Located in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), near the Tayna Nature Reserve, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is the world’s only facility that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders. GRACE’s primary mission is to provide rehabilitative care for rescued gorillas to ensure their welfare and to maximize their chances for successful reintroduction.
GRACE received its first gorillas in 2010 and is currently home to 13 individuals, ranging in age from 3 to 13 years. The gorillas, all orphans, are managed in a single social group, with the older females acting as surrogate mothers for the younger individuals. Their diet is kept as natural as possible, and until recently, over 300 kg of vegetation was collected each day by GRACE staff for the gorillas. However, the gorillas are now able to forage on their own inside a newly built forest enclosure that recently opened at GRACE.
In February 2012, as part of its master plan, GRACE began building a 10-hectare (24-acre) enclosure for the gorillas in a forested area on the GRACE property. This new space, which includes mature trees as well as dense undergrowth, provides an ideal environment for the gorillas to practice survival-critical skills such as foraging, nest building, and coordinating group movements. The enclosure is located in natural Grauer’s gorilla habitat and is the largest of its kind in the world.
GRACE’s remote, mountainous location made construction a major challenge. Without access roads available at the construction site, every piece of equipment and material used had to be carried up and down the mountain. More than 200 people from local communities–over half of them women–worked with GRACE on building the forest enclosure. Workers cleared a path for the perimeter fence, dug holes into rock for the placement of 370 fence posts, and strung over 26 km of wire for the solar-powered electric fencing. Gorilla experts from the Dallas and Houston Zoos and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in the United States consulted on the enclosure’s design and construction, but the entire project was managed by GRACE’s Congolese staff, led by GRACE Facility Coordinator, George Kayisavira Kakule and GRACE Center Manager, Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke.
Keith Zdrojewski, Mammal Curator at the Dallas Zoo, spent over two weeks at GRACE consulting on the project. He said, “Building this type of enclosure takes a lot of work, skill and dedication from the staff. This starts with planning, communication, and execution and will need to be followed up with daily maintenance of the fence. Without the impressive skill of George and his team and their willingness to learn…this project would not have succeeded in the way that it has. I have all the faith in the world that they will successfully manage this going forward.”
The enclosure project, which has been called the gorillas’ “Freedom Fence” was funded by GRACE founder the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, long-term partners Dallas and Houston Zoos, and by a grant from the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation. Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO of the Fossey Fund and GRACE Board member said, “The Fossey Fund is thrilled to see the Freedom Fence completed and the GRACE gorillas one step closer to living like they would in the wild. Our staff cared for many of these gorillas for years and so it is especially meaningful for them to see them enjoying their new home. We are very grateful to all the Fossey Fund donors who helped make the fence a reality and congratulate the GRACE team and its partners on all the incredibly hard work that went into building the fence.”
After several starts and stops due to logistical challenges, the GRACE gorilla forest enclosure was finally completed in February 2015. Following final safety checks, the doors were opened for the gorillas in March 2015. The GRACE gorillas had not been in a forest for years. For some of them, it was their first forest experience since being captured from the wild. It was unclear how the group would react to their new surroundings, but upon entering the enclosure, the gorillas–led by the group’s dominant female, 13-year-old Pinga–immediately began feeding on vegetation and exploring the forest. Within minutes, the younger gorillas were climbing and playing in trees. The GRACE group now spends over 6 hours each day inside this new habitat, and they are adjusting wonderfully to forest life.
“When the gorillas took their first steps into their new forest habitat, it was an incredible moment for GRACE,” said GRACE DRC Director, Luitzen Santman. “The staff and community have worked so hard over the past three years to achieve this milestone for the gorillas. We watched proudly and with great excitement as the gorillas took to the forest like they had never left it.”
To scientifically assess how the gorillas are adapting to their new environment as well as to track general rehabilitation progress for individuals, GRACE recently launched a behavioral monitoring program. A research team is now observing the gorillas throughout the day from five towers situated around the enclosure’s perimeter. The goal is to track how the group is using the forest and how this new space is impacting individual behavior and group dynamics.
GRACE’s other main mission is to work with local communities on conservation education programs to help protect the remaining wild Grauer’s gorillas, the only great ape endemic to eastern DRC. Most people living in the Kasugho region have never seen a live gorilla and know little about them, making it difficult to ensure compliance with laws protecting gorillas. The new forest enclosure will play an important role in GRACE’s educational efforts. Local schoolchildren and adults will soon be able to visit GRACE on educational tours and view the gorilla group from a platform outside the enclosure. The visitor program will aim to teach about Grauer’s gorillas and the threats they face while instilling pride in visitors for having this magnificent great ape as part of eastern DRC’s natural heritage.
GRACE’s new forest enclosure is a source of pride both for the GRACE staff and the local community. “We have these old men in the village who nowadays say they remember how gorillas once lived in these forests. They tell many stories to us young guys about this,” said Jackson Mbeke. “They are proud that gorillas are now going back to where they once were. Building the enclosure has given jobs to many people, but returning gorillas to their natural habitat, it is very important to this community. They are happy to see that GRACE is following its mission.”
The new forest enclosure marks the next chapter in the rehabilitation process for the GRACE gorillas. Whether reintroduction will be possible awaits further study, but in the mean time, this new habitat provides the ultimate playground for the young gorillas. “The gorillas have been through so much in their short lives”, said GRACE Executive Director, Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “They lost their families, survived capture, and were rescued from terrible conditions. Providing this enclosure so they can reconnect with their forest home is the very least we can do.” She added, “When you see them up in the trees foraging and playing together, it’s just incredible. Their resiliency never ceases to amaze me.”
Click below to view a video showing the forest enclosure’s construction from start to finish and the introduction of the gorillas to their new habitat:
GORILLA REHABILITATION AND CONSERVATION EDUCATION (GRACE) CENTER – Founded in 2009 by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) and Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, GRACE is the only facility in the world dedicated to providing in situ rehabilitative care for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas and ultimately aims to reintroduce gorillas back into the wild. GRACE also works alongside local communities, through education and other outreach programs, to help ensure the long-term survival of wild gorilla populations. Other major partners for this project include Disney and the Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Utah’s Hogle Zoos. For more information about GRACE, please visit www.gracegorillas.org. If you would like to help, please visit: http://gracegorillas.org/how-to-help/