The image goes viral, or as viral as possible in the summer of 2007. We see the body of a gigantic silverback mountain gorilla hoisted high on crossed branches carried aloft by at least 14 men through the bush. The dead gorilla is whipped with vines to secure arms and legs. Its prodigious belly is also surrounded by vines and its mouth is full of leaves. Photography looks like the end of a film whose beginning we don’t yet know. It is 500 lbs, a black and silver planet in the middle of the green. While we can’t see this part, some men are crying.
The gorilla’s name is Senkwekwe, and it is well known to the bearers of the coffin, many of whom are park rangers who call it “brother”. He is the alpha male of a family called Kabirizi. (American primatologist Dian Fossey was instrumental in studying the complex dynamics of these family units.) They are a troop accustomed to humans: kind, curious, playful, and often happy to welcome visitors, tourists, and the rangers who protect them. Now, here in their home range, on the slope of Mikeno Volcano in Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, many of them have been murdered by members of the armed militia trying to scare the rangers and gain control of the old forest for coal production. In a solemn procession, dead gorillas are brought to the ranger field station.
The photograph, taken by Brent Stirton for Newsweek, appears in newspapers and magazines around the world, awakening others to the issues that park rangers know so well: the need to protect the gorilla habitat, the bloody battle for resources. (gold, oil, coal, tin and poached animals), the destabilizing presence of armed rebel groups and the Congolese army within the park boundaries. Although the park is designated as a World Heritage Site, more than 175 park rangers have been killed here in the past 25 years. What is not visible in this photograph is that only one gorilla survives the slaughter, a baby found next to the killed mother, one of Senkwekwe’s companions, who tried to breastfeed her.
The baby – a 2-month-old, five-pound, adorable female – is dehydrated and close to death, so a young park ranger named Andre Bauma instinctively puts her against her bare chest for warmth and comfort and tampons her gums and her. tongue with milk. He brings her back to life and sleeps, feeds and plays with her all day – for days, then months, then years – until the young gorilla seems convinced that he, Andre Bauma, is his mother.
Andre Bauma also seems convinced.
The little gorilla, son-in-law of murdered parents, his name is Ndakasi (en-DA-ka-see). As no orphaned mountain gorilla has ever been successfully brought back to the wild before, he spends his days in a park sanctuary with a group of other orphaned gorillas and their assistants, swinging from tall branches, munching on wild celery, even learning groping to paint, mostly unaware of the fact that she lives in one of the most contested places on earth. She is feisty and a ham and begs to be carried by her mother, Andre Bauma, even as she grows to 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 bulging belly and both with whassup expressions. The cheeky joke about humans is almost too perfect and the image is posted on Facebook with the caption “Another day in the office. …”
The photo explodes immediately, because we love these things: us and them together in one image. The idea of mountain gorillas imitating us for the camera jumps boundaries and species. We are more alike than different, and this appeals to our imaginations: we ourselves exist with a fascinating, perhaps more innocent, version of ourselves.
The mountain gorillas exhibit dozens of vocalizations and Bauma always vocalizes with Ndakasi in chants, grunts and thundering belches that signal contentment and confidence. Whenever there are shots near the shrine, Bauma makes sounds to calm Ndakasi. He himself lost his father during the war in Congo. Now he’s telling her it’s just another day in their simple Eden.
“You have to justify why you are on this earth,” Bauma says in a documentary. “The gorillas justify why they’re here.”
I am 14 years old in 2021 and spends his days ruling Ndeze, holding on to Bauma, vocalizing back and forth with him. Mountain gorillas can live up to 40 years, but one spring day they get sick. He loses weight, and then some of his hair. It is a mysterious disease that waxes and wanes for six months. Veterinarians from an organization called Gorilla Doctors arrive and, over the course of repeated visits, perform a series of medical interventions that appear to bring about minor improvements. Just when it looks like he’s going to recover though, Ndakasi takes a bad turn.
Now his gaze comes only in front of her. The wonder and playfulness seem to have disappeared, her focus has turned inward. Brent Stirton, who has returned to Virunga about every 18 months since he photographed the Ndakasi family massacre, is visiting and taking pictures judiciously. Doctors help Ndakasi at the table where they assist her. Vomits in a bucket, is anesthetized. Bauma stays with her all the time; eventually she is taken to her enclosure and lies down on a green sheet. Bauma lies on the bare floor next to her.
At one point, Bauma leans against the wall, and then she crawls into her lap, with all the energy she has left, rests her head on his chest and sinks into him, placing her foot on his foot. “I think it was then that I could almost see the light leave his eyes,” says Stirton. “It was a private moment not unlike a person with their dying child. I made five frames respectfully and walked away. ”
One of these latest photographs goes viral, sending the sad news of Ndakasi’s death to the world. What do we see when we look? Ache. Process. Death. And we also see great love. Our ability to receive and give it. It is a fleeting moment of transcendence, a gorilla in its mother’s arms, two creatures together as one. It is deeply humiliating what the natural world bestows, if we allow it.
Bauma’s colleagues draw a tight circle around him to protect him from having to talk about Ndakasi’s death, though he makes a statement extolling his “sweet nature and intelligence”, adding, “I loved her like a child.” Then go back to work. In Virunga, death is always present and there are more orphaned gorillas to care for. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Michael Paterniti is a contributing writer of the magazine.