Lion Shaped Mountain: The Chains

With a single shot, and a lost companion, human-chimpanzee relationships are stressed in Sierra Leone.

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

Darkness is interrupted as a distant flame comes into view. The flame seems to float through the air as it gets closer, larger, and brighter. Finally it stops, landing beside a large tree. The flame crackles and flickers, illuminating both the tree and a man holding a torch. Although the flame is bright, the light does not reach the nest where a chimpanzee silently watches the occurrence below her. She remains perfectly still to avoid detection.

photo of chimpanzee sierra leone
Chimpanzees and humans, like all components of an ecosystem, navigate and adapt to the environment around them. Photo courtesy of VisitLakeland / Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Mrs. Joe peers down through the tree branches and watches as the man curiously waves the flame around a large orifice in the tree trunk. She looks over at the branches beside her. Her new companion, Prospera, is sleeping with her offspring, Ferdinand, clutched to her chest. In a nest close by, Miranda, Ferdinand’s older sister, has awakened. Like Mrs. Joe, she stays silent and watches the man below.

The man’s torch is made out of dried elephant grass, which produces an abundance of smoke. He waves the burning grass around the hole in the trunk. Bees fly out of the hole to escape the smoke. The man knows that once the bees have gone, he can reach into the tree and grab the honey comb inside. He watches each bee. As soon as the queen flies out, the rest will follow.

Honey harvesting provides a valuable alternative economic means for the villages in this part of Sierra Leone. It requires no land use, no seed investment, and no real interference from the chimpanzees. It also sells very well.

At last, the queen flees the smoky hive, the other bees following her. The man smiles and sticks his hand into the hole. Abruptly he shrieks. The sound startles both Mrs. Joe and Miranda. Prospera and Ferdinand awaken and sit up. The man pulls out the honey comb, still covered in bees. He cries out as he gets stung several times. Painfully he drops the honeycomb into a sack.

Once he leaves, the four chimpanzees, three from the Mabureh community with their one new guest from Komrabi, climb down from their nests and investigate. Honey has dripped around the tree trunk. Miranda collects it with her finger and eats it. The first light of morning begins to radiate from the river.

In another tree, in another forest miles away, Mrs. Joe’s small offspring, Pip, is also waking up. He sits up from a nest that also contains a still sleeping alpha male, Magwich. Pip climbs over him, but stumbles, waking the large chimpanzee who grunts and swats him away. Pip climbs down the tree and takes a look around.

Soon, the rest of the chimpanzees in the community begin to stir and climb down from their nests. Magwich is the last one to the ground, and soon begins to walk away from the group. Pip bounds after him. Together the walk towards the deep parts of the forest. Perhaps today is the day that Pip finds Mrs. Joe.

In a nearby village, a man finishes a piece of fruit for breakfast. He walks into his home and comes out with a very rough looking rifle. His whistles into the air. A small dog comes running towards him. As he walks out of the village, he lights a cigarette.

The man’s name is Bangura. Two scars mark his face. One is from a society ritual. The other is from an encounter with a man and a machete. He has survived poverty, a civil war, and a plague. Despite all of this, he remains the strongest man in the village. He is revered among the community.

Bangura finishes his cigarette and flicks the butt down to the ground. He comes to a place where the forest meets the road. He stops, looks into the forest, and enters it.

The morning turns to midday. Mrs. Joe and her companions have found the Mabureh community’s alpha male, Richard, at a large palm tree. Richard looks up at a large yellow receptacle hanging at the top of the tree. Prospera, Ferdinand, Miranda, and Mrs. Joe all watch as Richard climbs up the palm.

The yellow container was hung early in the morning by a villager, who cut a hole in the top of the trunk and hung the receptacle below the hole to collect poyo, or palm wine. As soon as it leaves the tree, poyo begins to ferment, creating an alcoholic staple for the community – and something that can be sold along the road.

Richard grabs the yellow container and lifts it to his mouth. With gleeful grunting sounds, he consumes all the palm wine, then drops the container to the ground where Miranda inspects it. Nothing is left. Richard slides down the tree and lands in front of Mrs. Joe. All five chimpanzees wander away towards another part of the forest.

Miles away, Magwich and Pip cross the burnt remains of the old forest and make their way towards a thick area of brush that escaped the previous week’s fire. Once there, they notice a termite mound at the base of a tree.

Termites represent a very high-energy food source for chimpanzees. In some parts of Africa, chimpanzees have been seen using tools to extract termites from their concrete-hard mounds. However, this tool-use appears to be a learned behavior — a cultural trait passed down within a community. This technology does not get utilized by either the Matamba or Mabureh chimpanzees. As such, Magwich grabs the top of the mound with both hands and uses all his force to break it off. Termites bleed out of the broken mound. Pip and Magwich pick them up individually and eat them.

Not far from them, Bangura* and his dog walk the edge of the forest. On one side of them, there is thick green growth. On the other side is the smoldering area where the fire burned a week earlier. Parts of the ground are still smoking.

Bangura’s relationship with his dog is rare in the village. Most of the villagers think of dogs as a nuisance and treat them as such. However, this dog has been an incredible companion for Bangura. In their regular treks through the farms and forests, he notifies him of potential prey or anything else out of the ordinary. Beyond this, the little dog has become a true friend.

After hours of hunting, Bagura and his dog have found nothing worthwhile. In addition to patrolling the forest, they have also checked the snare traps to no avail. Bangura lights another cigarette. The smoke mixes with the that from the scorched earth.

As the sun moves towards the western horizon, Mrs. Joe and her companions ascend a large tree and encounter similarly smokey conditions. Mrs. Joe looks out from the branches to see the burned landscape in front of her.

Richard climbs down from the tree and begins to walk on the ground towards the forest edge. Mrs. Joe, along with Prospera and her offspring, all descend the tree, moving quickly to catch up with Richard.

Meanwhile, with three paws on the ground, and one paw pointing towards the trees in front of him, Bangura’s dog stands at the edge of vast field and stares into the forest. His head is held straight and his ears are pinned back. He is perfectly silent and perfectly still. He has detected something beyond the wall of trees and tall grass.

Standing only a slight distance away, Bangura lights yet another cigarette. He inhales deeply and looks out across the field. The ground beneath his feet smolders. He leans his rifle against a blackened stump, sits down, and takes a deep drag, holding the smoke in his lungs for a moment. He exhales and glances over at his dog, shaking his head. The day has not been successful.

Providing meat for the village has taken on a new significance. For Bangura, finding meat helps alleviate relieve the stress that comes with disappearing crops. One large game animal can feed several families for several days. As he continues to smoke, he takes more notice of his dog — perhaps the dog has found something good. He takes one last drag on his cigarette, flicks it to the ground, stands up, and grabs his rifle, then begins to walk toward the forest edge. As he draws closer, he notices movement in the forest. The he has done time and time again, the small dog has alerted Bangura to something — perhaps something unusual.

The movement in the branches becomes more obvious as the hunter gets closer. He looks down at his dog. He noticed that the dog is trembling. Bangura begins to worry that the source of the disturbance may be something to be concerned about.

He stops as he sees something emerging from the trees. He lifts his rifle, clicks up the scope with his thumb, and points the rifle in the direction the dog is looking. He closes one eye and puts his finger on the trigger. In front of him, the little dog’s eyes remain fixed on the forest. The dog is no longer trembling, he is shaking.

The tall grass and branches give one last violent shake as an enormous male chimpanzee emerges. The chimpanzee looks down at the dog, then at Bangura. The hair on his back stands straight up. He begins to sway back and forth. The hunter takes a deep breath. The hunter doesn’t see the four other chimpanzees behind the large male.

Mrs. Joe quickly runs in the other direction. Prospera, with Ferdinand on her back, follows. Miranda runs close behind her mother. When they reach a safe distance, they climb a large tree and look towards the clearing.

Behind the hunter, the setting sun creates an imposing silhouette that makes it difficult for the chimpanzee to see his face. Meanwhile, the sunlight shines directly on the chimpanzee’s face, illuminating his features. The little dog begins to growl. The growling slowly transforms into barking. The chimpanzee begins to accompany this barking with slow pant hoots. The pant hoots grow in intensity. Finally, the chimpanzee’s vocalizations erupt into a full scream.

For some reason, Bangura doesn’t shoot. The pause has grave consequences. As the chimpanzee screams, he picks up the dog by a front leg. The little dog yelps as the chimpanzee wildly waves him in the air. Finally he brings the dog down to the ground and breaks his neck. Bangura’s companion is gone. He yells and pulls the trigger.

His shot misses and the chimpanzee disappears back in the forest. Bangura walks to his dog, picks him up, and searches for signs of life. There are none. Bangura looks around. There are no more signs of the chimpanzee, no signs of the recent disturbance, just an all-consuming silence.

Pip and Magwich hear the shot. They run fast towards the safety of the Matamba forest. Evening falls over the maze of forest fragments, farms, villages, and wasteland. Smoke from the ground forms a hazy canopy over the landscape. The individuals within the haze — chimpanzee and human — surrender to the will of the night.

The day’s events will create a ripple effect. Chimpanzees and humans, like all components of an ecosystem, navigate and adapt to the environment around them. Each action causes a reaction, an adaptation; which, in turn, causes another reaction. For every harvest, there is a reaction. For every hunt, there is a reaction. For every fire that has gone out of control, there is a reaction. For every pollutant cast out into the air, there is a reaction. For every forest that disappears, there is a reaction. For every resource that is depleted, there is a reaction. For every bee that gets smoked out of a hive, there is a reaction. For every termite mound that gets toppled, there is a reaction. For every crop that gets raided by a pest, there is a reaction. For every companion who goes missing, there is a reaction. This chain of events is our ecosystem, our environment, our world. It surrounds us, infiltrates us. We see it reflected in interactions between chimpanzees and humans, but it can also be found in a human interaction with a moth.

Pip climbs up a tree to nest with Magwich, another night without his mother. Having no idea how close she was to Pip earlier in the day, Mrs. Joe has returned to the riverine forest. She ascends a tree and nests beside Prospera’s family. Somewhere between Mrs. Joe and Pip, Bangura, the lonely hunter, sits cradling the body of his dog. He looks to the sky, weeping and alone.

*Bangura’s first name has been omitted to maintain his privacy.

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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