Bill Wallauer: Life in the Wild

Mar 08, 2011

Bill Wallauer is a world renowned videographer who has spent more than 15 years in the wild documenting wild chimpanzees in Tanzania - where he spent more time in the wild with chimps than humans. He has lent his talents as a videographer and consultant to more than 30 productions for Animal Planet, Discovery's Planet Earth, Disney Nature and others.

Bill became part of the Jane Goodall Institute's team to help document chimpanzees in the wild, where he has recorded their daily behavior and also captured a live chimp birth on tape.

He will be online Tuesday, March 8, at noon ET, to chat about his time in the wild, working for the institute and his experiences with chimpanzees.

Thank you so much for your interest in chimps, Jane Goodall, and my work.   I was lucky enough to meet Jane in 1989, during my time in the Peace Corps.  I had no idea that that meeting would shape my entire career.   I really look forward to sharing my experiences with you today.  Bill

From your observations of wild chimpanzees, what have you learned about violence and aggression and how do you think that reflects on human violence?

To me, one of the most fascinating and thought provoking aspects of chimps behavior is that they are able to navigate incredibly tense social situations without real violence.   Most of the aggression in chimps is bravado.   Brutal attacks are very rare within a community.   


Chimp territorial behavior (warfare with neighboring groups) can be quite violent.   This is common for many species throughout the animal kingdom.   

What work have you done beyond your chimpanzee work? I know Jane Goodall has done excellent work on saving nearly extinct species. Have you worked with you on this or any other of her other works?

Jane is amazing.  Her work to save endangered species has been important, but that is only part of her mission.   She is dedicated to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment

If you look at The Jane Goodall Inst website, you will find the many projects Jane and the Institute are involved in. 

My work focuses on research videography and film-making.  I have been in several films and television programs with Jane  (most recently 60 Minutes).

We are now involved in a Disneynature film entitled 'Chimpanzee' which we hope will reach 100 million people.

What was one of the most touching things you saw during your time in the wild?

Ooooo so many moments come to mind.   Chimps never cease to amaze me.   I think the obvious distress of Fifi and her offspring when little Freddie died (Fifi's 1-year-old) may have been the most touching event.   The siblings tried over and over to get their little brother to play with them.   Fifi and her adult daughter just sat staring at the body.   Fifi carried the body around for days.   Heart wrenching, but very telling.

Aaarrrrrgghh! Please educate the Post and others about the differences between apes and monkeys.

Thank you for this.   It is just a matter of exposure, we are all guilty of this kind of naivete.   You nailed it, the apes, Gorillas, Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Orangs, and Gibbons do not have tails.   They tend to be much larger than the other primates (excluding humans), and have an aptitude for making and using tools (as do some monkeys).   They tend to be larger as well.  Many studies have shown that that this group is the most similar genetically to humans.

How can we get involved with the Institute here in the US? What can we do to help?

Check out our website  For young people, check out JGI's global youth program

What is something many people might not know about chimpanzees? Are there any common misconceptions?

I think the emotional capacity of chimps surprises people the most.   When I give a talk and show footage of chimps displaying nearly every emotion that humans can, people really respond.   I think the thing that people do not know is that we could lose them in the wild within the next 20 years.

What is it like working with Dr. Goodall?

Fantastic, she is my teacher and mentor.  She is living proof that one person can have a huge impact in making the world a better place.

Having seen first-hand the effects of man on chimpanzees in the wild over the years and also working with Dr. Jane Goodall to help educate people to protect chimps and their habitats. What do you think the future holds for chimps in the wild and their current way of life?

Chimp survival is being seriously threatened by habitat loss and the bush meat trade.   As I mentioned, we could lose them within the next 20 years, so without many many of us getting involved in the protection of the forests, and of encouraging legislation to halt the bushmeat trade, the future is actually quite dim.   Please do what you can do to get involved with organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute (

What happened the first time you filmed chimpanzees?

It is funny to look at my first tape labeled BW100.   It is like a chimp home movie;  lots of terrible camera moves and zooms in and out.   The shots lasted 5 to 10 minutes.   The chimps were already used to having people around so they did not mind my presence.

Did you ever mourn the death of a chimpanzee?

Yes, very much so.   I was a huge fan of Galahad, the 10-year-old son of Gremlin.   He had a spark in his eyes and seemed to take joy in just being alive.   When he died, I was depressed for days.   

Recently a woman was severely injured by her friend's pet chimp. Does unnatural captivity increase stress and the chance they'll attack humans?

That's a great question.  When people see chimps in movies and advertisements, they mistakenly think it's okay to keep them as pets.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Chimps are wild animals and when they reach adolescence are incredibly strong.  Living in a home is not the appropriate enviroment for a chimp. 

Describe the feeling of your first day in the forest with your camera.

I will never forget my first day in Gombe.   I arrived by boat and at first was simply stunned by the scenic beauty.   About an hour later, the adult male Prof showed up to eat flowers near Jane's house.   I was totally overcome with emotion.   I had never before looked into the eyes of another species and felt what I did when at that moment.   So many of my misconceptions of US and THEM (humans/animals) were torn down in those seconds.  I was feeling an overwhelming connection to another animal species.

Would you ever consider filming bonobos?

I would love to film bonobos.  The apparent differences in their behavior fascinate me and I would love to spend time with them in the wild.   I am amazed at the differences between one community of chimps and another, so observing bonobos would be off the chart for me!!

We could lose chimps in the wild? Are they endangered? Why is their existence in jeopardy?

Chimps are most definitely endangered.  At the turn of the 20th century there were one to two million in the wild. Today, there are fewer than 300,000 in the wild and they are disappearing at an alarming rate because of destruction of their forest habitat and the illegal commericial bushmeat trade.

What top five things are in your survival kit?

Fun Questions.

Lens cleaning papper (can't live without it)




Water Purification Tabs

Dried Fruit and Energy Bars

Did you ever have the feeling that a chimpanzee was trying to tell you something? How did he/she communicate with you?

No, not really.  My goal is to be a fly on the wall and have as little impact as possible on their behavior.  If one of the chimps does approach or begin to stare at me, I back off and move away.

Who is the smartest chimpanzee you ever met? Who is the funniest?

As you suspect, like us, each chimp has his or her own personality and characteristics.   Goblin was absolutely a political genius.  He had all the other chimps wrapped around his fingers and could manipulate any situation.   Gremlin is a fantastic tool user and she seems to have passed that on to her kids.   Titan and Frodo are great at using weapons (throwing rocks and wielding clubs with great accuracy).    Titan is by far the funniest chimp I have ever known.   I think he has a serious screw loose and zero impulse control.

How many live chimp births have you witnessed as well as caught on camera?

I have filmed one and seen another.  

I recently saw Dr. Goodall on 60 Minutes. Were you there filming too? What was that like?

Working with 60 Minutes was excellent.   We spent three days together in the field and the crew did a fantastic job navigating the steep and challenging terrain.   I love to be involved in news programs like 60 Minutes because we are able to reach an entirely different audience than the typical Nat Geo and Discovery Channel viewers.

This is truly wonderful! I am learning so much about these amazing creatures. Thank you, Bill. And of course, thank you JGI :)

Thank you so much.  It's my pleasure.  This is one of my favorite topics!!

How did you get started filming chimps in the wild?

A series of very fortunate events.   My parents were always supportive of me no matter what I did, so I was raised never to be afraid of new and different challenges.   I joined the Peace Corps after I finished college and met Jane by volunteering to help her transcribe field notes onto data sheets.   After my Peace Corps stint, Jane asked if I would join the team in Gombe;  I was on the next plane!!   I knew nothing about chimps or film work when I started.  I learned about chimp behavior by following chimps and listening to Jane and the Tanzanian field staff.  I learned about shooting from visiting camera crews who needed my help to follow chimps.

Do you know any of the primatologists in the United States who manage sanctuaries? How have you interfaced with them?

I am familiar with some primatologists at sanctuaries in the states, but I am most familiar with the staff that manages JGI's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo.  It is the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa where we care for chimpanzees orphaned by the illegal commercial bushmeat trade.  We are currently raising funds for expanding the site to meet the need for space.

You spend so much time in places many of us only read about. What was the scariest moment in the wild you've had personally?

I think getting struck at by snakes are my scariest moments.   In my 20 years there, it has only happened 3 or 4 times, but it leaves an impression when it happens.   The worst was an injured black mamba who struck at me as I was returning from the forest at night.  Very close call;  I was flying through the air in reaction before my brain really knew what was happening.   For the next few days, I was jumping away from every vine and stick in the forest.    Having said that, living in the forests of Africa is actually much more comfortable (and less dangerous) for me than sitting in traffic during rush hour.

I am interested in knowing what happens in a community of wild chimpanzees if a community/family member becomes sick or injured. What is the response from the chimpanzee community?

There is a fascination and an apparent concern for the sick and dead.   I have seen a young female using a branch to fan the flies away from an adult female who had a deep wound.   It was just amazing.   I have witnessed apparent depression several times when infants or siblings die.   I believe that the chimps' capacity to suffer loss emotionally is very similar to ours.

What would you say is the most important lesson you learned from your time in Tanzania? (whether chimp-related, personal, environmental, societal, etc.)

To be open and receptive to other cultures.   It is only through understanding people outside of our own society that we will have true compassion for one another.   From the chimps, I have learned a new respect for what the so-called animal mind is capable of.   Regarding the environment:   That each country shares similar challenges utilizing and protecting its natural resources.

Did you do the filming for Planet Earth? If so, did you enjoy it? And how was it different to your filming of the chimps?

Yes,  this was an awesome project.   What a pleasure it was to work with such an amazing group of people.   Each project brings its own challenges, so each of the 30 or so films I have worked on has been slightly different.

Is man the prime predator of wild chimpanzees?

Yes, sadly we are by far the biggest threat to chimps, and people do still eat them.

Do chimps enjoy teasing one another - or even teasing other animals? And laughing?

Chimps are awesome; they tickle one another, play chase and even keep away.   If one kid has a great 'toy,' like a live cicada, she or he will hold it up so others can see it, then tuck it away and run if anyone tries to approach.   Just like human kids.

With the humidity, the snakes, the insects, rain.... and ickyness of the jungle, do you ever just want to jump up and shout naughty words at them?

Well, very rarely.   A bad day filming chimps in a tropical forest is a million times better than a day not in the forest.   Yes, it does get wet and yucky, and things go wrong and I miss great shots, but it is just so amazing to witness this great place and spend time with chimps.


Well, I have to run off and get some shots (typhoid vaccine I think).   It has been wonderful answering your questions and sharing this time.   Sorry I couldn't get to everyone.   Thank you so much for joining me.     :)    Bill

In This Chat
Bill Wallauer
Bill Wallauer offers a unique and fascinating view of life among wild chimpanzees. For 15 years, Bill spent just about every day following the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, capturing the intimate details of their daily life. He has commented that, during that period of his life, he spent more time with chimpanzees than with humans.

Film production companies have recognized Bill’s talent and recruited him as a film camera operator, videographer and consultant for wildlife films shot at Gombe and in other parts of Africa. He has served as camera operator and scientific advisor for more than 30 productions, including BBC/Animal Planet’s Chimp Week and BBC/Discovery’s 10-part series, Planet Earth. Currently he is working as a lead camera and consultant for Disneynature–Chimpanzee.

Bill became part of the life at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Gombe Stream Research Centre in 1989 while on assignment for the U.S. Peace Corps in southern Tanzania. After completing his Peace Corps work in 1991, the Oregon native was drawn back to Tanzania to help study the Gombe chimpanzees. After he successfully captured a wild chimpanzee birth on videotape, Dr. Goodall asked Bill to follow the chimps and record their daily activities and behavior—which he did for the next 15 years.

Today, Bill is a sought-after speaker for both adults and youth. His infectious personality, great stories and chimpanzee multimedia presentation help audiences understand the chimpanzees’ behavior and emotional capacity, and the similarities and differences between humans and chimps. Bill’s passion for the chimps he knows so intimately truly makes him the Jane Goodall Institute’s “Chimp Champion.”
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