By Beth Schaefer, Curator of Primates and Carnivores at the Houston Zoo
One of the things that people who work in a zoological institution can do to help in situ conservation programs is what is known as capacity building. This entails a transfer of knowledge from experienced staff to the managers and staff working on projects in the field. Several organizations have supported GRACE and have skills that they can contribute. This summer, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Houston Zoo put together a team to travel to GRACE. I was representing the Houston Zoo and the Disney representatives included Dr. Tammie Bettinger, Senior Research Biologist, Claire Martin, Conservation Programs Manager, and Rachel Daneault, Zoological Manager. Tammie had made the journey to GRACE many times and this is Rachel’s second trip. Claire and I were the newbies of the group.
Getting to GRACE is no easy feat, especially since we were transporting 600 lbs. of luggage, the majority of which was supplies for GRACE. The four of us met in Atlanta on Monday, July 22, where we began what was to be a four day journey. We spent all of Monday and Tuesday flying; Atlanta, Amsterdam, Kigali (Rwanda), Entebbe (Uganda) was our route. By Wednesday morning, we were happy to set out overland — as long as we didn’t have to get back on a plane!
Tammie described the journey from Entebbe to Kashugo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where GRACE is located, as traveling backwards in time. The Ugandan roads we traveled on first were paved and fairly wide, so it wasn’t much trouble. We overnighted in Ft. Portal, Uganda as it was too late to cross the border into DRC and, despite being three hours from the border, it really is the last place to stay before the border.
Jackson Mbeke, GRACE Center’s Manager became our best friend when he met us at the border and walked us through the somewhat complicated and very foreign process. Once we crossed into the DRC, things really got interesting! We did not travel on any paved roads at all, yet Tammie and Rachel assured us as we were bouncing along that these were the “good” roads. As we proceeded, we began to believe it!
When we had been driving for about 14 hours, and were still at least two hours from GRACE, we stopped and were introduced to Mwami Stuka and Mwami Mukosasenge. A Mwami is a regional king and this office is passed down from father to son. It was a great honor that they came with us in a procession to GRACE. The Mwamis are very important to conservation, as their leadership sets the tone for their region. Mwami Stuka and Mwami Mukosasenge have supported GRACE since it began because the nature reserve that is the home of the Grauer’s gorilla falls in both of their areas.
Just as we thought we might finally be approaching GRACE, Jackson told us to “prepare ourselves” for the next 9 kilometers. There really was no way to prepare for what was in store! The closest description we could think of was that it was sort of like being a ping pong ball in the Lotto machine….with the 600 lbs. of luggage I mentioned earlier. We watched helplessly as Jackson was swallowed by the luggage pile, just before Rachel and I were similarly squashed. We clung to anything that wasn’t flying around the Land Cruiser; seats, handles, maybe someone who was better anchored than you… Our driver, George Kakule, was amazing. Roads that looked absolutely impassible, he navigated skillfully. We did get stuck once, but George and Jackson made short work of getting us out of the mud.
Well after dark we arrived very tired and slightly muddy, but very happy to be at GRACE. Stay tuned for more about our work and adventures at GRACE!
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