Lion Shaped Mountain: Thieves in the Garden

Sierra Leone's chimpanzees often enjoy the fruits of their human neighbors' labor

This is the fourth installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In a dark area of the Matamba Forest, Caseby, the mysterious and seldom seen solitary chimpanzee, stands alone at the edge of a large watering hole. The extreme heat of a damp forest’s afternoon is soon parted by the first cool breeze of the coming evening. The wind blows through his all-white hair and causes ripples in the pool in front of him. Due to the previous night’s rain, the watering hole has grown in size since his last visit.

photo of watering hole
Caseby's watering hole in the Matamba Forest. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

Caseby has spent the day foraging for food. He began in the morning, when he ventured onto nearby farmland, and continued his day combing through the forest for figs, edible leaves, and various pieces of fruit that he finds on the ground. As a solitary chimpanzee, with no need to share what he finds with a community, he has the distinct advantage of only having to find food for himself. This advantage, however, is outweighed by the distinct security cost he incurs by not belonging to a community. There are no alarm calls to warn him of danger. There are no other chimpanzees to defend him. Additionally, he loses any benefits of communal food sharing. If Caseby doesn’t find food, no other chimpanzees will find it for him.

As the afternoon grows later, he ascends a tree near the watering hole. Once at the top, he hears other chimpanzees approaching. He remains silent. Below him pass three male chimpanzees walking in a single file line. He does not take his eyes off of them until they walk out of site. Then he begins to create a nest to sleep in for the night.

A few hundred meters away, the forest ends and opens up into a garden that borders a small village. Villagers have recently returned home after a day working on their farms.

Something rattles where the edge of the forest meets the edge of the garden, breaking the late afternoon stillness by shaking the sun-baked wall of trees, shrubs, and tall grass. For a brief moment, the natural wall of greenery that divides the dark forest from the open garden is parted and the two worlds are temporarily united. The disturbance is followed by a gust of wind that blows from the forest, across the small garden, and across the face of an old woman who sits in front of a hut.

photo of Matamba forest gate A human-made gate filled with thatching and animal snares divides the Matamba Forest from the rest of the landscape. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

The woman sings to herself as she meticulously weaves reeds together. Soon these reeds will form a basket that can be used to gather crops from the gardens and farmlands that surround her village. In recent years, most of her days have been spent in front of this hut, overlooking the garden that borders the forest edge. On this day, however, something is different.

Hearing the disturbance, the old woman looks up from her weaving. She stops singing and looks towards the forest. She squints her eyes as she tries to make out the source of the noise. Seeing nothing, she stands up to get a better look. Being very short, she struggles to see over her mango trees so she climbs up on the bench she had been sitting on. She almost falls from the wobbly piece of handmade furniture. Even when standing on her tip-toes though, she cannot see anything in or around the forest. Another gust of wind blows across her face. Concluding that it must have been the breeze that caused the sound, she steps off the bench, sits back down, and returns to her weaving.

She is known as “Orya,” which translates roughly to “Granny.” No one actually remembers how old she is, but no one can seem to remember a time without her or a time that she wasn’t old. Age has made her a de facto keeper of the village's history. Nothing is written down. Everything is in her head. Her memories include births, deaths, arrivals, and departures. She remembers visitors and invaders. She can recall times of prosperity, times of hunger, times of peace, times of war, times of health, and times of disease. She knows the land like no one else in the village. Not only does she know what is currently planted in the garden, she knows what has grown there in previous years. She also knows what is in the dark forest beyond the garden. Most importantly, Granny knows to fear what is in that forest.

From where she sits, Granny gives one last glance at the forest edge. Without stopping her weaving, she surveys the garden. The pineapples and bananas are not yet ripe. However, the mangos are at the very end of their long fruiting period and could be harvested anytime. She looks down at her work and begins to sing again. Perhaps because she is so focused on her work, or perhaps because she has such poor hearing, Granny doesn’t sense what has suddenly appeared at the forest edge.

At the far side of the garden, beyond the mango trees, stand three dark figures. The first is the smallest. Behind him stands a slightly larger form. Towering behind them both is the largest, a mammoth form. Silently, slowly, and undetected, they begin to move closer to Granny.

With her basket nearly complete, she begins to concentrate on the details. She weaves the smaller reeds into the spaces left by the larger ones. She smiles at her work and begins to sing even louder. With each passing moment, the distance that separates her from the three visitors becomes shorter. Soon they are just a few meters apart. Granny continues to weave and sing, unaware of their presence.       

Soon the basket is complete and Granny stops to admire her work. She sees something move past in her peripherals. Slowly she looks up, finding the largest chimpanzee she has ever seen, standing just a few steps away. For a brief moment the two stare at each other in silence. Neither Granny nor her visitor seem to know how to react.

Then, realizing the danger she is in, Granny hops back up on her bench. Enraged, she grabs a stick beside her. With one hand holding the stick, and the other hand bracing herself against the wall, she stands as tall as she can. High on her bench, Granny wildly waves the stick into the air and screams at the chimpanzee in front of her. The chimpanzee stares at her for a moment, then calmly walks past her. The other two chimpanzees, standing a bit further away, take no notice of her. This enrages Granny who, in an act of either brash foolhardiness or audacious bravery, flings her stick at the largest chimpanzee. The stick sails past him and sticks, straight up, into the ground in front of him. He calmly walks past it.

The second chimpanzee walks towards Granny. This chimpanzee is not as large, but seems to be more aggressive. He shouts at her and sways back and forth. This gives him a much larger appearance. Granny’s anger turns to fear. Still, she does not run away. Instead, she begins to stomp her foot on the bench. Having lost her stick, she shakes her fist at him. The smallest chimpanzee begins to walk towards Granny as well.

This chimpanzee appears to be much younger than the others. Like them, he begins to shout. By now, however, the other two chimpanzees have lost interest in pestering Granny and begin to survey the trees in the garden. This leaves Granny face to face with only the small chimpanzee. Her courage is restored. She stomps her feet louder and shakes her fist even more wildly than before.

Losing his nerve, the little chimpanzee gives one last slap to the ground, darts away, and falls in line behind the other two walking through the garden. They walk over the pineapples, past the bananas, and finally stop at a row of mango trees. Each chimpanzee walks to a separate tree.

Granny turns towards the village and calls out for help. As she faces away from the chimpanzees, she feels something hit her in the back of the head. The force of it almost knocks her off the bench. As she turns, it becomes clear that the smallest chimpanzee has taken one of the fallen mangos from the ground and thrown it at her. Granny rubs her head and screams at the little chimpanzee. He shouts back and pounds on the ground with his fist.

photo of chimpanzees
Dodger and Sykes make their way through the forest. Photo courtesy of Andrew Halloran.

The others in the village hear Granny's cries. Among them is the chief, Sumana. As he rushes towards Granny's hut, Sumana calls out to everyone else within earshot.  Understanding fully well that Granny is in grave danger, they drop what they are doing and join him. They find granny still standing on the bench screaming. The chimpanzees are now in the mango trees. One of the men runs toward one of the trees but Sumana holds out his hand to stay back — it is too dangerous. Helplessly, the villagers watch as ripe mangos fall from the trees.

Calmly, the chimpanzees move from tree to tree, pulling the fruit from the branches and collecting all the ripe mangos in their arms. By the time they finish, every edible mango is gone. The three chimpanzees stand in the center of the garden with their arms full; each carrying an almost impossible number of mangos.

Granny's voice is now hoarse. Looking at her empty trees, she starts to cry. Sumana shouts at the chimpanzees. Like Granny, he is ignored. The chimpanzees make their way back through the garden with their mango haul in hand.

As the chimpanzees pass the bananas, the large one stops to look up at the fruit. They are not yet ripe enough to eat. He looks over at Sumana, then back again at the bananas. He grunts and moves on. As Granny continues to sob, the chimpanzees reach the forest edge. In an instant, they disappear into the darkness. They will be back.  

Deep in the forest, a young chimpanzee named Pip opens his eyes to see the afternoon sun still in the sky. (Read more about Pip in Part 3.) He looks over to see that his mother, Mrs. Joe, is still asleep beside him. Alone, he climbs down the tree and looks around to see what the rest of his community is doing.

Across the clearing he sees Fezziwig, a chimpanzee who is roughly his same age. Fezziwig sits beside his mother, Fan. Clinging to Fan’s chest is her infant daughter, Belle. Being always curious about his younger sister, Fezziwig continually puts his face up to her body as she sleeps.

Pip walks over to them and follows Fezziwig’s lead by also putting his face very close to Belle. Fan has had enough and gently pushes the two boys away from her baby. This, however, does not stop Fezziwig who tries to take Belle from his mother. Again, Fan pushes him away. Fezziwig cries out in frustration. Not wanting to deal with this anymore, Fan relents and allows Fezziwig to take his sister.

Belle is unfazed as she clings on to her brother. However, Fezziwig has misjudged the weight of his sister and is unable to stand up straight. He sits down with a plop while still carrying her on his middle. Pip reaches out to touch Belle. Fezziwig pries his sister off his chest and hands her to Pip, who gladly accepts. Again, Belle doesn’t react. She sleepily clings to Pip’s chest. Fan becomes uneasy about this baby sharing and pulls her daughter away from Pip and walks away.

Before Pip can protest, the entire community erupts in shouts. Coming into the clearing are Dodger, Sykes, and Magwich with their arms full of mangos. The shouts turn into high-pitched chirps as the chimpanzees drop the fruit on the ground. Soon the entire group surrounds the pile.

Mrs. Joe, awakened by the ruckus, climbs down from the tree where she was nesting. She spots Pip, walks over to him, hoists him on to her back, and walk over to the mango pile. When they sit, Magwich joins them, picks up a mango, and takes a bite. The others follow suit.

Around the mangos they sit, the Matamba chimpanzee community, the heirs to an ecosystem unique to them; an ecosystem created, in part, by their own actions and their reactions to their human neighbors. What is planted, where it is planted, and how the crops are defended dictates what resources are available to Matamba chimpanzees, and the strategies they employ to acquire them. Had the humans planted a different crop, it would have ripened at a different time of year. Had the humans planted a less preferred fruit, the chimpanzees may have found something else. Had the humans planted the mangos in a different place, the chimpanzees may not have been able to get to them.  And almost certainly, after the recent theft, the humans will employ a different strategy for growing — or at least defending — their mangos. The Matamba chimpanzees will be forced to adapt, continuing the chain of reactions that ultimately forge the ecosystem.

Pip wanders over to Fezziwig, Fan, and Belle, who are now standing around the mangos as well. Fezziwig does somersaults while Belle sleeps on her mother’s chest. Fan eats a mango. Pip stands in the center of the pile of mangos. He grabs one from beneath his feet. He turns his head to the sky and hoots. His calls are joined by the others. Every chimpanzee in the community, including Magwich is shouting. The forest echoes with the voices of the Matamba chimpanzees.

As the chorus echoes across the landscape, night begins to fall. It falls over the Matamba forests. It falls over Caseby, who sleeps alone nearby. It falls over Granny, Sumana, and the rest of their village. It falls over me as I sit at my campsite just a few hundred meters away.

I sit in front of a fire that was used to cook my dinner. The cooler afternoon wind has now turned into a cold evening breeze. I move my chair a bit closer to the fire. I remind myself of the amazing diversity of life that surrounds me. To my left are the Matamba chimpanzees. To my right are the Mabureh chimpanzees — a community I will visit in the morning.

I take a twig from the ground and light one end with the campfire. I use the twig to light my oil lamp. I increase the wick and expand the flame. The light from my lamp is brighter than the moonlight. The moths that fly through the night sky by the light of the moon are distracted and confused by the oil lamp. They form a shimmering and magnificent display above the lamp. I sit back and watch the beauty of it.

The moths fly in a pattern. As they twist and turn, light reflects off of their wings. They move about so fast that it’s impossible to make out individuals. They appear only as streaks of light as they dart across the orb of light. The patterns they make remind me of a fireworks display or a city street at Christmas time. Some of the moths follow each other directly into the flame. They burn and fall to the ground in a suicidal parade. Others circle above. I notice one of the moths stays close enough to be visible, but far enough from the others as to not really become part of the pattern. For the moment, the presence of my lamp has created a new system around which the moths pattern themselves.

Feeling guilty about the dead moths, but also annoyed by the moths flying into my beard, I blow out my lamp and crawl into my tent. The moonlight is dominant again. I close my eyes, fall asleep, and dream about the chimpanzees that surround me.

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.

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