Lion Shaped Mountain: The Inferno

In Sierra Leone, people have been fallow farming for generations. Today, it poses new hazards to human and chimpanzee communities alike.

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

It is one hour before daybreak. People aboard an approaching ship begin to see the outline of the lion shaped mountain emerging from the eastern horizon beyond. Inland, up on the mountain, small fires are lit to cook breakfast and boil water for coffee. They pop up like fireflies across the landscape, giving away the locations of humans. No such marker exists for their elusive cousins.

photo of chimpanzee sierra leone
Chimpanzees inhabiting forest fragments in Sierra Leone live adjacent to human communities, which means human activities like fallow farming can have significant impacts on their lives. Photo by bobthemagicdrago / Flickr.

In the Matamba forest, Pip is waking up. He sits up in the large nest he shares with his mother, Mrs. Joe. She is still asleep. Pip steps out from the nest onto a large branch in the towering mango tree. As he leaves the nest, Mrs. Joe wakes up. She grunts sleepily at him. He climbs back in the nest and sits with her. The rest of the group is stirring around them. In a moment’s time, the forest floor is filled with the other Matamba chimpanzees. Excitedly, Pip chirps. Soon his Mother puts him on her back and climbs down to the ground. There, they join the others.

Several kilometers away, along the Pampana River, there is another chimpanzee community. Young Ferdinand is waking up beside his mother, Prospera. His older sister, Miranda, is in the nest next to them. The sounds of the river rushing beside them fill the air. The three of them climb out of their nests and down the trees to the riverine forest floor below. Soon the rest of the Mabureh chimpanzee group will join them.

The sun breaks the horizon and begins its ascent. A farmer stands in a field directly between the two chimpanzee communities. He surveys the brush that was cut down several weeks before. A month ago, the field had been a thick forest. Six years ago, the forest had been a farm. Twelve years ago, it was forest. Like all of the fields and most of the forests in the area, the area is part of a fallow system – whereby a forest is cut down, its brush burnt, and seeds are planted in the ash. After a period of time, the soil stops producing and a forest is allowed to regrow. This, in turn, recharges the soil until the forest is once again turned into a farm.

This system, called “fallow farming” or “slash and burn,” has been practiced for millennia. The chimpanzees have actually adapted to it and plan their movements and foraging behaviors around the fallow cycle. The system has created a unique ecology in this part of Sierra Leone. It has been sustainable for the ecosystem until recently.

In the past several decades, there has been a population explosion in the region. This has led to an overuse of the land — fallow periods have been cut from about ten years to about half that. The soil does not have enough time to recharge and there are now large areas of desertified obsolete farmlands where the soil has been completely depleted and a forest can no longer regrow. The farms have become smaller and less productive. There are fewer forest fragments between the farms as humans require more and more land for farming. Humans have less food and decreased economic means. Chimpanzees have less forest and fewer resources.

The farmer finishes examining the branches, logs, and dead leaves on the ground. The debris is sufficiently dry. He walks from the farm to the nearest village — a very small village called Marokie. Once there, he gathers several people. One of them grabs a small cigarette lighter. They walk through a garden. The oldest woman of the village, Granny, looks up from her weaving and bids them goodbye.

photo of chimpanzee sierra leone
The small village of Marokie in Sierra Leone. Farmers from the village rely on fallow farming, which involves cutting down forestland, burning the brush, and planting seeds in the ash. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

A few kilometers away, Pip bounds ahead of his mother in the dry riverbed. He joins Fezziwig, who tackles him when he gets close. Mrs. Joe walks slowly behind with Fezziwig’s mother, Fan. Fezziwig’s sister, Belle, clutches on to her mother’s back, staring forward at her brother and Pip.

The farmer has returned to the field with his team. One picks up a dry palm branch and lights one end with the lighter. Very quickly, the branch is consumed in flames. He bends down and sets fire to a pile of dried brush on the ground. Another man picks up another branch and lights one end. Two other men do the same. The team spreads out through the field, each member setting small fires across the landscape.

The ground is drier than they had predicted. The flames spread quickly through the field, and the men have to run to the edge of the field to escape the fire. Black smoke billows high into the sky. The sun, which is at its midday peak, is temporarily blotted out by the smoke.

Prospera and her offspring have joined with the rest of the Mabureh community. They wander beside the river edge with an elderly male named Oberon. The four chimpanzees travel from the river, through the riverine forest, and enter an open field. Ferdinand looks up and calls out. He sees a towering pillar of black smoke filling the sky. Across the field, they see Richard, the alpha leader of the group. Richard responds to Ferdinand’s call with a loud alarm call. The chimpanzees disappear back in the forest.

Further up the river, a solitary male chimpanzee Caseby, who belongs to neither of the chimpanzee communities, is high in a tree. He spots the black smoke, climbs down, and quickly makes his way across the forest floor and away from the flames.

Pip and Mrs. Joe have left the others and are alone in an area of thick brush. They sit and eat the orange malumbo fruit that grows on nearby vines. Mrs. Joe senses something. The smell of the burning brush alerts her. She calls out a loud warning call. The call is returned by unseen members of the Matamba community. Soon the forest echoes with the alarm calls of chimpanzees.

The fire in the field has now consumed the area and is beginning to spread to the trees along the forest edge. The farmers, in acts of futility, attempt to snuff out the fire by digging up dirt and throwing it on top of the flames. It is too late. Soon the trees surrounding the field are ablaze.

Granny walks through her garden. She sees the smoke. She knows something has gone wrong. She alerts the people in the Marokie. Soon, most of the village has made its way to the field. Granny stays behind. When the others reach the field, they see the massive fire engulfing the landscape and feel the heat from the flames, which overpowers the heat from the West African sun.

The fire moves further into the forest — branches burn and fall to the ground. Birds leave their perches and fly to safe harbor. The nocturnal cane rats wake and run through the burning landscape. Some of them end up at the Pampana River where they dive in and swim across to the other side. Monkeys chirp loudly and jump from branch to branch to another part of the forest.

Granny stands on the porch in front of her hut. She faces the forest edge on the other side of her garden. The air around her has become slightly cloudy with smoke. The fire is getting closer. She can feel heat radiating from the forest and can hear the popping of the fire.

Pip rides on Mrs. Joe’s back as they attempt to move away from the sounds of the burning trees and bushes. However, the more they move on, the more the sounds surround them. Pip sees distant flames on all sides.

The neighboring Mabureh community is better positioned. The chimpanzees have come together and huddle in the riverine forest, but the fire does not seem to be moving in their direction. Miranda and Ferdinand sit close to their mother.

The fire has now spread to the forest edge next to Granny’s garden. The fire sways back and forth, as if it were alive. The wind blows some of the flames towards a mango tree in the garden. It catches fire. In seconds, it is engulfed.

Granny runs out to the center of the village and gathers those who are still there — mostly mothers and their children. They run up the dirt road from Marokie towards the neighboring Komrabi village. The children scream. The mothers cry. Granny takes charge and leads them away from the fire.

The mango tree burns next to Granny’s empty hut. The flames move from the branches of the tree to the thatched roof. The roof, like that of all of the huts in the village, is made from dried elephant grass, which quickly catches fire. The fire from Granny’s hut spreads to the hut next to it. Soon, all of Marokie is an inferno. The fire claims the very meager possessions of the village. Farming tools, clothing, wooden chairs, Granny’s bench, school papers, wooden cooking utensils, bags of rice, and makeshift toys — all quickly disappear into ash. Chickens and goats flee from the burning village. Their night pens burn to the ground.

photo of chimpanzee sierra leone
A fire that was started in a nearby field spread to Marokie, quickly burning the thatched roofs, gardens, and trees in the village. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

Pip and Mrs. Joe are now completely surrounded, flames closing in on them. Pip begins to scream. They stop in a small clearing underneath the canopy of a large tree, unable to safely move in any direction. Pip climbs from his mother’s back and walks back and forth from one end of the clearing to another. He looks up to see that the canopy above them is in flames. Burning branches fall to the ground. Pip runs to escape them. Mrs. Joe also runs, but in another direction. Pip looks around for his mother, but she is nowhere to be found. He calls out. The sounds of the burning tree muffle his call.

Meanwhile, Marokie is a hellish palace of flames. As the huts burn, so do the very meager possessions of the village. Farming tools, clothing, wooden chairs, Granny’s bench, school papers, wooden cooking utensils, bags of rice, and makeshift toys, all quickly disappear into ash. Chickens and goats flee from the burning village into areas of safety. Their night pens burn to the ground.

The sun sinks into the horizon. Soon the sky is lit only by twilight and the orange glow of a forest fire. Smoke fills the sky, obscuring the stars and the moon.

In the dim light, Pip continues to scream out for his mother, but receives no response. The flames have abated and there is now a safe passage away from the area. He runs, calling out, not watching where he is going. He runs until something stops him — a thatched fence. He looks up to see the familiar mango tree of Matamba, near where he awoke that morning. The fire has spared the area. He climbs over the fence and runs to the center of the Matamba forest. There he finds most of his group. Excitedly he calls out for his mother. There is no response. His calls turn to desperate cries. As the other chimpanzees recover from the event, no one comes to comfort Pip.

The fire across the landscape begins to burn itself out. The forest fragments are now composed of trees without branches, blackened and smoldering. Few areas have been spared. Those that have are mostly around the river. Matamba is one of the few fragments in the interior not to have burned.

Pip sits on the ground alone. He continues to call out. Finally he is approached by another chimpanzee. He looks up to see the stern face of the Magwich. The alpha male chimpanzee grunts at the small, frightened chimpanzee in front of him. Pip is startled and moves away. As twilight turns to night, Pip finds the base of the tree with last night’s nest. He climbs the tree, up to the old nest. He climbs in. The nest is too big for one small chimpanzee. He sinks into it. Exhaustion overcomes him. Soon, all alone, he is asleep.

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 Alaska, Wildfires and Unprecedented Temperatures Bring Climate Crisis into Focus

As firefighters tackle blazes, officials face challenges of keeping the state safe from mounting impacts of global warming.

Elizabeth Harball The Guardian

Can Eco-Engineering Help Revive Wales’ Coastal Waters?

Scientists are working to reduce the ecological impacts of breakwaters along our ever-more urbanized coastlines.

Robbie Galvin

Farmed Bees May Be Making Wild Ones Sick

New research shows that native pollinators may be at risk from virus spillover from the honeybee industry.

Jason Bittel

‘The Real Extremists Among Us Destroy Life for Profit’

Conversation: Christopher Ketcham, author of This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West.

Austin Price

South Africa Gets Go-Ahead to Increase Black Rhino Trophy Hunting

African nations, conservation groups split about decision on critically endangered animal.

Damian Carrington The Guardian

Norway Freezes Support for Brazilian Anti-Deforestation Fund

The environmental policies of President Jair Bolsonaro have put the Amazon Fund's future in doubt.

Sue Branford and Thais Borges