The Jungle Interpreter
Disney is showing cinema audiences how chimpanzees live in the wild – a movie made possible by primate researchers in Leipzig
The contrast between the two locations could not be starker: the Max Planck Society’s modern office building in Munich, which Tobias Deschner visited for the first time prior to his most recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire, and Taï National Park, a tropical rainforest that he has known – and become very familiar with – for 13 years. His suitcases are already packed as he holds conversations with colleagues at Munich headquarters. He would love to spend more time with his chimpanzees – as he did during the shooting of the Disney movie. “If I manage to spend two months a year over there, I’m happy,” he says.
The camp of the Max Planck researchers lies near the Liberian border, a 12-hour car ride from the port city of Abidjan and a three-hour mud trail from the nearest village. The Disney team headed by director Alastair Fothergrill and camera operator Martyn Colbeck built a new, more comfortable hut next to that of the scientists and moved in with 1000 kilogrammes of equipment, mattresses, mosquito nets, candles, generators and numerous crates of food. The movie shoot for Chimpanzee in the forest surrounding the research station took two and a half years, while another team filmed in Ngogo in Kibale National Park in Uganda.
And so it was here in this remote location, far off from any form of human civilisation, that their paths finally crossed: the scientists, the wildlife filmmakers and the chimpanzees, which determined the agenda from the outset. “The chimpanzees here all have names and their own unique personality,” says Deschner, who conducts research as a scientist at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology. In the beginning, the jungle was uncooperative: some of the animals that had been “cast” by director Fothergrill and Max Planck Director Christophe Boesch shied away from the cameras and did not want to be filmed. That is exactly what happened in the case of a proud female chimpanzee known as Sumatra, for example: despite being a diva with superstar potential, she did not appreciate it when everyone made a big fuss about her. Moreover, continuous rainfall often poured down on the guests for days, while dense vegetation and difficult lighting conditions significantly hampered the filming.
Monkey business from dusk till dawn
Accompanied by Tobias Deschner or other scientists and equipped with headlamps, the small film crew set out, mostly at night, to find the sleeping nests. For up to two hours they would wade through boggy soil, climb over giant roots and suffer cuts and scrapes on their arms from thorny palms. “If you don’t arrive before the chimpanzee group wakes up, you’ve already lost,” says Deschner, who knows more about the social behaviour of these fascinating primates than virtually anyone else. When the animals then start foraging for food, you have to move quickly. “Everyone is bustling around from the early morning hours until late in the evening”, he recounts. But the reward for all the hard work and effort is being able to witness the “greatest monkey business”.
Strict rules were set up for coming into contact with these animals: avoid all eye contact, no hasty movements, no talking and especially no eating in their proximity, keep a seven-metre distance, and wear a surgical mask to protect the primates from human viruses. Yet it was equally important to protect the film crew from confrontational chimpanzees. After all, a chimpanzee is about seven times stronger than an adult human male. The film that resulted from this footage and has already enthralled moviegoers in the US conveys none of the ordeals and safety precautions behind the scenes. Everything appears easy, even tranquil: young chimpanzees chase, tickle and pet each other. They lie down on the forest floor for a quick snooze. They accidentally hit themselves on the finger in the attempt to crack open a panda nut. The adult animals teach their offspring the best way to quickly extract the eggs of army ants from an anthill or how to use their lips to turn parinari fruit into a soft pulp. And of course there’s also the – less scientific but cinematically very captivating – fight between the “good guys”, the group headed by alpha male Freddy, and the “bad guys”, the rival group led by Scarface. “This fight never actually took place. These groups could never have encountered each other,” Deschner reveals. While Freddy’s group is native to Taï National Park, the gang headed by Scarface lives in Ngogo in Kibale National Park in Uganda.
Adoption in the jungle
The real star of the movie, however, is Oscar. The male baby chimpanzee suddenly becomes an orphan when his mother Isha is killed by a leopard. Yet Freddy, the group’s alpha male, then protects him and helps him survive in the jungle.
Tobias Deschner and his colleagues have already witnessed 18 similar adoptions in Taï National Park. Several mothers that were still suckling their infant adopted a second child, even though they already had their hands full with their own offspring. Approximately half of the orphans, however, were adopted by males.
Actually having such a spectacular case unfold in front of the camera lens is a very special moment in any movie director’s life. “Male chimpanzees are usually quite macho individuals that often don’t even really take care of their own offspring,” Deschner explains. Yet in Taï National Park they become surprisingly caring adoptive fathers: they carry the young apes around on their backs, groom their fur and supply them with food.
Copyright: Disneynature (1), Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (1)