The Story Behind This Powerful Photo of A Rescued Gorilla And Her Caretaker That Made History
Despite all of the negative and awful things happening in our world, there are glimpses of hope that can make us feel optimistic. This is especially prevalent when we see people doing good and helping those (people or animals) in need.
Photography is one of the most powerful ways to showcase humanity. A Canadian photojournalist, Jo-Anne McArthur, snapped a heartwarming image that would go down in history. McArthur received the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 2017.
A Beautiful Bond
In this stunning black and white photograph, a six-year-old rescued baby gorilla, Pikin, is seen being held by her caretaker, Appolinaire Ndohoudou. The photographer snapped them as they arrived at an animal sanctuary in Cameroon, Central Africa.
The image (chosen through online voting) was selected out of more than 50,000 photographs for the annual contest hosted by London’s Natural History Museum. Out of the 50,000 entries, only 24 made it into the People’s Choice Award competition, handpicked by museum staff.
Behind The Award-Winning Photo
Although the image was actually taken in 2009, there weren’t any restrictions on what year the photos were originally snapped. Outside the Ape Action Africa animal sanctuary in Mefou, Cameroon, McArthur photographed Pikin and her caretaker sitting in the car, about to introduce Pikin to her new life.
In McArthur’s book, titled We Animals, she discusses the process of taking the photo and what Pikin was experiencing at that moment. She writes, “..Pikin had been sedated and was being held by Appolinaire. Worryingly for me, Pikin woke up earlier than we’d anticipated and looked around sleepily. Luckily, she seemed content to be in the arms of her caretaker, and eventually lay her head back down to rest and nodded off.”
Rescued From Horrific Circumstances
Just like Pikin, many of the other gorillas at Ape Action Africa were orphaned because hunters killed their mothers. As part of the African bushmeat trade, hunters specifically target adult gorillas for meat.
However, since infant gorillas have less meat on them, they aren’t as desirable. They are neglected and left for dead or sold as pets. In McArthur’s book, she reveals, “Those, like six-year-old Pikin the gorilla, who’ve been rescued from the bushmeat and pet trades, must be reared in safety – an unfortunate side effect of which is that the primates become habituated to humans and cannot be released back into the wild.”
From Refugee to Caretaker: Appolinaire’s Story
Fleeing his native country of Chad and its brutal civil war, Appolinaire began working as a security guard at the sanctuary. Rachel Hogan, the sanctuary’s director, recognized his kindness and wondered if he wanted to help her with the rescued gorillas.
It became crystal clear that Appolinaire’s sweet and nurturing personality was the perfect fit. He and Pikin formed a very special and unique friendship. Appolinaire and the Ape Action Africa team have rescued thousands of orphaned gorillas, providing them with rehabilitation and safety.
Reflecting On His Time With Pikin
When McArthur discovered her photograph was a finalist in the competition, she reached out to Appolinaire about his experiences with Pikin.
Appolinaire bonded right away with the gorillas at Ape Action Africa. But, specifically, it was love at first sight for him and Pikin. “She really loved me and I loved her. She didn’t like the other gorillas coming near me as she was jealous,” he shared. “I was her father, I belonged to her. Pikin loved me and respected me.”
On March 26, 2023, Ape Action Africa recognized all of Appolinaire’s hard work during his time at the sanctuary. Beginning his journey as a security guard in 2002, he has risen to the role of primate caregiver, controller, and now manager.
Appolinaire is responsible for the daily operations of Mefou and the wellbeing of 285+ primates and 50 staff members. Many commenters on Facebook also recognized his incredible service to the sanctuary, as well as his big heart. One person even called him “a hero for the world.”
Jo-Anne McArthur Raises Awareness
For over two decades, McArthur has been a catalyst for raising awareness about the “invisible animals” that we often don’t see – those that are exploited, worn, killed, and used for human consumption.
Her phenomenal work has resulted from her investigative photojournalism approach, revealing the dark side of animals in captivity. McArthur continues her mission of taking photos of things that most people willingly ignore in the hopes that they participate and engage in the action instead of turning a blind eye.
We Animals Media
Jo-Anne McArthur has written a few books, including We Animals and Captive. She has been published in National Geographic Traveller, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and also won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition twice.
In 2019, McArthur launched We Animals Media, an agency that collects thousands of images and videos from animal photography and filmmaking. McArthur continues to bring visibility to those animals that are invisible and shed light and awareness on the billions of suffering creatures.
Pikin’s Legacy Lives On
Unfortunately, in 2014, Pikin sustained severe injuries from a fall and passed away. Rachel and the team at Ape Action Africa were devastated and will never forget the wonderful Pikin and the influence she had on them.
Appolinaire also was extremely saddened by the loss of Pikin. And, even thinking about her made him sad. He revealed to McArthur, “Now I know Pikin never left me, as she is always in my head and in my heart. And I know she misses me like I miss her.” McArthur’s touching photograph will continue to resonate with people and live on in the memory of Pikin.