Lion Shaped Mountain: Muddy Travelers

In Sierra Leone, humans and chimpanzees are being pushed closer and closer together

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

At the western edge of the African continent, the blackness of the night sky gives way to an early morning purple. Where once there was only the sound of the Atlantic Ocean slapping against the rocks and sand of the coastline, there is now the hazy image of the shore. Opposite the sea, the features of the continent begin to take shape. Appearing out of the darkness is the imposing silhouette of the lion shaped mountain.

photo of chimpanzeephoto by Andrew HalloranThe Mabureh chimpanzee community occupies a small riverine forest area hardly able to contain community’s 22 chimpanzees.

When the purple sky begins to glow with a reddish hue, the mountain’s violent shape comes into focus. At first, it appears to be a series of random hills. However, once it is imagined, a lion becomes visible. The first hill creates the top of his mane. The next series of hills create the profile of his face. His eyes appear closed but his mouth is opened wide. The final hill creates his beard and lower mane.

When the hue of the sky becomes a fiery red, the silhouette becomes even crisper. It is as if a giant lion is emerging from the Earth. His open mouth screams at the heavens. One might imagine that he is screaming about some injustice. Perhaps he is surfacing to seek vengeance.

The mountain slopes down into an estuary. The water from the estuary flows into the ocean. Opposite the ocean, the estuary forks into three rivers. One goes behind the lion shaped mountain and leads towards the morning sun. This river meanders through forests and farmlands. It passes villages, mining zones, and factories. At one point it takes a sharp turn in the middle of a riverine forest patch. The forest’s canopy hangs over part of the river. It is thick and humid in the early morning mist.

Two nests are situated in trees near the banks of the river. The nests are intricately woven platforms of leaves and branches. They appear empty until, from out of the larger nest, the head of an infant chimpanzee my team and I have named Ferdinand pops up. After looking around to examine the new day, he gives a soft hoot. The sound is enough to wake up his older sister, Miranda, who rises up from the smaller nest. She dives over to Ferdinand, shaking the entire tree as she lands. Their mother, Prospera, who has been sleeping peacefully underneath Ferdinand, wakes abruptly. She sits up, looks around, and throws Ferdinand on her back as she climbs out of the nest and down the tree to the forest floor below. Miranda leaps down after them.

In a single-file line the three chimpanzees venture away from their nesting trees and make their way across the muddy ground of the dim forest fragment, leaving footprints in their wake. Eventually, as they walk further away from their nests, the canopy opens, the large trees replaced by thick bushes and the new growth of tree saplings.

Several years ago, this overgrown field was the site of a farm. For about a decade it produced cassava, rice, squash, and other crops cultivated by the neighboring village until the soil was depleted of the necessary nutrients. The farm was then abandoned in favor of an adjacent forested patch, which was cut down and burned to ash. The ash combined with the soil to create a temporarily rich farmland while the abandoned field was allowed to regrow. After a period of time, when the nutrients in the soil have dissipated from the new farm, it will also be abandoned. At that point, another patch will be cut, burned, and cultivated. Eventually the rotation will make its way back to the field that Prospera and her offspring are currently exploring.

As the three chimpanzees venture deeper into the former farmland, Ferdinand leaps off Prospera’s back and walks out on his own in front of his mother. He moves with a bit of a stumble, having not yet mastered the powerful knuckle walk of an older chimpanzee. Miranda walks in a zig-zag pattern beside them. At one point she breaks away from her mother and brother, and wanders over to a clump of bushes in the distance.

As she bounds through the tall grass and thorny vines, something bright and orange stops her in her tracks. She looks over to the object and begins to chirp happily. The source of her joy is a sweet orange fruit hanging from a tangled labyrinth of branches. When she plucks the fruit from the bush, she looks around to see many more. Her chirps become louder and exaggerated. At this, Prospera, with Ferdinand clinging to her chest, appears out of a wall of shrubbery. She also begins to chirp. The three chimps happily bite into the peels of the fruits and pull out the gelatinous seeds inside with their teeth. The orange peels fall from their mouths and land on the ground.

This wild fruit thrives in these kinds of landscapes — disturbed areas of regrowth. The fruit, known locally as “malumbo,” consists of a gelatinous pit surrounded by a tough peel. They sprout up all over abandoned farms and create a key resource for the chimpanzees. They rely on the fruits during this time of year when other foods are not available. In fact, Prospera and her children are not the only chimpanzees in the field. As they eat happily, the rest of their community wanders nearby, in search of the same fruits.

Prospera’s community, known as “Mabureh,” occupies the small riverine forest area not far from the field. The tiny forest fragment is hardly able to contain community’s 22 chimpanzees, which is why they spend much of their time in places like the abandoned farm searching for food. This field is part of their core range and defended by Mabureh from a neighboring chimpanzee community.

photo of farmer

After a while, Prospera, Ferdinand, and Miranda wander on, having eaten their fill. Soon they come to a barren area. There are no trees or bushes here. There is only black soil. Prospera looks around. There is no immediate sign of danger so they venture further out into the open field. Miranda notices that the black soil contains a series of raised mounds. She approaches one and begins to dig. Soon she uncovers freshly planted cassava tubers (small bits of cassava root that will sprout into new plants). The tubers had been planted the previous day.

Once she uncovers one mound, she moves to the next and uncovers more cassava tubers. Ferdinand watches as he clings to his mother’s chest. Not wanting to miss the fun, he lets go of Prospera and joins his sister. He digs up the tubers with glee. Nothing is eaten. The act is purely for fun. In just a few moments, the two little chimpanzees have uncovered and destroyed a large plot of cassava plantings — likely an entire day’s work for the farmer who planted them. The damage to the field means loss of income and food to the already impoverished village.

Suddenly, Prospera senses danger. She calls out to her offspring. She has spotted a group of humans in the distance. Comprised of women from the nearest village, they carry tools, and baskets on their heads. Some of them have babies wrapped in slings on their back. Others have older children with them.

The two juvenile chimpanzees run back to their mother. Quickly, Prospera hoists Ferdinand on to her back and the three of them disappear into the wall of bushes at the edge of the farm. One of the children, a young girl, has spotted the chimpanzees and shouts excitedly to her mother. The woman looks over but the chimps have disappeared. The little girl continues to point and shout. Her mother pays no attention, grabs a spade, and begins tilling the ground.

Back in the riverine forest, Prospera, Ferdinand, and Miranda climb up a large tree. Behind them the sound of the river echoes through the canopy, the water crushing against rocks as it flows past the forest fragment towards more farms and fields, and then through another forest fragment, home of the neighboring chimpanzee community known as “Matamba.”

Matamba is like Mabureh in a number of ways: The size of the population is similar, their forest home is similar, and they too live in the immediate vicinity of human villages. Like Mabureh, the Matamba community has adapted to their coexistence with humans and even takes advantage of it.

Being in very close proximity to each other, Matamba and Mabureh have also had to adapt to each other, and their proximity to each other has shaped their behaviors and their ecology. Both Matamba and Mabureh exist as the product of countless generations adapting to their own unique circumstances. These adaptations have created the unique qualities of each community.

As the day carries on and the sun begins to find the western horizon, the river runs from the Matamba forest on to the banks of the lion shaped mountain before it finally flows into the ocean. The sun slowly begins to fade into the western sky. It disappears behind a growing barricade of black clouds coming in from the ocean. Flashes of lightning briefly illuminate the clouds from within.

Before long, the black clouds completely blanket the sky above the lion shaped mountain. They contract and expand as if they are living and breathing entities. The lightning contained within the clouds gets brighter, as if it were trying to escape. Eventually it succeeds, forking across the sky as wind blows across the mountain. The sky becomes darker still. Soon the lion shaped mountain disappears, reappearing only with each lightning flash. The moving shadows create the illusion that the lion is moving, swaying its head back and forth. With its mouth open in a perpetual scream, it appears to be writhing in pain.

In the Mabureh forest, the wind from the approaching storm begins to blow through the trees. Prospera places new branches in her nest. Miranda follows suit and supplements her nest with fresh bedding. The pre-storm wind is cool and comfortable.

In the neighboring village, the little girl who had earlier spotted the chimps in the cassava field is settling down for the night. Her mother looks up at the thatched roof of their hut. She hopes it does not leak during what is sure to be a very stormy night. The little girl talks about the chimps she saw. There is both fear and awe in her voice. Her mother reflects that they are encountering the chimps more and more each year.

In recent years, more factories, mines, and plantations have been developed across Africa (with most of the enterprises headquartered in other parts of the world). In areas where there were once forests and villages, there now stands industry. The result is that both humans and chimpanzees have been displaced. More people have been squeezed into villages, just as chimpanzees have been squeezed into smaller forest fragments. To make matters worse, the growing population of humans puts increasing pressure on the farms to yield more crops. The soil gets depleted at a faster rate and the time between farm use and forest regrowth becomes shorter and shorter. There are large swaths of wasteland around the village where nothing grows — neither crops nor forest. Humans and chimpanzees are pushed closer and closer together.

Rain begins to fall on the thatched roof as the dull rumble of thunder begins to build to a roar. The little girl starts to fall asleep. Her mother climbs over to her own bed. Tomorrow she will tell the chief what the little girl saw. More than likely the chief will decide to host a hunter in the village. This will rid the farms of the chimpanzees.

Despite the storm, the village sleeps. Only steps away, the chimpanzees sleep in the trees.

In the middle of the night, in a corner of the barren cassava field, lightning strikes the ground. As it connects with the Earth, a deafening blast of thunder pierces the atmosphere. Miranda shoots up from her nest and begins to scream. She is drenched and the rain continues to pour down on her. The forest is so dark that she cannot see her mother’s nest. She screams louder. Prospera sits up and calls back to her. Now awake, Ferdinand also screams in fear. Hearing her mother, but not seeing her, Miranda screams even more violently. A hand grabs her out of the darkness. It is Prospera. Miranda reaches out and clings to her mother. Prospera brings her to her nest.

In the village, the little girls has also been startled awake by the thunder. She cries for her mother. Her mother reaches one arm over to her and pats her on the shoulder. The little girl falls back asleep.

Over the lion shaped mountain, the thunder and lightning have stopped. The rain, however, continues to fall heavily from the sky. It pours over the mountain, causing mud and rocks to slide off its face. The mud streams down the mountain into the river where it mixes with everything that has been washed away during the storm. It mixes with the oil in the river that has floated in from the factories. It mixes with the chemicals from the sugarcane plants that use the river for irrigation. It mixes with the siltation from the mines along the river’s banks.

As the downpour persists, water floods the new cassava farm. The heavy rain washes away the tilling done earlier that day. Soil, ash, and the dug-up cassava tubers begin to float on the water. They are carried into the overgrown field, where the peels from the orange fruit are picked up as well. The water moves these fragments across the field and into the forest patch, washing away the chimpanzees’ footprints in the mud. All of it — the fruit peels, the cassava, the dirt from the tilling, the mud from the footprints — flow across the landscape. They travel underneath the chimpanzees, embracing in the nest, and are swept into the river; muddy travelers that carry with them the remains of the day, on a voyage past the lion shaped mountain, ultimately to be flushed out to the sea.

Everything can change in an instant. Some changes are intentional, like humans cutting and burning the forest, or chimpanzees building a nest. Some changes are out of one’s control, like chimpanzees finding that part of their territory has been converted to a farm, or a farmer finding that his crops have been destroyed by a chimpanzee. Each change shapes the ecosystem. Chimpanzees and humans alike must face each new landscape and figure out how to survive it. They do so by banding together, learning from each other, and being present for one another during times of danger. In the process, they build social bonds, the bonds of survival.

Somewhere in the distance, the sky is not obscured by clouds. Somewhere, beyond the lion shaped mountain, it isn’t raining. That dry space in the sky will soon pass over the mother chimpanzee and her two offspring. It will soon pass over the fields and farms. It will soon pass over the thatched roof hut housing the mother and her sleeping daughter. The rain, after all, is just a part of an ever-changing sky. It is just a moment. The moment will pass. All that will remain is the embrace of a chimpanzee.

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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