Recently, a Congolese ranger, Mathieu Shamavu, captured a photo of two orphaned females at Virunga mimicking humans. The “gorilla selfie” went viral after it was shared online. Shamavu said he was checking his phone when he noticed Ndakazi and Ndeze mimicking his movements behind them, so he took a picture with them. Because the gorillas have such close contact with rangers and caretakers from a young age, they learn to imitate humans.

According to rangers at the sanctuary, Ndakazi and Ndeze were the first to be cared for at the Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage Centre, the only one of its kind in the world.

Virunga is Africa’s most biodiverse national park, spanning tropical forests, snow-peaked mountains and active volcanoes. It is also one of the last homes of wild mountain gorillas, with other wild populations elsewhere in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga’s management has had to take extraordinary measures to keep its visitors safe from the sporadic fighting in the region – protecting them with a highly trained guard of elite rangers and sniffer dogs, as well as working closely with communities surrounding the park. Nkakazi and Ndeze were orphaned 12 years ago when their families were killed by poachers.

“In terms of behaviour, they like to mimic everything that is happening, everything we do,” Shamavu said. He said the caretakers at the orphanage try to give the animals as much access as possible to their natural environment, but they inevitably exhibit “almost the same behaviour as humans”. They need constant care, so the rangers live nearby and spend their days feeding them, playing with them and keeping them company. “Gorilla caretakers with those gorilla orphans, we are the same family,” said Andre Bauma, the head caretaker. “They know we are their mum. They are a member of the family. We are their friends.”

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Even though this article may seem fun and silly, there are many pertinent issues that are related to this picture and how it became viral.

Part of the reason that this picture became viral has to do with the similarities between the gorillas and the ranger as well as the story behind the picture. The phenomenon behind something going viral has a scientific explanation and part of the reason that people repost such content can be explained by emotions. People are social creatures by nature and we love to share opinions with each other so we can feel accepted. Hence, when we find something funny online or something that triggers an emotion, there is a need to share. The science of virality is an interesting phenomenon and it is valuable in fields such as psychology and marketing.

Another factor contributing to why something goes viral is the element of surprise. There is a high correlation between the element of surprise and whether a user chooses to share content. This is because of the increased and heightened degree of pleasurewhen the brain experiences unpredictable pleasurable events in comparison to predictable ones. This means that users who encounter an element of surprise in the content they come across will have a higher degree of emotional response to the content. In the picture, the element of surprise comes from the abnormally ‘human’ behaviour from the gorillas.

Another relevant issue is the power of social media and the good that can come with it. The park, which relies on private visitor donations, used its “gorilla selfie” moment in the spotlight to help raise funds, reaching its $50,000 (£39,000) target to mark Earth Day. This shows that even through humour and seemingly light-hearted viral content, there is an avenue for a larger message to be broadcasted and substantial help that can be achieved.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. What other benefits can come from a post going viral?
  2. Are there significant negative effects to a viral post?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘Correlation’: a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things
  2. ‘Sporadic’: occurring at irregular intervals or only in a few places; scattered or isolated

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