The BBC series, narrated by David Attenborough, is a gripping in-depth study of an alpha male chimpanzee and his family, living wild in south eastern Senegal.
Now we feature part two (below part one), where we see what happens to David, the leader of the group.
Featuring 309 days of filming, 13 filming trips, 32 chimps, 92 square kms of habitat, 20 years of scientific study and 4 crew members, these are some of the numbers involved in capturing the daily life of the group for BBC Earth’s spectacularly shot five-part series, Dynasties. The remaining four episodes focus on other iconic and endangered animals in their family groups: tigers, wild dogs, emperor penguins and lions.
We are introduced to the chimp group through their powerful and highly intelligent alpha male leader, David. By following David, we are able to see the complex dynamics that operate daily in this clever and adaptable group, and the particular challenges faced by him as a leader of the pack.
Despite being the top ‘dog’, life as an alpha male is a never ending tense and stressful struggle. We see how David constantly has to be on guard, constantly has to strategise, while alternating between being intimidatory and aggressive, and gentle and diplomatic, in order to maintain his alpha male status. Allies and enemies constantly shift, as David battles to stay in power.
In the 20 years that scientists have been following this particular group, David has ruled for twice as long as any other alpha male and started out as the youngest alpha. The usual length of rule is three years, and David was a teenager when he became the leader.
BBC producer Rosie Thomas, spent two fascinating years with her crew observing the group.
“These chimps have lived freely, side by side with humans for thousands of years. Although it is not a protected area nor a game reserve, the chimps in the Kedougou Region, south east Senegal, live peacefully alongside villagers,” explains Thomas.
Amazingly they are relatively untouched by poaching or the bushmeat trade. She says although there is a slight threat of kidnapping of babies for the pet trade, ‘the biggest threat to these magnificent creatures, is habitat loss through the increase of gold mining in Senegal. Something that is far more complex to negotiate and to find a solution which accommodates both animal and human’.
Describing how they made this superbly filmed and moving episode of Dynasties, Thomas says: “We were guided by the protocol suggested to us by the scientists of how to observe the chimps without disturbing them or endangering ourselves. This was a distance of 12 metres, which we kept at all times. They are used to humans, and so ignored us, carrying on their lives as usual. Plus, we had powerful long lenses enabling us to catch all the minute detail you see in the film.”
Thomas describes the filming as physically challenging: “Only three of us could be around the animals at a time, and we had 80kgs of equipment to carry between us, often in 40-degree heat. Luckily, we had an incredible guide who had spent so much time with the group, he could differentiate them by their calls. He would be able to tell us where David was, just by hearing his call.”
Every year wild fires break out, and the chimps are totally adept at knowing how to avoid them. “You see them standing up and watching, and feeling which way the wind is blowing. And then they simply go around the fires. In fact, the scientists told us if you want to be safe in a fire, just follow the chimps,” Thomas says. “We totally underestimate the intelligence of these creatures.”
It is when the females go on heat in the dry, scorching summer season, where water and resources are scarce, that the tensions build to boiling point. As the males vie for mating with the on-heat female, the aggression increases. It is vital that David be the one to mate with the female to reproduce his genes and carry on his lineage. He has produced the most offspring of any male in the group. Eventually, the rivalries explode in a brutal night-time attack by the younger males on David.
The next morning the camera zooms in on David’s viciously wounded body. He lies motionless. One of his fingers has been bitten clean off, his opposite thumb left a torn stub and he has deep gash on his leg that looks like it could almost be to the bone. Two females approach him, touching him gently, stroking his fur. One even licks his gaping wound. But they cannot stay. The group needs to find water and so they move on, leaving the once all-powerful David to his fate…
The camera zooms in and David slowly begins to move, checking himself over to see what damage has been done. He has survived. After a week of lying low, continually resting and eating, David knows he needs to find his group or he will lose his alpha position, and so begins the walk to find his group. He is still weak and his leg wound not yet healed, but he knows that he cannot show any vulnerability or it will mean the end of his reign, if not his demise.
In his absence, younger male Luther has been displaying aggressive behaviour in an attempt to become the leader of the group.
When David finds the group, he makes an entrance with a clever, intimidatory display, scaring off Luther, who runs off screaming into the bushes.
During the next few weeks, David begins to reach out to other older males, who are past vying for his position. By continually grooming them, he forms a group of loyal allies who when mating season comes around again, help to scare off his rivals. Luther too, is chased off and shunned and even returns to try and make amends. David ignores his overtures. And so his rule continues.
So it is sad to hear when producers reveal that a few months after they completed the filming, another midnight attack was launched on David by the younger males. This time, sadly, a weakened David is unable to defend himself as before and dies as a result of the assault. Another male, Jumkin, who had launched a number of attacks on David before, is now the ruler of the group.
David’s intelligence and power, the producers say, made a huge impression on them. And at least this time, there was no human hand in the cause of his death, it being the natural course of hierarchy in the life of chimpanzees.