ATLANTA (GA) – When the helicopter touched down at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) on Sunday afternoon, July 24, for the sixth time in two days, a long journey home finally came to an end. Six Grauer’s gorillas (eastern lowland) found a safe haven through the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and their partners when they were transported from temporary facilities in Rwanda to the GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education center) facility in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The gorillas were driven across the Rwandan border to Goma in Congo, and then flown by helicopter, one gorilla and one veterinarian at a time, to the GRACE facility.
Pinga, Serufuli, Tumaini, Ntabwoba, Itebero and Dunia, the six orphaned Grauer’s gorillas, were cared for in temporary facilities in Rwanda over several years by the Fossey Fund and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). Their journey back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they were originally poached, is the result of an extraordinary conservation collaboration between Rwanda and the DRC, and the wildlife authorities of both countries: the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the Institut Congolais pour la Conversation de la Nature (ICCN).
It began several years ago when a young orphaned female mountain gorilla was rescued, with little chance of learning to become part of a group, essential to the species’ ability to survive and reproduce. The Fossey Fund was already caring for several Grauer’s gorillas in Goma and, with the agreement of the wildlife authorities in both countries, they were all placed together in the facility at Kinigi. Eventually, more confiscated gorillas joined the group. During that time, GRACE was built and, upon completion, the gorillas began being transferred there. Eventually it is hoped that the gorillas will be able to return to the wild in Congo.
Because adult gorillas will defend the infants in their group, poachers frequently kill one or more adults to capture one infant, like Tumaini, who was only 3 months old when she was rescued. Too often, the already-traumatized infants are mistreated: confined to small cages, boxes, or even sacks, and the care they need, even appropriate feeding, withheld. These six gorillas, along with the seven already living at GRACE, now have an excellent chance of living a good long – and safe – life in the wild again.
"We are thrilled to finally see these gorillas where they belong," said Juan Carlos Bonilla, the Fossey Fund Vice President for Africa Programs. "This is a victory for conservation as well as a wonderful example of how the two countries worked together to achieve such an important goal."
Several years ago, ICCN had urged the Fossey Fund to find a solution to the problem of how to care for gorillas confiscated (rescued) from poachers. Thus was born the idea of GRACE, an innovative rehabilitation facility, built in a remote forested area, where the gorillas could not only be cared for as youngsters but also learn the skills essential for eventual reintroduction to the wild. The center was initiated by the Fossey Fund with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Design and construction has been completed with significant assistance from Disney's Animal Programs. Land was donated by the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) in Kasugho, North Kivu. TCCB is an outgrowth of the unique Tayna Nature Reserve, now one of a network of community-based reserves in eastern Congo, forming a wildlife corridor between Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega national parks and covering nearly the entire range of the endangered Grauer's gorilla.
At Kinigi, on Friday afternoon, Pinga, Serufuli and Tumaini were sedated, received thorough check-ups, and caged each in her own crate. On Saturday at 4 a.m. they were loaded onto separate trucks and started the one-and-a-half hour journey to the DRC border and then to nearby Goma airport. A helicopter, funded primarily with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was on stand-by to transport the gorillas one by one, on 45-minute flights to GRACE, and the helicopter carrying Pinga, accompanied by a veterinarian from MGVP, took off as scheduled at 8:30 sharp! Because she woke up during the flight, upon landing she was again mildly sedated and carried directly into the GRACE night-house, where she shortly woke up again.
In the meantime, the helicopter flew back and forth between Goma and GRACE, carrying first Serufuli and then Tumaini, each accompanied by another vet. By late Saturday afternoon, the three gorillas were reunited at GRACE and spent their first night together with no problems.
Back at Kinigi, Ntabwoba, Itebero, and Dunia spent a restless Saturday morning, searching everywhere for their friends. Early afternoon they were taken into the night-house and the same process was repeated. On Sunday morning they were transported in vans across the border and flown one by one to GRACE throughout the day. Dunia was the last one to arrive and conclude this momentous operation.
A New Beginning
According to Fossey Fund President and CEO Clare Richardson, "The airlift of these Congo gorillas back to their homeland this weekend is a remarkable example of partnership and cooperation in the name of conservation.The authorities of both Rwanda and DRC joined the Fossey Fund, MGVP, IFAW, Disney animal experts, and Tropic Air Kenya to make this complicated but critical move happen. Now the gorillas can start their new lives in the right place, where they will be prepared for eventual return to the wild. This is not just a happy ending – it’s a very happy beginning!" Luitzen Santman, the manager of GRACE said, "When I saw the first helicopter come over the mountains, I had tears in my eyes. The rescued gorillas were coming home to Congo, the land of their ancestors."
The logistics for this entire operation were organized by Katie Fawcett, Ph.D., director of the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, founded by Dian Fossey in 1967, who said "It is with great anticipation that I will follow their continued rehabilitation and journey back to the wild in the forests of eastern DRC. I look forward to hearing reports of the gorillas exploring the forest, foraging for natural food, building nests and forming new social relationships. Success will be measured by the return of the gorillas to the wild and the birth of the next generation."
Authorities from both Rwanda and Congo were present on both days at the border to oversee the smooth transition.
"We were happy to care for these gorillas in Rwanda but are now passing this great responsibility on to our neighbors,” said Rica Rwigamba, head of Tourism and Conservation in Rwanda.
It was a challenge that the Congolese Provincial Environment Minister, Chantal Kambimbi, readily accepted. “We are very committed to conservation,” she said. "We will do whatever we can to see these gorillas thrive, and prevent other babies from falling victims to poaching."
About the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. Founded by Dr. Dian Fossey as the Digit Fund and renamed after her death, the Fossey Fund operates the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, and maintains a staff of scientists, trackers and anti-poaching patrols in Volcanoes National Park. The Fund also works with community-managed reserves and national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and operates extensive education, health and other community outreach programs. For more information, visit www.gorillafund.org.
The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center is the first facility of its kind in east central Africa, with room for up to 30 young gorillas to live in species-typical groups and roam through 350 acres of natural habitat, in the hope of eventually reintroducing them to the wild. The site was donated by the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) and is located adjacent to the Tayna Nature Reserve, near the village of Kasugho, DRC.
GRACE was initiated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at the urging of the Congolese national park service (ICCN), with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; design and construction assistance from Disney’s Animal Programs; and technical expertise from Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA). The Fossey Fund and the Walt Disney Company are the first of several partners that will continue long-term funding and operation of the center.