From Congo with love: An Earth Day selfie for the ages.

Only the gorillas themselves know what they’re truly thinking. That said, a supposed selfie of rescued mountain gorillas posing for a relaxed snapshot with the park rangers who rescued them as babies has gone viral this Earth Day, and why not?

The gorillas are apparently trying to imitate humans, but again, who can say for certain?

It’s an arresting image, regardless. The selfie was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), ground zero in the anti-poaching wars to help save one of the world’s most recognizable, high-profile endangered animals. There are said to be slightly more than 1,000 mountain gorillas left, of which, according to the most recent census, some 600 of which live in the Virunga Volcanoes. Though a seemingly small number, that’s still twice as many as 30 years ago, when the program to help save them was originally  established.

©Mathieu Shamavu

©Mathieu Shamavu

Virunga — the park and the gorilla conservation program— was the focus of a 2014 British documentary film, Virunga, that won the Peabody Award and was nominated for a best feature documentary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards. The film Virunga, financed by Netflix, put public pressure on the oil company SOCO International to halt its then-controversial exploration for oil within the protected World Heritage Site.

The film told the story of four people dedicated to protecting the world’s last mountain gorillas from a range of threats, including not just the oil company but illegal hunting, land invasions, the steady encroachment of agricultural farms inside park boundaries, and the 2012 emergence of the violent M23 rebellion movement.

Park ranger Mathieu Shamavu, pictured in the gorilla selfie, is following in the muddy boot-tracks of ranger André Bauma, one of the original “gorilla caregivers” in the Netflix documentary.

@Virunga National Park

@Virunga National Park

It’s dangerous work, and not just because even an adolescent gorilla can tear a grown person from limb to limb. Five Virunga park rangers were killed in an ambush by suspected M23 rebels inside the park just last year. In all, 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Eastern DR Congo is mired in seemingly endless conflict between an unstable, corruptible government and various armed groups, driven by the wealth of priceless minerals, including many of the rare but vital materials used in today’s smartphones. Eastern DRC has also been the scene of a deadly, growing — and underreported — outbreak of the ebola virus.

It’s small wonder, then, that the gorilla selfie has touched a popular nerve in the wider world, and not just because today is Earth Day.

Deputy park director Innocent Mburanumwe told BBC’s Newsday program that the orphaned gorillas, just two- to four-months-old at the time of their rescue,  think of the rangers as their parents. The gorillas’ mothers were both killed in July, 2007.

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

They’ve grown up in the Senkwekwe Sanctuary and have learned to “(imitate) the humans,” Mburanumwe told BBC, “learning to be human beings.” For example, the gorillas frequently stand up and try to move around on two legs, something they wouldn’t normally do in the wild. 

“I was surprised to see it,” Mburanumwe told BBC. “It’s very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up.”

The selfie first came to light Thursday last week, when a ranger shared a photo on Facebook of what he called “another day at the office.”

The Virunga gorilla program is staffed by local men and women, and relies on donations from the outside world for much of its support. The risk of violence is real, and ongoing: Officials closed the park from May last year to this past February, following the death of a park ranger and the kidnapping of two British tourists.

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

Virunga is believed to be Africa’s oldest national park, according to National Geographic, but there are other parks on the continent that lay claim to that title.

Regardless, it’s hard to think of many parks that may be more important — or fragile. The Earth Day selfie and the worldwide attention it’s generated has prompted prompted program directors  to urge people to “make a difference” and donate to Virunga’s conservation efforts.

Virunga, formerly known as Albert National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covers some 7,800 square km (3000 square miles) of some of the most breathtaking natural landscape — and unique species — found anywhere on planet Earth.



When nature docs go wild.

Scan YouTube for highlights of Planet Earth II, now nearing the end of its North American debut, and one can’t help but be struck by how many compilation fan videos are of the blood-’n-claws variety. If it bleeds, it leads, seems to be the thinking. And nothing sells like sex and violence. (No, I won’t insert a video link here; I won’t glorify compilation violence videos by making them easier to access than they already are. Suffice it to say that anyYouTube video titled “Huge jaguar vs. a caiman crocodile (insane fight)” — in full caps, no less —  tells you all you need to know.)

The bigger picture is that, with more people curious about nature every day but with little means to actually experience nature for themselves, wildlife filmmaking, nature documentaries and conservation photography have never been more meaningful, or influential to popular opinion.

Ethics in nature filmmaking are more topical now than at any point in the history of television and film, as the world’s few remaining green spots are shrinking at an ever-increasing pace.

This was brought into sharp relief recently by environmental-film producer Chris Palmer’s controversial book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom

I say inspired in part because, like many viewers of Planet Earth, my early life was informed by a steady diet of nature films, from big-screen theatricals like Born Free, which I first saw when I was seven, to Disney nature docs like Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and King of the Grizzlies.

©Chris Palmer

©Chris Palmer

What we see at a young age informs us in our later years and shapes our opinions and outlooks on the world. Palmer’s book, as Jane Goodall writes in her introduction, is important and much-needed. It won’t change any preconceived notions about climate change, habitat loss or the increasingly evident man-made mass extinction, but it does raise meaningful questions about how these films are made, the motivations and ethics involved, and what the filmmakers’ responsibilities are to the viewer.

Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, was executive producer of the 2000 Oscar-nominated IMAX documentary Dolphins, so he knows something of what he speaks.

Without doubt, nature films have helped raise awareness of the wonders of the natural world and the need for conservation. How are these films made, though? Can we always believe everything the narrator tells us? Was that stunning sequence we just saw of a polar bear giving birth filmed in the wild, as implied in the film, or will telling viewers that it was actually filmed in a zoo in Germany make them less engaged and possibly less willing to help a conservation cause? Is it ethical to stage a fight between a leopard and a terrified baboon, in order to get a dramatic cover story for Life magazine, during Life’s heyday? (This actually happened.)

©John Dominis, Time-LIFE

©John Dominis, Time-LIFE

To what extent are animals otherwise living in the wild disturbed in their day-to-day activities during the making of a film?

Is it right to manipulate footage while editing, so that it appears two animals are interacting when in fact they were filmed on separate occasions in separate locations?

Where does artistic freedom and the need to tell a good story meet the obligation to tell the truth when making a documentary?

How much should the viewer be told, anyway? Disney’s early nature films were designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They were made for children, but directed in such a way that they would appeal to parents, too — charming enough for kids to enjoy, but never boring or too tedious for the adults in the family.

That was the idea, anyway. Everyone likes a good story, and many of us like to watch a good fight. The reality is those early nature films had about as much in common with David Attenborough’s pioneering BBC documentaries as Bambi had to Racing Extinction.

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

Ethical questions surrounding nature filmmaking will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, in the same way many conservation groups can’t even agree on the seemingly clearcut question of whether the legal sale of ivory stockpiles will help or hurt elephant conservation in the wild.

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

As Goodall writes in her introduction to Shooting in the Wild, though, it’s high time those questions were asked, and discussed openly.

“We owe this to the animals themselves,” Goodall says, “to the filmmakers who practice truly ethical behaviour, and to the viewing public.”

Amen to that.

Over the next several weeks and months, I hope to tackle some of these issues here. In depth.