Lion Shaped Mountain: Searching for the Ghost of a Misplaced Ape

In just one morning, a single hunter alters the destiny of two chimpanzee communities in Sierra Leone.

This is the 11th installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read the rest of the series.

A dark shape appears on the horizon. Behind it, the first rays of the morning sun create an orange aura around the figure. Such is the view from a rickety cargo ship, gliding east over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and moving towards the towering body. As the ship gets closer, the silhouette comes into focus. Rock outcroppings and trees reveal a mountainous shoreline. The mariners aboard the vessel begin to prepare for docking. Once docked, the freighter will be filled, over the course of several days, with cocoa and coffee that have been harvested from the forests far beyond the shoreline.

photo of chimpanzee
The people of Sierra Leone rarely eat chimpanzee meat, but hunters can sell chimpanzee parts to secret societies that use them in rituals. Photo by Ronald Woan.

At any given moment, any given cargo ship may pull into the busy port of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Workers aboard these vessels come from all over the world. They are all ages. Some have been working these vessels for decades. Some are brand new.

When a ship pulls into Freetown, veteran seafarers may instantly recognize the lion shape of the mountain on the shore. However, a new member of the crew may be entering into Sierra Leone for the very first time. They may not know that Sierra Leone is named after the Lion Shaped Mountain. They may have never been told about the shape at all. They may not even see a lion . They may simply see the shape for what it is — a mountain of rocks, trees, streams, and the lights of human presence. Underneath the history that has created the mythic shape of the lion, it is still just a mountain.

As the sun climbs past the horizon, Freetown residents begin another day, forging the continuing history that defines the mountain. Rushing waters in the streams continue to cut through its surface. Trees fall. Saplings spring up out of the ground. Animals are born. Animals die. Humans build new roads. Humans erect new buildings. New stories are told. New explanations about how the world operates are given. New plans are made. All of which determine the shape, perception, and fate of the Lion Shaped Mountain. None of these fleeting moments, none of these brief gusts of history, will change the ancient natural monolith underneath.

In a forest called Matamba, which lies far beyond the Lion Shaped Mountain, a recently orphaned chimpanzee is already awake, walking behind his newly adopted guardian. The past few weeks have changed the young chimpanzee, Pip. A fire destroyed his home range. He was separated from his mother. He has had to learn how to survive without her. He finds his own food. He builds his own nests to sleep in. Most importantly, he has had to learn how to interact with the other chimpanzees in his community without the presence of his mother. His most important connection is the alpha male walking in front of him, Magwich.

Magwich is a good alpha male. He looks out for his community. Knowing Pip is in need, he has taken Pip under his wing and served a liaison between Pip and the wild world around him.

Pip trudges on behind Magwitch. Indeed, the little chimpanzee bears little resemblance to the playful and mischievous juvenile that walked these forests with his mother only weeks ago. The reality of the world has forced itself on the young chimpanzee. His new reality is punctuated by the fact that this world, very literally, looks different. Every tree that fell due to the fire has created a change in the horizon. Every new sapling has changed part of the ground. Every interaction he has had to have with another chimpanzee without the buffer of his mother has determined an aspect of his day. Pip walks through this new world wearing the scars of past events, and unaware of future events that await him.


The Matamba chimpanzees parade through the forest.

Several kilometers away, in another part of the Matamba forest, Caseby, a ghostly white chimpanzee, survives all by himself. Not a member of any community, he is rarely seen by other chimpanzees. He is, in a sense, a “squatter” in the Matamba forest due to the fact that he does not belong to the Matamba chimpanzee community, yet occupies their core range. He is spoken about in mythic terms by humans in the surrounding villages. Yet, he is real. His phantom existence and ethereal appearance do not change the fact that he leaves prints, drops seeds and rinds, and is sighted by locals. The fact that he lives alone shows that he is a powerful force.

Caseby climbs down from the tree he was resting in and walks in the general direction of Pip and Magwitch. Every time he picks a fig from a tree, every time he knocks over a termite mound, and every time he leaves a footprint, he alters the landscape. Because he lives alone and not within the defended territory of a chimpanzee community, his movements seem random. His presence comes without warning. As he walks, he draws ever closer to Magwitch and Pip.

In a nearby village, a hunter finishes breakfast, grabs his weapon, and makes his way down a road. He has paid the village a small sum of money to stay there, as he travels towards the nearby forest. He can make much more than what he spent by killing a chimpanzee.

The hunter is not looking to sell the meat of the chimpanzee. The people of Sierra Leone rarely eat chimpanzee meat. Rather, dead chimpanzees are often used in rituals. The hunter can sell the parts to secret societies that use the animals in such practices.

The hunter is an outsider. He is not from the area and has no connection to it. He came only because he heard stories of chimpanzees in the forest. In turn, he will likely sell whatever he kills somewhere far away from these villages and this forest. He will not be here long. However, his actions will have permanent ramifications long after he leaves.

In the neighboring forest of Mabureh, Pip’s mother, Mrs. Joe is walking near the river. She has been living with another community of chimpanzees since the fire. Behind her is the alpha male of the community, Richard. Since her arrival in this forest, Richard has taken a keen interest in her. The two of them walk along the water’s edge for several kilometers. Eventually they reach a large farm that serves as the boundary of the forest. Across the farm, in the distance, is the edge of the Matamba forest. Mrs. Joe leaves the Mabureh boundary and begins to walk across the farm towards the Matamba forest. Richard follows her.

The hunter walks along a tattered trail through tall elephant grass. He comes to a seemingly impenetrable edge of a dark part of the Matamba forest. Finding a break in the line of bushes, vines, and trees, he enters the forest and finds enough of a pathway to move forward. Upon reaching a break in the canopy, he looks up towards the treetops in the distance. He detects movement in a group of trees. The movement is too large to be caused by monkeys. He surmises that this is a sign of chimpanzees. Holding his rifle tightly, he walks towards these trees.

Pip and Magwitch, having walked across much of Matamba this morning, have reached a thick part of the forest as well. On the ground are partially consumed unripe fruit — no doubt discarded by the mona monkeys that frequent this area. The fruit is of the fig variety, but is green, hard, and almost unrecognizable compared to the varieties of figs that humans eat. Unlike the chimpanzees, the mona monkeys will eat unripe fruit. However, they often will take one bite and drop the rest to the ground. Pip picks up one discarded fig, puts it to his nose, and drops it back down.

Mrs. Joe and Richard have reached the edge of Matamba. Mrs. Joe enters the forest. Richard pauses apprehensively, but then follows her in. Mrs. Joe walks through the thick brush with an increasing familiarity. Richard, moving a bit slower, walks with his hair standing on end.

Caseby climbs down out of a tree where he has been feeding. As he descends, breaks in the canopy allow the sun to reflect from his snow white hair. He reaches the forest floor and walks forward.

The hunter, having spotted Caseby descend from the tree, is crouched behind bushes in the distance. When Caseby walks, the hunter follows him. At a certain point, Caseby becomes alert to the hunter’s presence. He begins to run. The hunter charges after him.

As Caseby runs through tall grass and bushes, his white hair flashes in the intermittent sunshine, fading in and out of visibility like an apparition. The hunter is no match for Caseby’s speed and dexterity in the forest. The white chimpanzee begins to fade from his view.

Unaware of the scene unfolding only a few meters away, Pip and Magwitch continue to walk through the forest in a single file, with Pip trailing behind. Being much smaller, Pip moves slower than Magwitch. As such, Magwitch pulls too far ahead and Pip loses him. Usually when they get separated, the alpha male will wait until Pip catches up. Thus, when Pip loses Magwitch he continues to walk forward, assuming that Magwitch will be waiting for him. This time, however, Magwitch doesn’t reappear. As Pip walks, he hears something coming at him through the bushes. He stops. Darting in front of him, like a blinding flash of white, runs Caseby. Stunned, Pip looks around. The white chimp has disappeared. He looks ahead for Magwitch but sees nothing.

Suddenly, a loud clap echoes through the forest. Pip scurries up the nearest tree. In the thick leaves, he is hidden. However, the leaves also prevent him from seeing what is going on around him. Alone and afraid, he remains in the tree. After several minutes, he climbs down. Slowly, he walks forward.

In a few meters the thick forest opens into a small clearing. The ground is muddy. Pip can see Magwitch’s footprints in the mud. They lead to a large pool of blood in the middle of the clearing. Beyond the pool of blood, a trail of blood droplets and large human footprints continue to the opposite end of the clearing.

Pip approached the pool of blood. He crouches down, puts his face to the blood, and deeply inhales. He then stands up on two legs, looks around, and scurries off into the opposite direction.

The hunter carries Magwitch’s body over his shoulder and makes his way back to the trail. When he gets there, he places Magwitch on the ground. Realizing that Magwitch was not the chimpanzee he was following, he decides to go back into the forest to search for Caseby. He stashes the body of the alpha male chimpanzee in the tall elephant grass and re-enters the forest.

Having heard the gunshot, Mrs. Joe and Richard run through the forest. Unfamiliar with the forest, Richard blindly follows Mrs. Joe. The two chimpanzees continue to run. In the distance, they hear the calls of other chimpanzees. The first call is one of alarm. This is followed by a chorus of other calls. Soon, the entire forest echoes with the sounds of chimpanzees.

Mrs. Joe continues to run forward. She hears another loud clap of gunfire. This time it is much closer. She stops and turns to see that Richard is no longer following her. She hears the hunter’s footsteps. Without any more hesitation, she continues to run.

Pip scurries through the forest as fast as he can. He hears the calls of chimpanzees from all around. They are the voices of his community — all of them aware that something terrible has occurred. The instinct to avoid danger has taken over, propelling Pip further away from the site of Magwitch’s death.

Pip sees another chimpanzee in front of him, moving towards him. He stops. The other chimpanzee stops. Both look at each other. It is Mrs. Joe. Mother and offspring embrace. The child that was becomes, once again, the child that is; and that which was lost has been returned.

The hunter has returned to the trail. He wraps the bodies of Magwitch and Richard in burlap. Neither of these is the white chimpanzee he was following. He decides to give up the search for Caseby, take what he has killed, and leave. He will stash both bodies in the tall grass and return with a vehicle to retrieve them.

In just one morning, in the span of mere minutes, he has taken away the leaders of two communities. He has altered the destiny of every chimpanzee in the two forests. He will leave this area and return to another part of the country, serving only as a random transient force. In just one morning, he has become a critical part of the ecosystem. Nothing will be the same.

In a dark corner of the Matamba forest, Caseby ascends a tall tree. Having evaded death, Caseby inadvertently both impacted the course of the day’s events and set the course for future events in the forest. He reaches the top of the tree, where most of the landscape is visible: the forests, farms, river, and villages that make up his world.

Atop the tree, Caseby sits; the monarch of all he surveys and the patron saint of all that has been misplaced, long forgotten, or distant. He is the emblem of the unknown forces that lie beneath our understandings. He is the hole in our knowledge of the world around us. He is what we don’t see but try, in vain, to understand. We create myths about him. We tell stories of when he was sighted. We see his footprints in the ground. Yet, we really do not know exactly who he is. Still, he is there. Just as the natural world exists in the city; just as the lost childhood exists in the adult; and just as the real mountain exists beneath an imagined lion shape; the ghostly chimpanzee is there in Matamba.

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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