by Paul Glynn

I first heard Bruno’s name in a bar in Freetown in 2007, a year or so after his escape. A man was telling his friend of a mysterious encounter his sister had had upcountry, while washing clothes in a river. His sister, he said, had seen a mysterious hairy creature watching her from the bushes, until it fled into the forest. His companion joked that this “creature” must have been Bruno, the escaped chimpanzee.

It was this idea – of Bruno as an urban legend – that first sparked my interest. I approached the Tacugama Wildlife Sanctuary and learned more about Bruno’s life: his adoption by Bala Amarasekaran, the sanctuary’s founder; his experience of the civil war; his status as the Tacugama’s most famous chimp; his ultimate escape and disappearance into the jungle. To this day Bruno has never been found, although his name is now known throughout Freetown. But it was his extraordinary relationship with Bala and the passion for wildlife and conservation he inspired that stuck with me, and drove me to tell the story.

‘King Bruno’ started life as a film (still available online), but quickly became a children’s book. Telling the story from Bruno’s point of view seemed a natural choice, following in the tradition of classic animal tales such as Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild.’ The illustrations and text were completed over a sixth month period, with a trip to Sierra Leone to interview Bala about Bruno’s life and to study chimp behaviour at the sanctuary. Presenting Sierra Leone’s civil war through the eyes of a chimpanzee was a particular challenge, but also an opportunity to depict our world and its contradictions through the eyes of another species.

The project generated a fantastic response: Dr. Jane Goodall penned a foreword and was good enough to come to the launch of ‘King Bruno’ at the Barbican in London in February 2013. The first edition of the book – over a thousand copies – is nearly sold out and, in collaboration with Tacugama, we are planning the project’s future.

Bruno’s story is an extraordinary piece of non-fiction and contains a powerful message about our relationship with the natural world. Over the past twenty years, Tacugama has been instrumental in clamping down on Sierra Leone’s illegal wildlife trade and upgrading some of Sierra Leone’s remaining forests to National Park status. It is important work for the country’s future, and it has been an honour to tell the story of the sanctuary’s birth and the chimp who inspired it all.

The challenge now is to get Bruno’s story to the widest audience. Plans to introduce a new edition of ‘King Bruno’ to Sierra Leone’s national curriculum are already afoot, but will need support, perseverance and consultation with local stakeholders.

Wherever Bruno is, his legacy will continue to thrive.

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