eports of illegally held Grauer’s gorilla infants began increasing around 2008, but there was no long-term solution for dealing with these animals, once they were confiscated by wildlife officers. The Congolese Wildlife Authority (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, ICCN) urged the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, a gorilla research and conservation non-profit working in Congo and Rwanda, to find a solution to this problem.
Thus was born the idea of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center. The aim was to create an in situ facility where orphaned Grauer’s gorillas could receive the care they need and also learn the skills for reintroduction back into the wild. Having a facility dedicated to orphaned gorillas should, in theory, bolster the enforcement of animal trafficking laws because authorities now have a place to send confiscated gorillas. GRACE also strives to provide educational opportunities for local communities to promote gorilla conservation around Tayna Nature Reserve.
GRACE is a Collaborative Effort
In 2009, GRACE was initiated by the Fossey Fund, ICCN, and the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB, a Congolese conservation-focused university) with financial support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, and technical assistance from Disney’s Animal Programs and Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA). GRACE is now the collaborative effort of these and several other organizations, including Houston Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Nashville Zoo, and Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
Local Communities Play a Central Role
GRACE is located on 370 acres within a 1,235-acre forested area near the village of Kasugho and Tayna Nature Reserve in North Kivu province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This reserve includes 220,000 acres of forest and is one of a dozen community-based reserves that form an important wildlife corridor between Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, spanning nearly the entire range of the world’s remaining Grauer’s gorillas. These reserves, which have protected status that is legally equivalent to national parks, have been set aside by traditional leaders to safeguard their ancestral land.
GRACE’s location was strategically chosen because it is natural habitat for Grauer’s gorillas, which facilitates reintroduction, and also because the unique conservation ethic of the local communities fosters a supportive environment for gorilla conservation. These communities previously embraced conservation programs including a conservation-oriented radio station and hydroelectric project. They also created TCCB to train future Congolese conservationists. The idea of GRACE was enthusiastically welcomed by local people and TCCB even donated the land on which the facility was built. GRACE works hand-in-hand with community groups to raise awareness about the plight of Grauer’s gorillas, build capacity for conservation, and help people improve their circumstances.
Gorillas Come to GRACE
In 2010, the first Grauer’s gorillas were transferred to GRACE from temporary facilities in Goma. These four individuals were still very young at the time, and were then joined by two more infants who were confiscated soon after GRACE became operational. Six more older gorillas came to GRACE in 2011 from a facility in Rwanda, where they had been living with mountain gorillas, a different subspecies. Fourteen gorillas ranging in age from 3-12 years now call GRACE home.
Getting these gorillas safely to GRACE’s remote location took the collaboration of many local and international partners as well as support from funders such as the Humane Society International and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). See IFAW’s video from the 2011 gorilla transfers here and a blog post about the 2014 transfer here.