King Bruno: A chimpanzee’s tale of tragedy and hope

On 23 April 2006, Issa Kanu died like no man should. His death was a tragic accident, but it had a root in rainforest politics.

Issa Kanu died because chimpanzees escaped from a sanctuary in Sierra Leone. The chimps needed that sanctuary because people had killed their parents and captured the youngsters to sell as pets. Poverty had propelled these people to hunt chimpanzees and widespread logging made it harder for the chimps to hide. Try explaining that to a child.

That’s exactly what author and illustrator Paul Glynn has done with his book King Bruno, which he will launch in London on 6 February. It tells the true story of how a legendary chimpanzee called Bruno was orphaned by hunters, lived among humans, survived encounters with soldiers during Sierra Leone’s civil war and then disappeared on a day of deep tragedy.

The story begins back in 1989. Accountant Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila were in a small village 150 kilometres north of the capital Freetown when they saw a young male chimpanzee for sale. It looked sick so they paid US$30 to rescue the animal and raised it in their home. They named it Bruno.

Before long they acquired a second chimpanzee they called Julie. But as the apes grew bigger and stronger it became clear that they could not stay in a human home much longer. Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost chimpanzee expert, agreed. She met Bala, Sharmila, Bruno and Julie in the early 1990s and sowed in Bala’s mind the ideas of a sanctuary for Sierra Leone’s orphan chimpanzees.

In 1995 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry provided land in the Western Area Forest Reserve and funded staff to support Bala as he set up the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary there. Within two years the centre was home to 24 chimpanzees. Bruno was their boss. He was a giant among chimpanzees, around 20-30 percent heavier than an average adult male. Here he is with Bala.

Bala Bruno-3

King Bruno describes how life in the sanctuary improved for the chimpanzees and how they even survived the dangers of the civil war, which ended in 2002. Bombs fell nearby and soldiers twice raided the centre for supplies. Some even threatened to shoot the chimpanzees, but Bruno’s fame helped protect them. Tragedy struck instead on 23 April 2006, when 31 chimpanzees escaped.

For taxi driver Issa Kanu and four other men it was a day of horror. Kanu’s passengers that day were local man Melvin Mammah and three Americans — Alan Robertson, Gary Brown and Richie Goodie — who were sub-contractors working at the site of the new US embassy about three kilometres away. The men had come to visit the sanctuary but as they drove along a forested back road, they came straight into contact with the escaped apes.

Bruno charged. Then he smashed one of the car’s windows, attacked Melvin Mammah and bit off three of his fingers. In the chaos of the moment, the five men fled on foot. Four escaped but the driver, Issa Kanu, ran towards a group of chimpanzees, which attacked and killed him before they melted into the forest.

“When the chimpanzees at Tacugama escaped and found themselves in unfamiliar territory, approached by a strange human, they panicked,” Glynn told me by email when I asked how he handled such a tragic event in a children’s story. “The visitors who arrived were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the story I’ve taken Bruno’s point of view and done my best to present the incident this way: as a tragic accident.”

Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya, environmental reporter at the Standard Times Newspaper told me that Bruno’s escape captured the imagination of people across Sierra Leone, despite his role in the loss of a man’s life. “He was a famous and loved animal,” he said. “Bruno became the topic of the day.”

Of the chimpanzees that escaped, 27 soon returned but Bruno was among the four that did not. “I was heartbroken,” writes Bala Amarasekaran in the Afterword to King Bruno. “But once again Bruno was showing us the way. Chimpanzees need more than a sanctuary, they need to be protected in the wild, along with the forest they live in.”

Prospects look gloomy for the wild chimps of Sierra Leone. In the early 1970s an estimated 20,000 of them lived there. Today there are only around 5,000. More than 100 are in the sanctuary at Tacugama. A portion of the proceeds from sales of King Bruno will support the centre’s work, which now includes visits to local schools and rural communities to raise awareness of the need to protect chimpanzees and their habitat.

Bala Amarasekaran told me: “I believe we have protected and continue to protect hundreds of wild chimps by education, stopping the pet trade, banning all life exports, protecting habitats through law enforcement activities and working with communities.”

And Bruno?

“I think he is alive,” Amarasekaran told me by email. The sanctuary set camera traps in the Western Area Forest Reserve and the photos seem to show Bruno in the company of wild chimpanzees. “If he has integrated himself into a group of wild chimps, there is very little chance of him knocking on our doors. Besides seven years is a long time for him make up his mind to come home.”

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe for Bruno ‘home’ now means a world without walls.

Picture credits: Paul Glynn/Tacugama

Related posts

If you liked this post, please check out my book Ladders to Heaven (published in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers). For a summary and reviews from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Simran Sethi, David George Haskell and others, visit this page.



13 thoughts on “King Bruno: A chimpanzee’s tale of tragedy and hope

  1. I am an enviromental journalist working for channel Africa radio external service of the SABC in Johannesburg. The story of Bruno touched me very much indeed. The way we humans treat our close relative as well as other species is unimaginable. one tries to imagine if it was the opposite would it be best for us. That is my question looking at the plight of other species.

    • Bruno didn’t ask for this to happen to him either. His family was killed by humans leaving him an orphan. It stands to reason that he would be fearful and violent towards humans. I’m sure Issa was a wonderful man and his death is a tragedy, but killing Bruno will not bring Issa back or make this tragedy any less painful for those involved.

    • Well said Skylar. Any animal who kills a human deserves to be put to death. Ignore the animal lovers who will do anything to justify and downplay when people who haven’t harmed other animals and yet are victims of their unpredictable and savage behavior. In memory of all of the people who were killed by animals.

  2. Mr. Bala
    How are you. Hope you are OK. I’m Raghothaman from India. Hope you remember me. Please let me know your email address and phone number.
    N. Raghothaman

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