November 9, 2011
GRACE: A Second Chance for Rescued Gorillas
Over the past few months, the Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN) has been facing increased illegal trafficking of infant Grauer’s gorillas. When authorities rescue these young gorillas, they cannot be returned to their natal groups and are now both orphaned and separated from their natural habitat.
Urged by ICCN to find solutions for the orphaned gorillas, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and partners established the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center several years ago, to rehabilitate these young gorillas and one day, hopefully, return them to the wild in new groups.
GRACE is now overseen by a governing council that includes The Walt Disney Company, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Dallas Zoo, the Denver Zoo and the Houston Zoo. In addition, GRACE is also a conservation project of the Fossey Fund's Gorilla Council, which includes Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Sedgwick County Zoo as supporters. Other Gorilla Council members include Zoo Atlanta, Birmingham Zoo, Apes in Conservation, The Gorilla Run Calgary, Indianapolis Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, Partners in Conservation at Columbus Zoo, Virginia Zoo, Topeka Zoo, Dickerson Park Zoo, and Parque Zoological de Leon.
The daily life of the gorillas at GRACE revolves around food, rest and play. They are fed porridge and small pieces of fruit at 6:30 a.m. through the bars of an exterior room of the night house, three at a time, with a caregiver feeding each one some feet apart from the others. The gorillas rotate through the night house rooms until they have all been fed, then they are let out to a natural outdoor setting, a 30 X 40-meter semi-wooded area with trees and a climbing structure. During the morning feeding the staff observe each gorilla carefully for indications of health problems, looking at their eyes, ears, and nose and watching for signs of diarrhea or abnormal behavior.
While the gorillas are in the yard, staff clean and disinfect the night house and fill it with fresh vegetation from the forest. They bring in 700 lbs a day, including 45 species of plants favored by gorillas. At noon the gorillas return to the night house to eat the vegetation and enjoy another feeding of fruit. For the afternoon, the gorillas are free to go out in the yard or stay in the shade of the night house. At 5 p.m. new vegetation is placed in the night house and the gorillas come in for the night.
GRACE staff work with local people as well as gorillas, because community buy-in is essential to the success of the project. In fact, the local community has greeted GRACE’s development with enthusiasm, in part because they have been employed in construction and other functions and in part because they feel that GRACE’s arrival shows that the outside world values them and their environment. GRACE engages the community with education programs and small development projects to improve the people’s standard of living.
GRACE faces many challenges to carry out its mission in 2013 and beyond. This fall, two more Grauer’s gorillas were rescued from poachers. These two and one more young gorilla are in a temporary location and will be transferred as soon as security conditions allow. When they arrive, they will require special attention until they can be integrated into the existing gorilla group, and the youngest orphan already there will join them too. Four new individuals meeting such a large group could be complicated, but so far all 11 gorillas now living together have accepted each other as housemates and playmates. After that, GRACE will be just about at its current capacity, until funds can be raised to build more housing and hire more staff.
No other organization has had the opportunity to create such a gorilla group in a natural setting during a long preparation period, so everyone involved with GRACE will be learning as the gorillas continue their adventure.
GRACE is dedicated to the care, rehabilitation and reintroduction of rescued Grauer’s gorillas that are confiscated by authorities due to illegal animal trafficking. Through conservation education and community outreach, GRACE works with local communities to build a sustainable future for wildlife, forests and communities neighboring gorilla habitat.
Currently, GRACE is in the process of applying to become an independent nonprofit organization registered in the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and plans call for a U.S.-based director to be added to the staff soon.