This is the 9th installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.
Imagine floating high in the sky and looking down at any given part of West Africa. The landscape below is a mosaic of small forest fragments, fields, and villages. Defining the edges of the mosaic tiles are muddy roads, waterways, and trails. If you look more closely, you might see the foliage that makes up the forest, the crops that are planted in the field, and the structures that form the villages. On even further inspection, you might detect how clear or polluted the waterways are, the condition of the roads, or even fruit growing from the forest trees.
You’d see a lot, but you’d still be missing some crucial details. You probably wouldn’t glimpse the behaviors and interactions of each living being within this landscape, or how the actions of these living beings create the mosaic all around them. It is within these details that the drama of every landscape is hidden.
Now imagine watching this landscape moving backwards through time. Imagine the sun quickly retreating from west to east over the area. The forested areas grow bigger. Farms turn into forests, and forests turn into farms, and fires burn, then end, then burn again throughout the process. Streams and rivers become clear. Villages shrink and expand, as if they are breathing. Plants covering vast areas of the landscape retreat to their point of origin. Tall elephant grass slowly clears to reveal train tracks, and then the train tracks disappear, replaced by native vegetation. Large trails, created by elephants, cut through the terrain in places elephants no longer roam.
If you were hovering above central Sierra Leone about two hundred years ago, you might see a now defunct village called Matamba. You might see a farmer from Matamba standing in the middle of a field planting a piece of bamboo with high hopes for a crop that can be used to build tools, weapons, and homes. Within two decades, this land will become a vast bamboo forest.
Today, the bamboo stalks tower high above the canopy of the surrounding forest fragments. The ground is covered with thick layers of bamboo leaves — a carpet of bamboo mulch covering any trace of soil. The tops of the bamboo stalks reach heights of thirty meters and beyond. When the wind blows, the bamboo stalks knock into each other and the landscape echoes with the sound of giant wind chimes.
Within the clumps of bamboo, different animals have made their homes. Among these are a large colony of green monkeys. The monkeys have selected the hammock as a preferred habitat. The bamboo offers protection from the elements as well as predators, and a food source.
Green monkeys are widespread across West Africa, and are the frequent targets of both predatory animals and human hunters. The presence of the bamboo hammock has made it so they can survive in part of Sierra Leone.
On a wet morning, after a night of torrential rains, the green monkeys are foraging through the leafy ground in search of food. A small, juvenile monkey, climbs up the bamboo stalks. As he gets higher he rises above the canopy of the other forests. Soon the entire landscape comes into his view.
On one side, he can see the remnants of a vast forest fire. The ground still smolders. Beyond the lifeless wasteland is a village. A woman pounds leaves in a large wooden pestle. Beside her is a fire. Another woman sits on a bench beside a charred hut. She weaves a large basket. Men gather in the center of the village, discussing what the day may bring.
The monkey looks back at the burned forest. The only movement he can detect is a lone chimpanzee, also a juvenile, walking across the scorched ground. In the distance, an adult male chimpanzee is watching him.
The small green monkey turns and takes in the rest of the landscape. He sees the large muddy river. Because of the torrential rains, the river looks rough and deep. Dense collections of trees line each side of the river. Far off in the distance, some of these trees have chimpanzee nests on top of them. In one of these nests, the dark shape of a chimpanzee can be made out. Beside this line of trees, there is a field. Farmers work, breaking up the ground with large tools.
The monkey turns to look in yet another direction, to an area completely covered with tall grass. The area appears just as lifeless as the area recently burned by the forest fire. The grass covers the land as far as the monkey can see. It stretches all the way to the base of a lion shaped mountain, the small mountain range along the western coast of the country.
The little monkey slides down the bamboo stalk and joins the rest of the colony. He follows them as they move out of the bamboo hammock into the neighboring forest fragment. Once in the forest, the colony of monkeys ascend the trees around them and continue on, jumping from branch to branch.
As they travel, one of the monkeys sounds a quick alarm. In unison, all of the monkeys climb as high as they can and conceal themselves in the branches. They don’t make a sound. The small monkey looks down to see a lone little chimpanzee moving through the forest. It is the same little chimp that he saw walking through the remains of the forest fire. He has now joined the adult chimpanzee. The two of them walk directly below the monkeys.
Once the chimpanzees disappear from, the monkeys continue to travel from branch to branch. Occasionally they will come across fruit in the trees. Unlike chimpanzees, green monkeys will eat fruit before it is ripe. This makes them highly adaptable to every season. They consume most of the fruit they come across. Sometimes they just take one bite and drop it. Sometimes they consume the entire fruit. All of this without any clear rhyme or reason. What they don’t consume falls to the forest floor.
As the colony travels on, the little monkey falls behind. He races through the branches to catch up. He can see the colony in front of him, but they are quickly disappearing out of view. He runs across a thinner branch. The branch breaks under him, but he catches another branch before he falls.
As he continues to move through the trees, he hears something behind him. Expecting to see another monkey, he turns around. Instead of a monkey, he sees an extremely large chimpanzee. This chimpanzee is covered in white hair, which is rare for chimps. The monkey shrieks. Before he can run away, the white chimpanzee grabs him by the leg. The monkey tries to pull away, but it is of no use. The chimpanzee sinks his teeth into the monkey’s thigh, causing him to cry out in pain. The rest of the colony scatters away, leaving the small green monkey alone to his fate. The white chimpanzee holds the monkey in his mouth as he climbs down the tree to the forest floor.
The white chimpanzee walks with his prey back through the bamboo hammock. Headwinds from an approaching storm blow past. Behind them, the sound of the bamboo stalks knocking into each other radiates across the landscape.
Caseby, the lonely white chimpanzee, is one of the few chimpanzees in this area known to hunt monkeys. In other areas of Africa, this predator-prey relationship is more common, though hunting monkeys is usually a group activity. However, Caseby, for whatever reason, belongs to no group. He survives on his own. A monkey provides protein in an environment where resources are scarce — especially for a chimpanzee without a community that collectively claims and defends fruiting trees and other food sources.
As Caseby continues through the forest, the air gets smoky. Eventually, he finds himself in the area of the recent forest fire. The monkey has now lost consciousness as he hangs from Caseby’s mouth.
The white chimpanzee navigates the smoldering, crackling ground, the wind pushing smoke into his eyes. A light rain begins to fall. As the water hits the hot ground, steam mixes with the smoke. The air becomes thick with a haze. Caseby’s visibility is cut to only a very short distance in front of him. Despite this, he continues on, finally passing into a burnt field.
As the rain continues, the haze begins to dissipate. The air begins to clear and Caseby’s distorted vision becomes clear. A short distance in front of him stands a hunter with a rifle. Caseby stops. The hunter raises his rifle. As smoke and steam blow between them, Caseby drops the monkey and runs back in the direction he came from.
The hunter puts his gun down. He runs over and picks up the monkey, quickly realizing he has died. The hunter carries him back to the village, showing the members of his community. Together, they prepare a fire to smoke the monkey. Even though the monkey is small, he will provide meat for many, which is invaluable in this time of scarce resources.
A hunter, in a certain place at a certain time, suffering from extreme poverty and a recent forest fire that burned his crops, has found meat. The meat has been provided to him by a chimpanzee who randomly wandered into the wrong area with his meal. The chimpanzee who, for some reason, roams the forest alone, has suffered from the same fire, which burned the fruit trees he might have otherwise relied on for food. Instead of eating fruit, he catches a monkey — a monkey that fell behind his colony when he was distracted by the movement of two other chimpanzees. The colony of monkeys would not be in the area but for the decision a farmer made two hundred years ago to plant bamboo.
This chain of events — each link forged by the region’s unique history — has led to one small meal for a small village in Sierra Leone. This is just one meal. But there is a similar story behind every meal, and every act of survival, for the humans, chimpanzees, and every other living being in the ecosystem. The events shade and color each tile in the landscape mosaic, creating the beautiful and dramatic natural art that is visible only from the sky.
By nightfall, the monkey is cooked and his meat is added to a stew with cassava leaf and hot peppers. The stew is served over rice and fed to the village. From the sky, the only thing visible is the soft glow of a cooking fire. From the sky, this fire looks like every other cooking fire in every village in Sierra Leone. These fires dot the landscape from the eastern horizon to the Atlantic coast, where they abruptly terminate at a lion shaped mountain by the sea.
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.