This story appears in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Some stories just break your heart. So it is with the behind-the-scenes story of the girl featured in this month’s article on Manú National Park in Peru. The girl’s name is Yoina. She’s a member of the Matsigenka tribe, an indigenous group that lives in Manú, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
When we saw Yoina’s picture, taken for National Geographic by photographer Charlie Hamilton James in June 2015, all of us were captivated by the image of this 10-year-old girl, neck deep in the Yomibato River near her village, looking defiantly at the camera, a pet tamarin on her head.
That photo did what great photos do. It made us want to know more—about the girl and about her life. Because her tribe and others have inhabited the area for generations, it’s their legal right to live in the protected rain forest with a few limitations: no gun hunting and no other activities that would irreparably harm the environment.
Yoina “didn’t really care much for having her photo taken, and that’s why she’s got a bit of attitude in the shot,” says Hamilton James, who has covered Manú’s people and animals for 20 years. “I must have shot around 20 frames like that, and she’s only smiling a little in one of them.”
From there the story takes a tragic turn. The next month Yoina’s mother, Carmen, died after giving birth to her ninth child. The baby—named Grace Kelly at the suggestion of a visiting nurse’s wife—was adopted by Carmen’s sister. The aunt also cares for Yoina, who shaved her head in mourning. But the sad events did not stop there. Soon after, Yoina’s pet tamarin was killed when it overturned a boiling pot on itself. The family buried it.
When our reporter Emma Marris went to Manú, she sought out Yoina. The girl still lives with her aunt and helps care for baby Grace. On that visit Yoina had less hair but a bit more of a smile, in gratitude for the gift of a photo with her pet.
We strive to bring you stories of people and places that are remarkable, remote, endangered—or, as in Manú’s case, all three. We can’t know what we’ll find on return visits, but we’re heartened by the words of people like Matsigenka teacher Mauro Metaki. “We know how to take care of the forest,” he says. To live off the land but at the same time protect it, “we take just a little.”
Thanks for reading National Geographic.