Lion Shaped Mountain: Water from Lazarus

As human and chimpanzee communities recover from fire, rain brings signs of new life to burned central Sierra Leone landscape.

This is the 10th installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.

Evening falls over the Sierra Leonean landscapes. The sun has taken its daylong trek across the sky and has descended over the Lion Shaped Mountain on the Atlantic coast. The vestiges of the day’s sun leave only dim light over a charred panorama in the central part of the country. Weeks ago, the landscape in the Tonkolili District in central Sierra Leone had been in flames. The fire converted a mosaic of forests, farmland, and grasslands into one blackened plain. Every living creature that utilizes this land has been affected. Each creature has had its life disrupted. The most outwardly tragic of these stories belongs to a community of chimpanzees and a few human villages.

photo of termite mound
A termite mound that survived the central Sierra Leone fire, dubbed the Lazarus Mound by the author. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

In the center of the darkened landscape stands a termite mound. I cannot be sure, but this mound seems to be one that I have walked past countless times. The last time I encountered it, I was in the middle of a vast farm. Now, in the middle of the changed landscape, only the termite mound is recognizable. Seeing that the mound has apparently been the only visible thing to withstand the blazing inferno, I decide to name it “The Lazarus Mound” to denote its apparent immortality. I see it as a symbol of the part of nature that is impervious to the external forces that affect everything else in the world.

All termite mounds are extraordinary structures. On the outside, they are as hard as concrete. Inside, they are a complex architecture of tunnels and rooms, each with a specific purpose. Like other termite mounds, the Lazarus Mound has a structure that is so sound that even a fire that has destroyed a village, a forest habitat, and a farm, has not harmed it. This structure is not built by the complex brain of a human or chimpanzee. Rather, it is constructed by insects with simple central nervous systems.

Several kilometers away from the Lazarus Mound, in a forest called Matamba, stands a little chimpanzee named Pip. Unlike the termite mound and its inhabitants, Pip has been greatly affected by the fire. He prepares to climb up a tall tree to get to a nest that his adopted adult guardian, Magwitch, has created. He is preparing to spend another night without his mother.

Pip does not know where his mother is. He doesn’t know if his mother survived the fire. He just knows that, ever since fleeing the flames of the inferno, he has not seen her. He has spent each day wandering around the charred remnants of his community’s home range searching for her. Luckily his community is strong and he has had the protection of Magwitch, a powerful chimpanzee and an alpha leader in the community. Magwitch has stayed close to Pip ever since the fire.

The Matamba chimpanzee community also must deal with the loss of food following the fire. Until fruits and vegetables are planted on a new farm, or the forest regrows, their food sources will be scarce. It could be difficult for the chimpanzees to survive.

Pip lays down in the nest next to Magwitch. Tomorrow he will spend another day searching for his mother. Magwtich will follow him. As Pip has done every other day, he will call out across an empty landscape, hoping to hear a call returned from his mother.

Each day that Pip spends without his mother, he is undergoing a process of change. Each day that he spends relating to his community without the buffer of his mother, he loses traces of his juvenilia. The chimpanzee that exists today is a different chimpanzee than the one that existed the day before, and the day before that, and so on. The resilience that defines him as a chimpanzee is taking over; sacrificing the small child that was Pip and replacing him with the hardened individual who now realizes how difficult the world is. Moments of the play and exploration that defined his previous days have been replaced by deliberate acts of just surviving.

Pip is left open to the elements and is forced to use the tools imparted to him by his mother to survive his environment. These tools help him become part of the social group that will protect him. Magwitch is the symbol of this social group and the emblem of Pip’s protection.

Meanwhile his mother, Mrs. Joe, is lying in a nest several kilometers away. She has joined another chimpanzee community. This community, Mabureh, accepted her without any issue. She shares a tree with another female named Prospera and Prospera’s two offspring, Miranda, a juvenile chimpanzee,, and and infant,Ferdinand. The alpha male of the Mabureh community, Richard, sleeps near by.

Unlike Pip, Mrs. Joe is old enough to know every part of the range of her habitat. Surely she knows how to get back to Matamba. It is unclear why she remains in the Mabureh forest. Perhaps the fire has disfigured the landscape to the point where it is unrecognizable. Perhaps she is afraid of the fire. Perhaps the openness of the charred plain does not offer her enough protection to travel that far. Whatever the case may be, Mrs. Joe has found security within her new community. Tomorrow she will continue to make sense of her new world.

In the tree beside her, alpha male Richard begins to fall asleep. The fire has decimated his home range. In searching for food he has had several interactions with humans. The most violent of these occurred when he faced a hunter and his dog in the field. Luckily for Richard, the hunter froze. The victim of this interaction was the hunter’s dog, who Richard destroyed in a massive display of aggression. Tomorrow, Richard will do what he has been doing every day since the inferno — search for food.

In the village nearest to where Richard sleeps, the lonely hunter, Bangura, smokes his last cigarette of the day outside of his home. In the days since he saw his beloved dog destroyed by a chimpanzee, Bangura has not been the same. His days are lonely. His hunts are unsuccessful. He cannot shake the memory of the chimpanzee killing his companion. He drops his cigarette to the ground, walks inside, and goes to bed. Along with the rest of his village, Bangura worries about having enough food in the wake of the fire. Tomorrow he will hunt again.

One village over, a village called Marockie has had to rebuild after being completely destroyed by the fire. An old woman looks at the rebuilt thatching on her roof. Her home has been reconstructed to the point where she can sleep in it again. She looks out at the remains of the garden beside her home. The fading light gives her one last look at the barren fruit trees sticking out from the ashen ground. For years she has taken care of this garden. She has planted trees, scared away birds, and even defended the fruit from chimpanzees. She found herself and her garden powerless against the fire. Tomorrow she will plant a new tree in the ashes of what had been before.

There is another village, not far from the old woman, not far from Bangura, not far from Richard and Mrs. Joe, and not far from Pip and Magwitch. This village is suffering. It has suffered a long time. The community was not affected by the fire because it has no rights to the forest or farmland. It exists in extreme poverty. Community members survive by growing whatever grows on the small parcels of land within their village. For their other needs, they must find less traditional ways of obtaining resources. They hunt in forests that they do not belong in. They steal crops from farms they do not own.

Tonight around a fire, they meet with a transient hunter. The flames of the fire illuminate their faces as they work out a deal. The hunter has a sum of money that he is willing to give to the village in return for being hosted while he hunts the land in the vicinity. The hunter has visited several other villages to offer the same deal. The other villages have turned him down. The money he was offering was not enough. However, at this village, he has found a receptive audience. The money will help the village purchase seeds for their small farms. The hunter explains to the chief what he needs in return.

The hunter has heard that there are chimpanzees nearby. If he kills a chimpanzee, he can sell the body to secret societies in the area. The societies will use the chimpanzee body parts for various rituals. He would need housing and protection from any legal authority (it is illegal to kill a chimpanzee in Sierra Leone). The chief explains that the village has no rights to hunt in the forest where the chimpanzees live. So, in effect, he would be committing two illegal acts. They will host him, but he will need to be stealth in his hunting so as not to alert the other villages that he is there. If people from the other villages find him, they will turn him in to the police.

One of the men in the village draws a map of the forest. He points to where chimpanzees live. He also points to the fields where he believes those from the other nearby village will be planting. He shows the hunter where he can go to get to the chimpanzee areas and avoid the other villages. The hunter smiles. The chief smiles. A deal is struck and the hunter will sleep in the village tonight. Tomorrow, the hunter will bring his rifle into the forest. Tomorrow, he will kill a chimpanzee.

Away from all the villages, away from the Matamba forest, and away from the Mabureh forest, a mysterious chimpanzee moves alone through the darkness. With all white hair, this chimpanzee doesn’t look like any other chimpanzees. Living a solitary existence, he doesn’t act like other chimpanzees. He is rarely observed by any human. He is rarely seen by another chimpanzee. There are thoughts that he used to belong to the Matamba community and was, for some reason, exiled. However no one knows. I only know him from stories. To me, he has come to symbolize everything that is mysterious about chimpanzees. He represents the unknown. He is emblematic of the separation between our tiny vantage point of knowledge about chimpanzees and the vast unknowable reality of our closest living relatives. The signs of his existence: stories from the locals, footprints, and food remnants, exist like clues to a myth that might actually be true. I know him from these signs.

Somewhere in the darkness, this solitary chimpanzee, who I call Caseby, finds a place to sleep. Somehow tomorrow, he will find food to eat. Somehow, tomorrow, he will find a way to stay alive. Tomorrow, Caseby will do what he has always done, both before and after the fire: surviving.

Rain begins to fall over the entire landscape. The ashen ground becomes saturated with water. Ash mixes with the soil underneath. Seeds from the remains of flora that once thrived in the landscape get embedded in the muddy stew on the ground. The rain falls on the village hosting the transient hunter. Like all of the poorly thatched roofs of this village, it leaks. The hunter puts a jacket over his face and tries to sleep through it. In the next village, the old woman’s new roof is not leaking. She sleeps soundly in her rebuilt home. In Bangura’s village, the rain makes puddles on the ground. The cigarette he discarded earlier floats across the ground.

In the forest, Richard, Mrs. Joe, Prospera, and her offspring do not even wake up as the rain falls on them. Across the land, Pip snuggles closer to Magwitch. Tomorrow, they will all discover what fate has in store. Tomorrow, like all tomorrows, will see the world forever changed.

Towering alone in the rain, the Lazarus Mound stands triumphantly. The mushroom-shaped pile shelters the ground beneath it. The drops hit the top of the mound and roll off the sides, creating a cascade of water all around it. The mini waterfall has created an irrigation system of sorts. Around the mound, a small ring of green has sprouted from the ground. Water from the Lazarus Mound has regenerated life in this area burned by the inferno. Tomorrow, the termite mound will remain the same. The world around it, however, will change.

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.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

In Big Win for Wildlife, California Curbs Use of Dangerous Rat Poisons

Governor Newsom signs law placing moratorium on second generation rodenticides known to kill non-target animals like mountain lions.

Fiona McLeod

After 12 Years, We Finally Got a Climate Question at the Debate. Glory Be!

Sadly, the bar for any discussion one can expect on the climate crisis on the national stage is pretty low. And it showed.

Maureen Nandini Mitra

Paved Over Ohlone Shellmound Site in Berkeley Listed as Endangered Historic Place

Designation can help open a dialogue about how our relationship with the environment must evolve in the light of climate change, says Ohlone leader Corrina Gould.

Fiona McLeod

How White Supremacy Caused the Climate Crisis

Embedded in the theory of racial supremacy is the theory of human supremacy over nature, which has brought environmental calamity upon us.

Theodore Grudin

Facebook Suspends Environmental Groups Despite Vow to Fight Climate Misinformation

Social media giant blames mistake in system for restrictions on groups including Greenpeace USA, Rainforest Action Network.

Oliver Milman The Guardian

This Land is Our Land

‘Public Trust’ chronicles the decades-long scheme to privatize America’s wild lands and the struggle to preserve our final frontier from plundering.

Ed Rampell