Lion Shaped Mountain: The Embers of Abandonment

Following a big blaze, Sierra Leone’s chimpanzees must adapt to their new, scorched world.

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

There are moments that come without warning, where everything we cling to vanishes into the air. There are times when the systems we rely upon to survive suddenly no longer exist. The pieces and fragments of our surroundings, those that make the world make sense, disappear. A comforting reality gets replaced by something sinister. A home is destroyed. A parent loses a child. A child loses a parent. In these moments, we realize that nothing is permanent. It is in how we adapt to these situations that we define ourselves as individuals. It is the ability to adapt that defines us as a species — a trait that we share with our anthropoid cousins.

photo of chimpanzee in sierra leone
Chimpanzees' ability to adapt to changes in their environment is a trait they share with humans. Photo by Jeremy Weate.

In the early morning, after such an event — in this case, a fire — a chimpanzee walks alone through a ruined landscape. With a solid white coat of hair that blankets his body, Caseby looks like no other chimpanzee. Caseby does not live like other chimpanzees either — he doesn’t belong to any social group, and lives alone. He has been granted a world of unique circumstances, along with ability to adapt to these circumstances with unique behaviors. These circumstances, however, have been changed.

Caseby walks through a smoldering wasteland. As he steps, his knuckles sink deep into grey ash — charred remnants of what had been, just hours ago, trees, fruit, vines, bushes, and farmland. Now it is a lifeless plain. The blackened remains of trees pierce the sky. No leaves remain. Nothing green can be seen.

The white chimpanzee walks towards one tree that seems to have escaped the inferno. It lingers in the distance, beyond the smokey haze, seemingly covered with a thick coat of leaves. Without vines and bushes to hide him, or tall trees to ascend, Caseby is in danger. The early morning sun reflects on his white hair, exposing him even more to those that would do him harm. Furthermore, Caseby has no companions to warn him of danger. Once he reaches the tree, he’ll be able to climb it, concealing himself in the leaves.

As he gets closer to the tree, what had looked like a tree boasting leafy branches is now visible for what it really is: a charred tree hosting a flock of grey birds that have found one of the few standing perches left in the area. All at once, the birds spot the chimpanzee. With a sudden sound of flapping wings, the birds fly away. Caseby watches as the last signs of life disperse, leaving another blackened and burnt skeleton on the landscape.

He stops to look around. Far off on the horizon, he spots the edge of a forest fragment that has been spared by the fire. He changes direction, heading towards it.

Inside the forest fragment, a young chimpanzee named Pip awakens to a new reality. His nest is empty. His mother has not returned since they became separated in the fire the previous evening. He sits up for a moment, adjusting to the morning, and then calls out for his mother. There is no response. He hears something below him at the base of the tree. He looks down to see the back of a female chimpanzee. He chirps with delight as he slides down the tree’s trunk. When he reaches the ground, his chirps are silenced when he sees only someone else’s mother. It is Fan. Her son, Fezziwig, stands in front of her, holding his sister Belle. They ignore Pip as they pass him by.

Pip looks around to see the rest of the Matamba chimpanzee group wandering aimlessly around the nesting site. Though the fire did not reach the Matamba forest — which extends across a fragment of its former acreage — most of their day range where they forage for food has been destroyed. The nearby farm, garden, and surrounding forest patches have all been lost. This situation leaves the group in a state of confusion. No one pays any attention to the little chimpanzee without his mother. Pip slips away from the group; out of the clearing and towards the spot where he was separated from his mom, Mrs. Joe.

photo of chimpanzee in sierra leone
Mrs. Joe — notably without Pip — in a riverine forest nesting area in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Andrew Halloran.

Not too far away, Granny and the rest of her human community return to their village. The old woman walks through the remains of her garden. Everything that was fruiting has been burned. She looks at her hut. All that remains are mud walls. The thatched roof is gone. Her bench has been incinerated. Her baskets have all vanished.

It does not take long for the community to realize that they have lost everything. Their crops, and also thier clothes, tools, toys, papers, and more. There are shouts of anger. There is crying. There is confusion about where to go or what to do.

As the community comes to grips with the situation, they notice a man standing in the center of the village. He is from a neighboring community, one that has been traditionally hostile due to land disputes. He smiles at them. He walks over to one of the huts that has burned almost to the ground. He touches what remains of a wall, then turns to look at the rest of the huts. He looks at the chief. He laughs, looks at the ground, and shakes his head. He mutters something as he walks away. He does not turn back.

Granny is overcome by the interaction. She walks away from the village, down the road towards the farm. Tears roll down her face. When she reaches the farm, the ground is still smoking, covered in ash. In the distance she sees something move. She walks towards the object. As she draws closer, she begins to make out what it is. In front of her is a small chimpanzee. She stops.

Pip stares at the old woman and is too frightened to move. He does not run. There are no trees to climb. Normally his mother would pick him up and carry him to safety. But Pip is on his own. After a few moments, instinct takes over a Pip runs in the opposite direction.

photo of Marokie, Sierra Leone after a big fire
Marokie villagers gather after a fire destroyed their homes and crops. Photo courtesy of Andrew Halloran.

Pip runs through the charred farmland and into the remains of a forest. As he continues to run, the forest gets thicker. Soon he is surrounded by green. He looks around to find that he doesn’t recognize anything. He meanders around, crying out into the abyss.

The brush is so thick that he cannot see much more than a few inches in front of him. He is scared. His fear is justified. As a very young chimpanzee, he is in great danger.

Through the vines, he sees a large figure, another chimpanzee. He yelps and starts to run, but then he hears a deep call. The call is familiar. Pip stops. He turns around. Behind him stands the Matamba community’s alpha male, Magwich. The large chimpanzee walks over to Pip and gently lifts him up. Pip climbs on Magwich’s back. Together they head towards Matamba.

Little does Pip know that his mother is not very far away. She has followed the sounds of the river to find a completely unrecognizable section of it. Last night, she found a tree along the river and nested there. This morning, she has awakened to find the landscape no more familiar in the daylight than it was in the shadows of the previous night. She climbs down from her nest and ventures through the riverine forest.

Nothing is familiar. The river sounds different. The trees look different. The birds even sound different. Mrs. Joe has inadvertently found herself within the defended core range of the neighboring chimpanzee community, Mabureh. Just as a Mabureh chimpanzee never ventures into the core range of Matamba, a Matamba chimpanzee never enters the defended Mabureh forest.

She approaches a group of trees that has several chimpanzee nests already built in their branches, climbing one of the trees. As she gets closer to the nest, she hears an alarm call emanating from it. The call sounds like a juvenile. Undeterred, she continues to ascend. When she reaches the nest, she sees a young female sitting there. The little chimpanzee keeps calling out. Mrs. Joe turns around to see an adult female, with a small male chimpanzee on her back, lunging at her. Mrs. Joe jumps and falls to the forest floor.

Prospera, the adult female, looks down at Mrs. Joe and screams. The infant, Ferdinand, also screams. Prospera, plops Ferdinand in the nest with the juvenile, Miranda, and jumps to the forest floor. Again, she lunges at Mrs. Joe with her offspring looking on.

Mrs. Joe flees towards the river. Prospera does not follow. Running along the riverbanks, Mrs. Joe finally stops at a large tree. She climbs to a high branch, panting. She is alone, without her community and without Pip, in a patch of forest she isn’t familiar with.

As Mrs. Joe catches her breath, her small offspring roams through a blackened forest calling out for her. He has temporarily left the protection of Magwich and has once again strayed from the safety of the Matamba forest. He is driven to search for his mother. His survival depends on finding her. Instinctually he understands this, though as night falls he returns, crawling into Magwich’s nest. The alpha male allows him to stay.

In another part of the forest Caseby looks out across the horizon. He is alone, as he has been for a long time. Everything he once knew has changed. In order to survive, he must adapt to this new world.

Meanwhile, Granny has returned to her village. She stares at what has been destroyed. With her arms folded, she watches as the rest of the villagers discuss how to rebuild from nothing. Tarps have been found and tented over the remaining walls of the huts. The villagers huddle together under these makeshift shelters. Disaster strikes and the world continues to turn.

As darkness envelopes the landscape, the glowing embers left behind by the blaze illuminate the ground where the forest and farm used to be. They will linger a bit longer. In time, they will burn out, to be replaced by whatever comes to grow from their ashes.

The next day, in the Mabureh forest, four chimpanzees are spotted. In front is a juvenile female. Behind her walks her mother, with an infant male on her back. Behind them is another adult female chimpanzee. The four chimpanzees walk peacefully through the fields. At one point, they find a fruiting vine and all eat together. And with that, Mrs. Joe begins her first day as part of the Mabureh community.

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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