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

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

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 has 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 potato chip, but stayed playful. Whenever she sees me, she climbs on my back like she would with her mother, Andre Bauma told the BBC. He became the head of the orphanage at the park and would spend three weeks there, one week at home. My human family understands 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 Andre Bauma's strong shoulder. They looked like two beings giving solace, company and comfort to each other at a time of need. Andre 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 other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.