Yesterday afternoon, as I (Erin) was running some errands for my sister’s law firm, I got to listen to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, something I don’t often get to do since it’s aired smack dab in the middle of the day.
Terry was interviewing Brent Stirton, who generated loads of attention after his photographs of seven members of a murdered Mountain Gorilla family, located in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were published in Newsweek and other papers around the world. On assignment with National Geographic a year later, Stirton, a renowned photographer and journalist from South Africa, traveled back to the DRC with another journalist, American Mark Jenkins, to investigate the murders. What he found was a tightly wound web of corruption on multiple fronts from multiple militias with a singular connection: the illegal harvest of charcoal.
Even though millions of people, especially civilians, have been murdered as a result of the conflict in the Congo, the slaughter of the seven Mountain Gorillas, and in particular the photograph of gorilla patriarch Senkwekwe, sparked a response around the world. What sticks out in my mind from the interview was this very issue, which seems somewhat backwards: Why, as Terry asked, did it take seven gorillas to elicit such a response? Calmly and eloquently, Stirton explained:
“The general psychology behind it is when you start talking about millions in terms of human death, there’s a certain head-in-the-sand thing that happens to us as human beings. Our sense of collective responsibility is diluted by the sheer number of people when it starts becoming an issue of millions of people dead. Then, I think we have a tendency, you know as a civilization, to avoid responsibility because we feel there’s nothing we can do about those kinds of numbers. It’s too big, too daunting. But when you talk about a few fragile Mountain Gorilla population, which for some reason there’s an incredible interaction that occurs between human beings and these gorillas … when you start talking about smaller numbers, people feel that, yes, there might be some possibility to do something.”
I think Stirton hit the nail on the head. Genocide is too big a thing for me to wrap my mind around, especially genocide that occurs on the other half of the globe and in the ballpark of millions. Having this very small number of prized gorillas to mourn, especially when they’re an endangered species to begin with (there are only about 700 in the world today), makes it more personal and perhaps makes people feel like they can do something about it, or that they have a stake in how the situation turns out.
This story greatly touched me. It is extremely sad, but well-told, and I urge you to consider reading, listening, or viewing* it.
You can find Brent Stirton’s NPR interview at the following link:
You can read the National Geographic article in its entirety by clicking on the following:
You can view Brent Stirton’s photos as featured in National Geographic here:
You can view more photographs of the Virunga Gorillas at Brent Stirton’s own website at:
*The photos are both beautiful and horrifying, and are sure to evoke a response from the viewer, but they do contain some very graphic images of violence perpetrated upon the Gorilla family.