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Opinion: A gorilla's life and death, in 2 viral photos

Orphaned mountain gorilla Ndakasi lies in the arms of her caregiver Andre Bauma on Sept. 21, 2021 shortly before her death.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
Orphaned mountain gorilla Ndakasi lies in the arms of her caregiver Andre Bauma on Sept. 21, 2021 shortly before her death.

There's a photo that went viral in 2019, of two mountain gorillas behind a park ranger as he snaps a selfie in Congo's Virunga National Park.

One gorilla seems to glance over at the human with all the merely mild interest of a New Yorker, waiting on a subway platform, her hands at her side, as if rammed into imaginary pockets. The second gorilla, just behind the ranger, seems to lean into the shot, as if to say, "Hello! Look who's here, too!"

That's Ndakasi, whose death at the age of 14 was reported this week, by Virunga National Park. Ndakasi had been in the park since she was 2. Rangers found her shortly after her mother and other members of their family had been slaughtered by armed militia. The baby gorilla came into the care of a ranger named Andre Bauma.

They changed each other's lives.

"She was tiny, she only weighed a couple of kilos," he told a 2014 BBC program. "We shared the same bed, I played with her, I fed her."

Ndakasi grew up to be strong and healthy — she liked Pringles, the snack chip — but stayed playful.

"Whenever she sees me, she climbs on my back like she would with her mother," Bauma told the BBC. He became the head of the orphanage at the park and would spend three weeks there, then one week at home.

"My human family understand that my work with the gorillas is important," he said. "I have a share of love that I give to my gorilla family and a share of love that I give to my human family."

This week, another photo went around the world. Ndakasi, looking weary and nearing death, was curled up with her great head, her eyes soft, on Bauma's strong shoulder. They looked like two beings giving solace, company and comfort to each other at a time of need.

Bauma said in a statement from the orphanage at Virunga National Park that knowing Ndakasi has "helped me to understand the connection between humans and great apes and why we should do everything in our power to protect them."

"I loved her like a child," he said. "Her cheerful personality brought a smile to my face every time I interacted with her."

Two strong, playful spirits in the world who found each another.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.