The image goes viral, or as viral as it gets in the summer of 2007. It shows the body of a gigantic silverback mountain gorilla hoisted high on criss-crossing branches carried by at least 14 men through the bush. The dead gorilla is whipped with vines to secure its arms and legs. Its prodigious belly is also girdled with vines, and its mouth is stuffed with leaves. The photograph seems to be the end of a film of which we do not yet know the beginning. It weighs 500 pounds – a black and silver planet in the middle of the green. Although we can’t see this part, some men cry.
The gorilla’s name is Senkwekwe, and he is well known to porters, many of whom are rangers who call him “brother”. He is the alpha male of a family called the Kabirizis. (American primatologist Dian Fossey has been instrumental in studying the complex dynamics of these family units.) They are a troop used to humans: gentle, curious, playful and often delighted to welcome visitors, tourists and the rangers who protect them. Now here on their home range, on the slopes of the Mikeno Volcano in Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, many of them have been murdered by members of armed militias trying to scare rangers and take control of ancient forest for charcoal. manufacturing. In a solemn procession, the dead gorillas are taken to the rangers’ field station.
The photograph, taken by Brent Stirton for Newsweek, appears in newspapers and magazines around the world, waking others up to the issues park rangers know so well: the need to protect gorilla habitat, the bloody battle for resources (gold, oil, charcoal, tin and poached animals), the destabilizing presence of armed rebel groups as well as the Congolese army within the boundaries of the park. Although the park is designated a World Heritage Site, more than 175 park rangers have been killed here in the past 25 years. What is also not visible in this photograph is that only one gorilla survives the massacre, a baby found next to its slain mother, one of Senkwekwe’s companions, trying to suckle her breast.
The baby – a 2-month-old, five-pound, adorable female – is dehydrated and near death herself, so a young ranger named Andre Bauma instinctively places her against his bare chest for warmth and comfort and dabs her gums and his tongue with milk. He brings her back to life and sleeps, feeds and plays with her 24 hours a day – for days, then months, then years – until the young gorilla seems convinced that he, André Bauma, is his mother.
André Bauma also seems convinced.
baby gorilla, born of murdered parents, is called Ndakasi (en-DA-ka-see). Because no orphaned mountain gorilla has ever been successfully returned to the wild before, she spends her days in a park sanctuary with a group of other orphaned gorillas and their keepers, swinging from high branches, munching on wild celery, even learning to finger paint, mostly oblivious to the fact that she lives in one of the most contested places on earth. She is rambunctious and a ham and demands to be carried by her mother, Andre Bauma, even as she reaches 140 pounds and he almost gives way under her weight.
One day in April 2019, another ranger takes a selfie with Ndakasi and her best friend, Ndeze, both standing in the background, one with a protruding belly and both with whassup expressions. The cheeky blunder on humans is almost too perfect, and the image is posted to Facebook with the caption “Another day at the office. …”
The picture explodes immediately, because we love this stuff – us and them together in one picture. The idea of mountain gorillas mimicking us for the camera jumps boundaries and species. We are more alike than different, and that appeals to our imagination: ourselves existing with a fascinating, perhaps more innocent, version of ourselves.
Mountain gorillas exhibit dozens of vocalizations, and Bauma always vocalizes with Ndakasi in songs and growling grunts and belches that signal contentment and security. Whenever there are gunshots near the shrine, Bauma makes sounds to calm Ndakasi. He himself lost his father in the Congo war. Now he tells her it’s just another day inside their simple Eden.
“You have to justify why you are on this earth,” Bauma says in a documentary. “The gorillas justify why I am here.”
Ndakasi is 14 years old in 2021 and spends his days caring for Ndeze, clinging to Bauma, vocalizing with him. The mountain gorilla can live up to 40 years, but one day in the spring, he falls ill. She loses weight, then some of her hair. It’s a mysterious disease that waxes and wanes for six months. Veterinarians from an organization called Gorilla Doctors arrive and, over repeated visits, administer a series of medical interventions that seem to bring small improvements. Just when it looks like she’s going to recover, however, Ndakasi takes a wrong turn.
Now his gaze is only directly in front of her. The wonder and playfulness seem gone, his focus having turned inward. Brent Stirton, who returns to Virunga approximately every 18 months since he photographed the massacre of the Ndakasi family, is visiting and taking photos wisely. Doctors help Ndakasi at the table where they treat her. She vomits into a bucket, is anesthetized. Bauma stays with her the whole time; eventually, she is taken to her enclosure and lies down on a green sheet. Bauma is lying on the bare floor next to her.
At one point, Bauma leans against the wall, then she crawls on his knees, with the energy she has left, lays her head on his chest and sinks into him, placing her foot on his foot. “I think that’s when I could almost see the light leave his eyes,” Stirton says. “It was a private moment no different than a person with their dying child. I did five frames with respect and walked out.
One of these latest photographs is going viral, bringing the sad news of Ndakasi’s passing to the world. What do we see when we look? Pain. Trial. Death. And we also see great love. Our capacity to receive it and to give it. It’s an ephemeral moment of transcendence, a gorilla in his mother’s arms, two creatures united in one. It is deeply humiliating, what the natural world bestows, if we let it.
Bauma’s colleagues draw a tight circle around him to protect him from having to speak about Ndakasi’s passing, although he issues a statement praising his “sweet nature and intelligence”, adding: “I loved him as a child”. Then he goes back to work. In Virunga, death is rampant and there are even more orphaned gorillas to care for. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Michael Paterniti is a contributing writer for the magazine.