Lion Shaped Mountain: Hidden Kingdoms

Beneath towering mango trees, the Matamba chimpanzee community makes its home

This is the third installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.

The sun rises over the landscape and brings forth a brand new day. The line that divides shadow from light is pushed westward across the Earth, illuminating every part of the environment with a golden hue. As the light reaches each of us, every morning, we join with the rest of our ecosystem as a working component of the new day.

caption here
Members of the Matamba chimpanzee community make their nests among a cluster of mango trees in a forest fragment in Sierra Leone.
These trees are not native to the West African country.

In the hours and moments before the dark boundary recedes over us, and in the hours and moments after the darkness has slipped beyond the horizon, the elements of our individual histories and our individual futures feel the warmth of the sunlight. The morning light passes over the individuals who have in our past, or will in our future, create the variables of our world. It passes over the individuals we will interact with. It passes over those we will help, those we will hurt, those we will use, those we will hate, and those we will love. It passes over those who will come into our lives; some peacefully and some violently. Some will act in our favor. Some will offer us comfort. Some will try to hurt or destroy us. Some may commit unthinkable acts against us, just as we may commit horrors against them. Some are very far away; others are very close and we may meet them very soon. They may live among us. They may reside in places hidden from our view, but right beside us all the same. In Sierra Leone, a village of humans, with a vast history, deep traditions, and unique collection of individuals, may live mere meters away from a community of chimpanzees — also possessing the history, traditions, and individuals that define it. They coexist, visible to each other only when they cross paths — interactions that will have lasting impacts and set new pathways forward for both populations.

In a farm beside the Pampana River, the light of morning shines through mist from the previous night’s deluge of rain. In the haze, a farmer from the village of Komrabi is working on tilling through the muddy ground. As he thrusts a spade into the ground, he spots a chimpanzee on top of a tall palm tree. Immediately he recognizes him as the legendary, but seldom seen, white-haired chimpanzee known as Caseby.

Caseby is frequently spoken of in Komrabi. Apart from his white hair and very large size, which make him recognizable, he remains a mystery to the village. He is never seen with another chimpanzee. No one knows where he lives. He seems to appear and vanish without reason or warning. Some say he is an “exiled chimpanzee chief.” Others believe he is a spirit, owing to his white hair.

The farmer walks a bit closer to the palm tree. He keeps his eyes fixed on the chimpanzee perched on top. He notices something curious.

Caseby has pulled one large palm branch off the tree. He stands up on two legs, takes the branch with both hands, and plunges the branch into the center of the top of the palm tree. In a motion reminiscent of a person working a butter churn, he repeatedly pounds the branch into tree. After several plunges, he sits back down and inspects the petiole of the branch. On it, he finds a pithy substance that he was able to excavate from the tree. He brings the petiole to his mouth and eats it. He stands back up on two legs to repeat the process.

The farmer walks a bit closer. When he walks he inadvertently trips over a tree sapling. He falls to the ground and makes a sound that alerts Caseby to his presence. Seeing the farmer, Caseby drops the palm branch, jumps to the ground, and begins to run towards the edge of the forest. Without thinking, the farmer runs after him.

Caseby’s speed far exceeds the farmer’s. Within seconds, he is a white blur disappearing into the trees. The farmer stops to catch his breath. His curiosity about the chimpanzee pushes him forward. He walks to the forest edge where Casey disappeared. His tracks are still visible on the muddy ground. The farmer lifts the branches, steps over the bushes, and enters.

The forest on a wet morning is slippery and dark. The farmer strains to see Caseby’s tracks in the mud. He finds them and slowly follows them deeper into the forest. With his head down, the farmer doesn’t watch where he is walking. Suddenly he bumps into something.

He looks up to see a fence made of sticks, palm thatching, and snare traps. One of the snare traps has been tripped and is holding a large dead cane rat. Beyond the fence, the canopy gets thicker and the forest gets darker. Extremely large tree loom in the distance.

Caseby’s footprints lead right up to the fence. Undoubtedly, they continue on the other side. However, the farmer will proceed no further. He turns around and walks back towards the farm. He has never been on the other side of the fence. He never will.

In another part of the forest, a young chimpanzee named Pip is walking through a dry ravine. After the previous night’s storm, the mud in the center of the ravine is thick, wet, and soft. In a few weeks, as the rainy season proceeds, the entire area will be flooded with water from the Pampana River. Pip’s feet and knuckles sink into the mud as he walks along.

Pip has become old enough that he travels further and further from his mother each day. The ravine, with its countless curiosities, is a favorite walking place for the young chimpanzee. As the ravine changes throughout the season, he finds something new each day.

Underneath his feet is a thick ground cover of leaves. Beneath the leaves lurk large snails, giant millipedes, and other creatures. Above him, tree branches form a thick ceiling. Wrapped around the tree trunks, cobras climb in search of bird eggs and nests.

Suddenly something appears at the side of the ravine and stops Pip in his tracks. It is a chimpanzee he does not recognize. The unfamiliar figure is running at a fast clip and doesn’t notice Pip at all. He doesn’t look like the other chimpanzees in Pip’s community. As he sprints down the side of the ravine, his white hair reflects the beams of sunlight that have pierced the canopy. Pip watches motionless and makes no sound. In a matter of seconds, the white chimpanzee has passed him. Soon after, he is out of sight. Pip continues his walk.

In the distance, he notices a large green disk in the center of the ravine. He stops for a moment to stare at the green mass, then gives a soft chirp and approaches it. When he gets closer, he chirps again — this time a bit louder in excitement. The source of his happiness is a large jackfruit that must have fallen from one of the trees several months ago. The rotting fruit is covered with green petals and flowers that have sprouted out of it. Pip bends over and smells the flowering mass. The highly fermented fruit is fragrant. Pip chirps again. Happily, he sits down and begins to dig through the petals, extracting the gelatinous pulp underneath.

Jackfruit, with its strange shape, sticky fruits, and large size, had just recently begun growing in the forest, within Pip’s short lifetime. At first, none of the Matamba chimpanzees would touch it. Eventually, they gave it a try, discovering that the fruit was very tasty and safe to eat.

Pip slurps up the rotting fruit and continues to bark loudly. However, as he begins to look around, his calls grow quieter. Slowly he puts the mushy fruit down and stops calling altogether. He looks up at the trees, then around him. He has walked too far. He slowly realizes that, in the excitement of the day, he no longer knows where his mother is.

Chimpanzees of Pip’s age are transitioning from childhood to adolescence. While Pip is old enough to not always be within his mother’s reach, he is still very much dependent on her. Until recently, he rode on her back everywhere. (He’ll still take a ride when his mother allows it.) He always needs to be within earshot of her. This way, anytime he calls, she can appear. It seems he may have violated this rule. He stands up on two legs and begins to scream loudly.

As seconds pass, his screams become more and more intense. He accompanies these screams with a wild bobbing motion. In his fear and frustration, he picks up a pile of leaves and throws them up into the air above him. Just when it seems that he is about to lose all control, Pip’s mother appears at the side of the ravine.

Pip’s mother, Mrs. Joe, gave birth to him three years ago. The two of them share some distinct features. The most prominent are the white splotches that extend from around their mouths to the left sides of their cheeks. The markings give the impression of a clown that has been jostled around while putting on face paint. As a mother she is attentive, never allowing Pip to venture very far before retrieving him. It is unusual that Pip has been allowed to get so distant.

Pip sees his mother and runs to her, still screaming. The screams do not cease until he clutches on to her. Mrs. Joe hoists him on to her back. He clings to her as she makes her way through the forest.

Along the way Pip and Mrs. Joe pass the big river that marks one edge of their territory. On the other side of the river is a forest that Pip has never seen. During the dry season, the waters of the river are lower, and certain parts of the river become passable by chimpanzees. However, it is a very dangerous endeavor. The river’s current is strong and for a mother like Mrs. Joe, the risk of crossing too great.

The sound of rushing water echoes through the forest, made even louder by the dense canopy above.

The chimpanzee and her offspring continue to make their way through the landscape, and soon come to a human-made fence. From his perch on top of his mother’s back, Pip looks down at the dead cane rat ensnared in the trap as they climb over the barrier. The forest gets darker as they move on. Finally, they arrive at a magnificent clearing.

The edges of the clearing are made by the trunks of enormous mango trees. These trees reach high into the sky and form a canopy of fruiting branches. Interspersed throughout the branches are chimpanzee nests. Between the towering mango trees are cacao trees, fig trees, and tall palm trees. The flora that make up this kingdom are not native to Sierra Leone. But nonetheless, this extraordinary and unnatural landscape is the Matamba kingdom.

When Pip and Mrs. Joe arrive at the clearing, the other sixteen Matamba chimpanzees fail to take much notice. Pip jumps off his mother’s back. Having calmed down, he wanders over, once again, back in the direction of the ravine they have just returned from. Gently, Mrs. Joe grabs his leg and pulls him back towards her.

The largest chimpanzee in Matamba is Magwich. He sits and stares at Mrs. Joe and Pip. He continues to stare as he begins to sway back and forth. The sways are soon accompanied by a soft hooting call. The hoots become louder. His movements became wilder. Mrs. Joe puts Pip back on her back and runs to the nearest tree. Magwich stands up, picks up a branch, and begins to bang it on the ground. His hoots turn into loud screams. Mrs. Joe begins to climb up the tree, Pip clinging to her back with his eyes on Magwich.

Finally Magwich charges through the center of the group. When he gets to the edge of the clearing, he sits down and stops shouting. Mrs. Joe climbs down from the tree and walks over to him. She reaches out her arm to him and calls out. Magwich remains still and doesn’t look at her. She sits down and begins to groom his back. Pip climbs off his mother’s back and sits next to her. Magwich turns to Mrs. Joe and begins to groom her in return.

Grooming serves an essential function for chimpanzees. It communicates a social bond. These bonds are advantageous and chimpanzees survive their environment through them. A chimpanzee can learn from a grooming companion, have food provided for them by a companion, and be protected by a companion. Ultimately, these bonds allow chimpanzees to stay safe..

As the day draws on, Pip remains near Mrs. Joe and Mrs. Joe remains near Magwich. The three linger around the clearing with the rest of the Matamba community until the middle of the afternoon. At this point, Magwich gets up and walks away. He is approached by two other males, Sykes and Dodger.

Sykes is a smaller adult — when he stands next to Magwich he appears to be only half his size. Still, he is confident enough to travel alone. He frequently ventures into areas where other members of the group never go.

Dodger is also small in stature but large in confidence. The young adult frequently walks in the front of  the line when he travels with others. It is Dodger who approached Magwich, with Sykes behind him.

Magwich moves in between the two chimpanzees. They begin to groom him. The grooming communicates something — an alliance, a hierarchy, an agreement. After several minutes, Magwich stands up. Sykes and Dodger do the same. Forming a single file line, with Dodger in front, the three of them walk towards the forest edge and disappear into the trees. Where they are going, what they are going to do, and who they are going to meet are known only to them.

The actions of the three chimpanzees cannot be predicted by any textbook ecological models. It is impossible to know where they are going or why they are going there. If these chimpanzees lived like the chimpanzees at the study sites or in the captive environments known to science, their decisions and actions might be more predictable. But they do not. They live in a small patch of forest dominated by non-native mango trees where humans are afraid to go. They live in a community, with a solo, starkly white male chimpanzee nearby. All of this can have a profound effect on their ecology. All of this makes the dynamics of the Matamba community very special. These dynamics are dictated by unique circumstances, unique histories, and a unique environment. However, they are no less real nor any less significant than the textbook chimpanzees. They are merely hidden from our view.

Mrs. Joe puts Pip back on her back and approaches the nearest tree. She climbs to a nest that she made earlier. The mother and child sink down into the woven mosaic of mango branches and take an afternoon nap.

A few hundred meters away, Magwich, Sykes, and Dodger make their way to unexplored territories — to a place where two communities will discover one another. This meeting, will dictate the next chapter, alter the dynamics within and between the two ever so slightly, and lay the foundation of what it to come for this kingdom of chimpanzees.

The Lion Shaped Mountain series is a story of two communities of chimpanzees living with seven communities of humans. It is pieced together with little bits of evidence – camera trap photos, tracks in the mud, stories from local communities, nest sites, examination of biological samples like fecal matter, and every other clue that I have come across in the last decade of studying them. I’ve named the chimpanzees, assigned personality traits, and imagined certain interactions based on my own perceptions. However, the reader should be assured that each liberty is grounded in a data point.

The Latest

In Bullheaded Move, Trump Blocks California From Setting Vehicle Emissions Rules

State leaders, environmental groups prepare to challenge decision in court.

Maureen Nandini Mitra

California Just Became the First State to Ban Fur Trapping

Wildlife advocates celebrate new law, look ahead to possible statewide ban on sale of fur.

Zoe Loftus-Farren

In Tucson, Not Everyone Is Equal in the Face of Heat

As summers get hotter, people who work outdoors, those on a low income, and the elderly face imminent peril.

Ellice Lueders The Guardian

Offering Community and Connection in the Age of Separation

Cohousing may be one the best, if currently overlooked, ways to build a sustainable future.

John de Graaf

A Sanctuary for Lost Bears

At the world's largest shelter for brown bears, Romanian animal welfare advocates rehabilitate captive animals and push to change public attitudes towards wildlife.

Claudia Flisi

Iowa’s ‘Agitator in Chief’

Activist and author Ed Fallon has been pushing for climate action for more than a decade. Now he says it's time for a 'full-scale mobilization.'

Mike Kuhlenbeck