunting has played in the story, except to make jokes about rednecks.

Climate change obsessives who argue that it’s not a question of “either/or” are right, in a sense. It’s actually “neither/nor”. We can’t stop using fossil fuels because we need them; we won’t protect remaining habitats because it means facing realities we prefer not to face. In an increasingly urban world, the richer half lives far from the results of its appetite, insulated in its illusions. 

If you have any desire to see elephants or great apes in the wild, don’t dawdle. Soon they might only be available on Netflix.

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