This year’s Oscar protagonists have impressive resumes: Stephen Hawking crafted the perfect theory. Alan Turing shortened World War II. Chris Kyle was awarded the full suite of U.S. military honors.
But the unsung hero of the 2015 Academy Awards is a man who has devoted his life to raising orphaned baby gorillas in one of the world’s most deadly conflict zones.
In a small compound in the midst of thick jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo this past fall, André Bauma was embroiled in a messy lunchtime tug-of-war. In one hand, he held a bowl of fruit, the target of a gorilla reaching through metal bars in front of him. With the other hand, he wrestled off another jealous gorilla who’d latched onto his green polo shirt from through the bars behind him.
As if it was all a chaotic conspiracy, the feisty creature in front managed to swipe the whole bowl. Bauma, the adopted mother of four incredibly powerful, rambunctious gorilla orphans, is used to such shenanigans. He laughed and gently chided the troublemakers.
The 42-year-old caretaker spends his days feeding, grooming, and entertaining the world’s only mountain gorillas in captivity. When he goes to sleep he shares a wall with the teens and toddlers who have been rescued from poachers and smugglers by the rangers at Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park and home to a quarter of the world’s 880 remaining mountain gorillas.
For nearly 20 years, Virunga has been central to the conflicts that have plagued eastern Congo and made it one of the most unstable regions in the world. The gorillas Bauma cares for are, along with millions of Congolese civilians, victims of a vicious, never-ending battle for land, power, timber, and, most recently, oil. The park’s rangers often fall in the line of fire—more than 130 have been killed since war erupted in 1996.
On this October afternoon, Bauma was dealing with decidedly more positive—even glamorous—business. He had just returned from the nearby provincial capital of Goma, where he was arranging a visa that would bring him to New York and Toronto for screenings of a new movie about the park that was already shaking up festivals from Abu Dhabi to Tribeca.
Along with juggling two families—one ape, one human—Bauma has spent the last few months on the demanding schedule of a film circuit. As one of the main characters in Virunga, a documentary released on Netflix in November, Bauma has become a mini-celebrity. And on Sunday, the highest honor of all will be within reach when the film contends for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. It tells the story of the battle between poachers, rebels, and oil companies for the park’s resources and wildlife.
The visa came through and, within the month, Bauma was clad in a handsome suit in a small theater under SoHo’s Crosby Hotel, clearly pleased by the applause that crescendoed most rapturously for him at the film’s close. Virunga has no shortage of heroic characters, but with a near constant smile on his face and the obvious adoration between him and his gorilla children, Bauma is clearly the film’s darling.
The documentary’s timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: In the middle of shooting in 2012, a rebel group called M23 seized eastern Congo and Virunga. Bauma was part of the skeleton staff that remained anyway, choosing to protect the gorillas rather than flee. But with roads blocked by fighting there was a dwindling food supply for the animals and no way to call in the doctors from nearby Goma.
“At that time you’d go to Goma and [the rebels] would say, ‘You’re taking information to the government,’ and the government would say the same,” Bauma remembers.
One long night, as the rangers prepared to defend their park, Bauma tried in vain to save the life of one of his orphans who suffered from diarrhea, but it was impossible under the conditions.
The M23 occupation was dangerous, but the park has seen even darker times. In 2007, seven gorillas, including a 500-pound silverback, were murdered over the course of two months. The tragedy, now referred to simply as “the massacre,” is believed to be the work of Virunga’s former warden, who thought that if the park was rid of its beloved gorillas he’d be free to mine the land for charcoal production.
At that time, Bauma had already been a ranger for nine years, but someone was needed to take care of the orphans left by the killings. In its aftermath, he was ushered in to a new role: mother to the park’s growing population of orphans.
Now, Bauma spends three weeks per month away from what he calls his “human family,” to live at headquarters of Virunga.
“I have to make them understand I have another family here,” Bauma says.
With the old warden deposed in 2007, the park came under the helm of Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince who now serves as Virunga’s director. De Merode has been on a crusade to rid the park of those that threaten its delicate ecosystem. The gorillas in particular are Virunga’s prized possession, both for their endangered status and for the tourism potential they could bring in. These endangered creatures straddle a triangle of land that connects Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. While the two neighboring countries have made gorilla trekking a profitable tourism draw, the situation in Congo remains precarious. The easiest way to get to Virunga involves a three hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, to the border with Congo, and then an additional two hours over pockmarked roads into the lush headquarters of Virunga, guarded by heavily armed rangers.
Though tourism has been slow, the park boasts two-million acres of Africa’s most diverse ecosystem—visitors can gawk at chimps, gorillas, hippos and elephants. But one of the biggest draws is the orphan sanctuary where Bauma works. From the main lodge, visitors can follow a path—“Gorillas” spelled in the rocks points the way—past a collection of private luxury bungalows, and hang out with the only four captive mountain gorillas in the world.
Their home is a small building at the edge of an expansive patch of pure jungle called the Senkwekwe Center, so named for the silverback killed in 2007. The gorillas occupy the main room. They’re quartered off by iron bars, reminiscent of a jail cell strewn with leafy greens. Visitors are warned not to get their cameras too close to the bars as gorillas like to smash electronics to pieces. Behind is a doorway that opens into a large, walled-off expanse of nature that is their playground. Bauma and two fellow caretakers stay in a small room of cots off the entryway.
The two species may not share a language, but one could be fooled into believing they understand each other perfectly. The caretakers and gorillas communicate in a cacophony of guttural moans and hand slaps, which signal affection.
Each has a distinct personality. There’s Maisha, the oldest and the boss of the group, and Ndezi, an intelligent caregiver. There’s Ndakasi, the troublemaker who keeps hatching escape plans, and Matabishi, the playful baby.
Patrick Karabanga, another caretaker, smiles as a gorilla reaches through the bars and grabs his arm.
“He is my baby,” he says.
Eastern Congo has enjoyed a relative peace since the M23 rebels were defeated in late 2013. The problem at the Senkwekwe Center at the moment is that the gorillas, led by Ndakasi, have been honing their escape routes from the walled in compound. They prop fallen tree branches against the walls for makeshift ladders.
A few months ago, lodge staff found one happily trailing mud through an empty guest bungalow five minutes down the path. Even for three grown men, wrangling the gorillas is a strenuous task. The caretakers use Pringles as treats to lure them in their most stubborn moments, but the work can be physically taxing too: Bauma suffers from back issues after years of the hefty creatures demanding piggyback rides.
He plans to stay with the orphans until he isn’t needed, and hopes that someday the ad-hoc family can be released back into the wild as a clan of their own. “It’s not that we should get old with them,” Bauma says.
He then adds in the wistful lament of a parent: “When they were still small they were really in need of our presence. But now they’re grown-ups, and there are some things they don’t need anymore.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo.