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 crisscrossed branches carried aloft by at least 14 men through the bush. The dead gorilla is lashed with vines to secure his arms and legs. His prodigious belly is belted with vines, too, and his mouth is stuffed with leaves. The photograph seems like the end of a movie we don’t yet know the beginning to. He’s 500 pounds — a black-and-silver planet amid the green. Though we can’t see this part, some of the men are weeping.
The gorilla’s name is Senkwekwe, and he’s well known to the pallbearers, many of them park rangers who call him “brother.” He’s the alpha male of a family named the Kabirizis. (The American primatologist Dian Fossey was instrumental in studying the complex dynamics of these family units.) They’re a troop habituated to humans: gentle, curious, playful and often pleased to greet visitors, tourists and the rangers who protect them. Now, here on their home range, on the slope of the Mikeno volcano in Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, many of them have been murdered by armed militia members trying to scare away the rangers and gain control of the old-growth forest for charcoal manufacture. In a solemn procession, the dead gorillas are being taken to the rangers’ field station.
The photograph, shot by Brent Stirton for Newsweek, appears in newspapers and magazines around the world, awakening others to the issues the park rangers know so well: the need to protect the gorillas’ 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 inside the park’s borders. Though the park is designated a World Heritage site, more than 175 park rangers have been killed here in the last 25 years. What’s also not visible in this photograph is that only one gorilla survives the massacre, a baby found next to her slain mother, one of Senkwekwe’s mates, trying to suckle her breast.
The baby — a 2-month-old female, five pounds and adorable — is dehydrated and near death herself, so a young park ranger named Andre Bauma instinctively places her against his bare chest for warmth and comfort and dabs her gums and tongue with milk. He brings her back to life and sleeps and feeds and plays with her around the clock — for days, then months, then years — until the young gorilla seems convinced that he, Andre Bauma, is her mother.
Andre Bauma seems convinced, too.
The baby gorilla, begot of murdered parents, is named Ndakasi (en-DA-ka-see). Because no orphaned mountain gorilla has ever been successfully returned to the wild before, she spends her days at a sanctuary in the park with a cadre of other orphaned gorillas and their minders, swinging from the high branches, munching 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’s exuberant and a ham and demands to be carried by her mother, Andre Bauma, even as she grows to 140 pounds and he nearly buckles under her weight.
One April day in 2019, another ranger snaps a selfie with Ndakasi and her bestie, Ndeze, both standing upright in the background, one with a protruding belly and both with whassup expressions. The cheeky goof on humans is almost too perfect, and the image is posted on Facebook with the caption “Another day at the office. … ”
The photo immediately blows up, because we love this stuff — us and them together in one image. The idea of mountain gorillas mimicking us for the camera jumps borders and species. We are more alike than different, and this appeals to our imagination: ourselves existing with some fascinating, perhaps more innocent, version of ourselves.
Mountain gorillas exhibit dozens of vocalizations, and Bauma is always vocalizing with Ndakasi in singsong and grunts and the rumbling belches that signal contentment and safety. Whenever there’s gunfire near the sanctuary, Bauma makes sounds to calm Ndakasi. He himself lost his father to the war in Congo. Now he’s telling her it’s just another day inside their simple Eden.
“You must justify why you are on this earth,” Bauma says in a documentary. “Gorillas justify why I am here.”
Ndakasi turns 14 in 2021 and spends her days grooming Ndeze, clinging to Bauma, vocalizing back and forth with him. Mountain gorillas can live up to 40 years, but one day in spring, she falls ill. She loses weight, and then some of her hair. It’s a mysterious illness that waxes and wanes, for six months. Veterinarians from an organization called the Gorilla Doctors arrive and, over the course of repeated visits, administer a series of medical interventions that seem to bring about small improvements. Just when it appears she’ll recover, though, Ndakasi takes a bad turn.
Now her gaze reaches only just in front of her. The wonder and playfulness seem gone, her concentration having turned inward. Brent Stirton, who has returned to Virunga roughly every 18 months since photographing the massacre of Ndakasi’s family, is visiting, and he shoots photographs judiciously. The doctors help Ndakasi to the table where they attend to her. She throws up in a bucket, is anesthetized. Bauma stays with her the entire time; eventually, she’s taken to her enclosure and lies down on a green sheet. Bauma lies on the bare floor next to her.
At some point, Bauma props himself against the wall, and she then crawls into his lap, with what energy she has left, rests 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 her eyes,” Stirton says. “It was a private moment no different from a person with their dying child. I made five frames respectfully and walked out.”
One of those last photographs goes viral, beaming to the world the sad news of Ndakasi’s passing. What do we see when we look? Pain. Trial. Death. And we see great love too. Our capacity to receive and give it. It’s a fleeting moment of transcendence, a gorilla in the arms of his mother, two creatures together as one. It’s profoundly humbling, what the natural world confers, if we let it.
Bauma’s colleagues draw a tight circle around him in order to protect him from having to talk about Ndakasi’s passing, though he releases a statement extolling her “sweet nature and intelligence,” adding, “I loved her like a child.” Then he goes back to work. In Virunga, death is ever-present, and there are more orphaned gorillas to care for. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Michael Paterniti is a contributing writer for the magazine.