A photographer goes inside a frightening chimp-human conflict in Uganda

He sees fear, grief, and, ultimately, acceptance when habitat loss causes chimpanzees to raid properties in a small village.

By Ronan Donovan
Published 7 Jan 2022, 10:47 GMT
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Wild chimpanzees whose natural habitat has shrunk approach a home in Kyamajaka, Uganda.

Photograph by RONAN DONOVAN

I took this photograph (above) through the window of an abandoned home in a village in western Uganda. As I watched, one wild chimpanzee entered the yard, then another. Though they stared hard at the windows, I knew they couldn’t see me behind the mirrored glass—and I was glad.  

During past fieldwork, I’d been around scores of wild chimpanzees and shadowed them at close range. Yet until this photo assignment in 2017, I had never tried to hide from chimps. I had never even imagined writing such a sentence. 

That was before I met the Semata family and saw firsthand how depleted land and forest, and scarce food and crops, can unleash competition between primates, those inside houses and those outside.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt at home in the natural world. After college I worked for eight years as a field biologist, studying spotted owls in Yosemite National Park, marine mammals off the coast of Africa, and wild chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Primatologist Richard Wrangham’s long-term research project there sought to understand wild chimpanzee behaviors, and possible human and environmental impacts. 

For most of 2011, I followed chimps that had been habituated to human presence, gathering data throughout the day. They were trusting animals after decades of neutral encounters with their observers. Having never been fed or directly hurt by a person, they were indifferent to me. 

But as Wrangham’s Kibale research confirmed, behavior—human and chimpanzee—will change as circumstances demand. Like us, chimps adapt to exploit new food sources if existing ones disappear. Also like us, chimps are omnivores that defend their home territory from other groups of their species. Chimps understand aggression: Throw a rock at a habituated chimp, the chimp will often throw one back. Unless you are larger or outnumber them, chimps that have been chased may chase you. And provided the opportunity, chimps will hunt for meat.

Six years after Id worked in western Uganda as a field biologist, I returned as a wildlife and conservation photographer. My assignment for National Geographic, with writer David Quammen, was to tell the story of human-chimpanzee conflict. (Read their story: “ ‘I am scared all the time’: Chimps and people are clashing in rural Uganda.”)

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Photograph by NGM Maps

Though the village of Kyamajaka isn’t far from the Kibale research project, the chimps around Kyamajaka are habituated to humans in a different way. They are wary of the people they encounter on a daily basis. These chimps are in competition with their human neighbours. The native forests that supported the chimps have been cleared for farming, so they now feed primarily on human-grown crops. They go on evening food raids near homes before returning to the sliver of forest where perhaps 20 mature trees are their refuge from the human world.

The forays don’t stop there. The house where I took this picture belonged to the Semata family—farmer Omuhereza, his wife, Ntegeka, and their four young children. To live there was to feel constantly at risk of attack by chimps, Ntegeka told me. She described how the animals would show up in their front yard and peer into their windows, scaring the family.

The unthinkable occurred on July 20, 2014. As Ntegeka worked in the garden, she kept the children with her. But in an instant when her back was turned, a large chimp grabbed her toddler son, Mujuni, and ran. Villagers who gave chase found the two-year-old’s eviscerated body stashed under a nearby bush. He died en route to a regional hospital.

Months became years, and the chimp raids continued. Finally, the Sematas broke. Though the house was their prized possession, in August 2017 they abandoned it. I visited shortly after they moved into temporary lodgings—cramped, no garden, but also no aggressive wild apes.

Gathering outside the family’s abandoned house, the chimpanzees see their reflections in the windows as a challenge.
Photograph by RONAN DONOVAN

The Sematas’ losses embodied the worst of the human-chimp conflict that National Geographic sent Quammen and me to document. My images would help tell that story. But I also hoped they might honour the human tragedies and spur change, such as moving the chimps, to end this conflict.

Omuhereza and Ntegeka gave me their empty home’s key and permission to take photos there. To get in, I had to push my shoulder against the door, which hadn’t been opened in months. Several windowpanes were broken—by the chimps, Ntegeka had said. As I stood in the dark and dusty room, I thought of Mujuni’s grisly fate and wondered whether his parents had relived it every time they’d seen chimp faces at the windows. 

Officials of local governments and international NGOs have urged the farmers here to learn to live alongside chimpanzees—but do they know what that’s like? I wanted to capture some sense of how the Sematas felt inside their home during chimp visits. 

I walked from one window to the next, waiting for chimps to arrive. I saw a single chimp sitting quietly at the edge of the yard. Soon more came, also quietly. Then the mood changed. A teenage male standing on two legs grabbed a fistful of vegetation and shook it while striding toward the house. As he picked up speed, he reached the house at a run, dropped the branches, leaped into the air, and pounded the side of the house with his heels in quick succession. Bah-boom! The entire house shook. 

The group’s biggest male, the one I presumed to be the alpha, stood and swung his arms, warming up for his show of prowess. He broke into a run, picked up a softball-size rock along the way, and hurled it. Skipping once off the ground, the rock slammed thunderously into the house. My heart raced as I photographed this behaviour. I knew the chimps were only shadowboxing their reflections, but it did feel like an attack. Eventually, as the daylight faded, the chimps returned to their tiny forest and I was able to leave the house. 

I was eager to share the images with my National Geographic colleagues, and those officials who preach peaceful coexistence, but I worried about showing the images to the Sematas, for fear of stirring up their grief and pain.

On my last visit with them, in November 2017, Ntegeka asked if I had photos of the chimps. Reluctantly I took out my phone and showed her the image above of five chimps lined up outside her former home. She began to laugh—and laugh—finally pausing to say, “My God, they look like humans.” I pulled up more photos. “I know all of them, aside from the babies. Look at that baby; it’s light-skinned,” she said, chuckling. Then the family proudly showed me their new plot of land and the large pile of bricks that would become their new home. They were rebuilding. And with Ntegeka’s laughter, I felt they had moved on in more ways than one.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Ronan Donovan’s work since 2014. A Montana-based wildlife photographer, Donovan is also a filmmaker, an artist, and a mountaineer.

Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.

This story appears in the February 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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