Sunday, September 24, was the first annual World Gorilla Day, a day set aside to celebrate gorillas and act for their conservation. At Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, we celebrated by spreading awareness on social media and other outlets, but the focus of our efforts was in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where we shared this special day with the local community. GRACE has worked hand-in-hand with our neighbors since the project’s beginning. Indeed, in our remote corner of DRC where there can be many challenges, we greatly depend on the local community and they also depend on us. We are a partnership.
Our work together is also strategic for gorillas because people’s homes and fields border Tayna Nature Reserve, which is home to around 300 Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas, about 8% of the remaining wild population. GRACE is the only conservation NGO working in this area, so an important part of our education and community outreach mission is to cultivate a local conservation ethic that will ensure good stewardship of the reserve and its resident wildlife, both now and into the future. World Gorilla Day provided an opportunity to bring our conservation message to a large audience. And large it was! We anticipated around 1,500 people but ended up hosting nearly 3,000! People walked for miles to participate. We have hosted celebrations before, but this was by far our most popular event.
We kicked off the day with a procession through the village that announced the event. It was led by schoolchildren and members of GRACE’s youth conservation clubs who carried the World Gorilla Day banner designed by our education team. GRACE staff, local football teams, and women’s groups followed and led the crowd in drumming, singing, and dancing. The size of the procession swelled along the route as people spontaneously joined. The procession ended at the Tayna radio station where GRACE unveiled a new gorilla mural created by a local artist in honor of World Gorilla Day. The radio station is a valued asset belonging to the community, so having the gorilla mural there is significant. The message given at the dedication was that “gorillas are part of this community”.
The celebration then moved to the nearby Tayna Center for Conservation Biology where GRACE educators gave presentations about what makes gorillas special. The community theatre group also used skits to convey messages about threats to gorillas. Next, the GRACE staff performed “Song for a Gorilla“, which was composed by our educators to celebrate gorillas and the community’s important connection with them. The crowd then joined the GRACE staff in drumming and dancing.
Kids in attendance drew pictures of gorillas, and the GRACE staff also led a tree-planting activity to link the messages delivered with direct conservation actions. Participants planted native trees as well as fast-growing eucalyptus trees, which can be harvested later for firewood so that people avoid using trees from gorilla habitat. Most of the trees were grown on GRACE’s farm, a project being led by the youth conservation clubs. In total, 900 trees were planted by the community for World Gorilla Day and they will be cared for by the conservation clubs and local women’s groups. The day ended with a friendly World Gorilla Day football match between the neighboring villages of Katoyo and Kasugho.
So why did so many people show up for World Gorilla Day? Some clues came during our community ‘open mic’ session. Jackson Mbeke, GRACE DRC Director, who helped organize the celebration said, “Young and old, everyone wanted to speak about how they felt about gorillas and GRACE.” Mbeke continued, “People were saying that in the past this area was just the bush and its people were invisible to the world. Now, the gorillas and GRACE project have held up a flag saying that we are here and we matter. Gorillas have brought jobs, respect, and recognition for this remote area. People are proud of that and want it to continue. That’s why they came and also why there is hope for gorillas here.”
See slideshow below for more photos from GRACE’s World Gorilla Day celebration: