King Bruno is an illustrated children’s book that tells the true story of a chimpanzee that was orphaned by hunters, raised by humans and threatened by war in Sierra Leone. Bruno became the dominant male in the sanctuary his carer, Bala Amarasekaran, created for other orphaned chimpanzees — but he escaped on a day of high tragedy that saw one man lose his life. You can read my summary of the story in King Bruno: A chimpanzee’s tale of tragedy and hope.
The book’s author and illustrator Paul Glynn is a TV producer who has worked for MTV, Channel 4, BBC World and won a BAFTA for his work on ‘Welcome to Lagos’ (BBC2 2010). In this post, Paul answers a few questions I put to him over email.
How did you first hear about Bruno and his story?
I arrived in Sierra Leone three weeks after Bruno escaped in 2006 to research my Master’s dissertation*. The escape had been featured in the news in the UK and everyone in Freetown was talking about it. At that time I was going hiking in the hills around Freetown on the weekends, and there were strict warnings to stay away from certain areas until the chimps were captured. Everyone I spoke to had been to the sanctuary, and all agreed that a single chimp called Bruno, “as big as a gorilla” was the instigator. It was an extraordinary story, but I assumed Bruno would quickly be captured or killed, or return on his own. Two years later I returned to Sierra Leone and found people still telling tales of Bruno’s exploits. I realised he had become a legend, and I was hooked…
Have you spent much time at the sanctuary?
I first approached the sanctuary with the idea of doing a film about Bruno’s legend – since then I visit every year, usually to shoot video for their website.
You describe the forest very well (I’m a reformed rainforest biologist) — have you spent a lot of time in it?
Thanks! I’ve travelled a good deal in Western and Central Africa, including Gabon and Cameroon, and I’ve been to a number of Sierra Leone’s remoter spots, so I had plenty of experience to draw on. I saw wild chimpanzees in the Loma mountains in 2010, an experience which really got me thinking about Bruno and where he might be now. The tropical forest is a powerful environment, and really has an influence on Sierra Leone’s culture. I felt that chimpanzees, as our closest relatives, might feel the same way we do when confronted with it.
What motivated you to write this book?
The more I learned about Bruno’s story the more I felt it had the same qualities as Tarzan or The Call of the Wild, and when Bala suggested a children’s book about the sanctuary I knew Bruno would be a perfect fit. If Bruno has become a legend, then an illustrated book seemed like the best way to tell his story – preserving the mystery that surrounds him.
Why a children’s book rather than something aimed at adults?
I was excited about telling the story from a chimpanzee’s point of view — something that usually happens only in books for younger readers. I also felt that illustrations would add an extra layer to the story. We also agreed that King Bruno had educational aspects and so we wanted it to reach young people — although I think adults will enjoy the book too.
How did you manage the sensitive issue of writing sympathetically about a central hero character who had a hand in a man’s death?
Bruno’s escape has been extensively examined: along with the sanctuary’s press release, there has been an academic study** and several documentary films. While researching the book I spoke to Bala about the escape in detail and read everything I could about chimpanzees and their behaviour; I met many of the escapee chimps at Tacugama who had since returned. Chimpanzees, although generally peaceful, are territorial and hostile towards outsiders, including other chimps they don’t know. Every chimp in the sanctuary is there because their mother was killed by a human hunter- – an experience they would remember. So when the chimpanzees at Tacugama escaped and found themselves in unfamiliar territory, approached by a strange human, they panicked. 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.
Does Bala really think the voice of a chimp that can sometimes be heard outside the sanctuary is that of Bruno, or was that dramatised for the book?
Bala has said this to me several times. There is no way to prove it, but he thinks it’s unlikely any normal chimp could get such a strong reaction from the chimps in the sanctuary.
How much of the rest is dramatised (such as the stories of Littleboy, the chimp that dies, and Congo, the wild female who visits from the forest)?
None of it: I was keen to be as faithful as possible to the original story. Congo still visits Tacugama to this day, and Littleboy passed away in 2003. The other chimps are all real characters and most of them are still at the sanctuary. The sanctuary was also raided several times during the war — many of the rebels knew Bruno by name, and argued to their commanders that shooting the chimps would achieve nothing. I simplified this into a single encounter with a child soldier for practical purposes — but it’s all true.
Is this your first book? (and do you plan more)?
King Bruno is my first book, but I hope to write again about Sierra Leone. It’s a wonderful, fascinating country and one with many stories yet to be discovered!
Aminatta Forna, a novelist who won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, will read from the book at its launch, at the Barbican in Central London on 6 February 2013. Dr Jane Goodall DBE, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, will also speak at the event. You can find King Bruno on Amazon or Facebook.
- King Bruno: A chimpanzee’s tale of tragedy and hope
- Borneo’s eco-stranded apes with nowhere to call home
- What gorillas can teach children about being human
*Paul’s Master’s degree was in Social Anthropology and his dissertation was on petty corruption among police and transporters in Freetown.
**Kabasawa, A., Garriga, R.M. & Amarasekaran, B. 2008. Human Fatality by Escaped Pan troglodytes in Sierra Leone. International Journal of Primatology 29: 1671-1685. Read abstract.