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Rescued Gorillas on Way to GRACE


Pioneers Mapendo and Ndjingala at GRACEPreparations are well underway to receive a second group of rescued Grauer’s gorillas at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) center that recently opened in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

First four arrive April 27On April 27, four young rescued gorillas arrived from temporary housing in Goma on a helicopter flight donated by MONUC, the United Nations peacekeeping force in the DRC. The remaining rescued Grauer’s gorillas currently in the Fossey Fund’s care will leave Kinigi, Rwanda, on a second airlift now scheduled for Aug. 26. At GRACE, all of these rescued orphaned gorillas – and any that may arrive for care later on – will enjoy a natural wooded setting where they can continue their physical and psychological development and learn to live in the kind of group that enables gorillas to survive in the wild, in preparation for eventual release to the neighboring forest. The site, adjacent to the community-based Tayna Nature Reserve, is on land donated by the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) and can accommodate up to 30 gorillas.

Location of GRACE centerConstruction of the GRACE center was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USAID. The Fossey Fund operates GRACE in partnership with the Congolese conservation authority (ICCN). Other partners include Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA); TCCB; the Tayna Nature Reserve; the association of community-based gorilla reserves in Congo (UGADEC); Conservation International; the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and animal experts from Disney’s Animal Programs.

The four pioneers at GRACE, ages 1-1/2 to 5-1/2, adapted quickly to their new surroundings and now go with their caregivers into the surrounding forest every day to play and eat, always staying close to the caregivers. The six orphaned gorillas getting ready to move in now, however, are older and larger, ranging in age from 4-1/2 to 8-1/2 years old, and their care will be more complex, since their behavior in the forest is an unknown. At GRACE, after an initial stay in a holding area, they will have access to the forest in areas protected by an electric fence, which can be expanded as they become accustomed to the forest and can increase their range to approximate the daily foraging journeys of wild gorilla groups. An expert from Kenya is currently on site to assist with the creation and installation of this fence, which will run some 1,700 meters in the forest.

Adding the electric fenceThe preparations at GRACE and in Kinigi are a cooperative effort involving not only GRACE and other Fossey Fund staff but also crews of local laborers and expert craftsmen, contractors, volunteers and loaned staff from GRACE partners, including Disney and PASA.

During June and July the veterinarian’s building was completed – including a kitchen, storage room, surgery, clinic and laboratory. Medical supplies donated by the Disney Company that had been stored at the UGADEC headquarters in Butembo have been moved to the new building. A solar electricity system installed in May provides power for lights, refrigeration and power tools.

The gorilla holding facility is also nearing completion. The walls needed to be built to very high standards, because a mature male gorilla is much stronger than a human and could make short work of flimsy construction. “Two Disney staff stayed for three weeks and helped us make significant progress in the construction of the gorilla holding facility by providing their years of experience and expertise, and also shared their knowledge with the local welder, with excellent results,” says GRACE Director Jimmy Desmond, who is also a veterinarian. Sleeping areas and platforms for the gorillas are being installed, to be followed by hammocks, ropes, tires and toys.

In addition, because GRACE is built on a hillside, a ramp will extend between the holding facility and the veterinary building to help transport patients to surgery if they are anaesthetized for medical care. “No one wants to lift a 400-pound gorilla up and down a steep slope,” Desmond comments. The new groundskeeper, Muhasa, is improving the drainage system along the road through the site, and the road itself will be improved in the coming months.

A plumber from Butembo is finishing installation of GRACE’s water system. “He has made quick work of the pipes going to the gorilla holding facility and has some great ideas on how to get the water from our spring up to the holding tank, including using a solar pumping system,” says Desmond. “We are excited to have his 30+ years of experience and are confident the job will be done right!”

Desmond recently visited Kinigi to meet with the veterinarians there and with Dr. Katie Fawcett, director of the Karisoke Research Center, which administers the rescued gorilla facility in Kinigi, in partnership with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). They discussed the many challenges of getting the six gorillas to GRACE safely. In addition to the medical and logistical issues, they reviewed the gorillas’ past experiences and relationships with each other and with their caregivers, and the gorillas’ probable reactions to each stage of the move. Sandy Jones, the Fossey Fund’s manager of orphaned gorillas, has also been in Kinigi to help with the crate-training process and work with the caregivers, some of whom will accompany the gorillas to GRACE and become part of the center’s staff.

Pinga at KinigiWhile in Kinigi, Desmond also made the acquaintance of the six gorillas. “They are certainly a lot bigger than our four already at GRACE” he noted. “We are going to have our hands full when we have them all under one roof. They were definitely curious about my presence and Pinga, the largest of the group, expressed her displeasure by tossing a couple of rocks in my direction and displaying to assure me that she is boss.” Jones, Desmond and veterinarian Magdalena Braum of MGVP will accompany the gorillas on their helicopter journey.

“We are all very excited about GRACE,” says Desmond. “We know the impact it will have on helping the community understand the importance of these special animals and their impact on the forest, the community and all of DRC. Later there will be education and public awareness campaigns, law enforcement training and of course, all of the important research and training critical to caring for, rehabilitating and, most important, helping these gorillas go back to the wild. In the end, it is all about making a better Congo – for everyone.”