Jackson Mbeke

Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center Manager, Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, was recently named a 2014 Disney Conservation Hero by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. This annual competitive award was given to 19 conservationists from around the world who were recognized for their “dedication to wildlife and wild places”. Click here to read more about the award and this year’s honorees. Jackson was nominated for the award, which comes with a medal and a monetary prize, by the GRACE team and GRACE partner, the Houston Zoo. “Jackson is an outstanding leader on our team and plays an integral role in all our operations in DRC,” GRACE Executive Director, Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg said. “We have always considered him to be a conservation hero, but it is great to have his hard work and dedication recognized in this way.”

Jackson and his wife, Denise, at the party they hosted at their home to celebrate the Disney award.

Jackson was born the youngest of 8 children. His father raised cattle and farmed in Bwatsingi, near Virunga National Park in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At an early age, Jackson was drawn to helping animals and used to tend to sick livestock in his village. He used the wages he earned from this work to put himself through a local veterinary school.

In 2003, Jackson enrolled in a new college called the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) in the North Kivu region of Kasugho. This was the first program aimed at training Congolese conservationists. The college was initiated in part to help preserve the Tayna Nature Reserve, DRC’s first protected area to be managed by local communities. This was a new model in DRC conservation, led by community leader Pierre Kakule with the support of local traditional leaders. Communities were choosing to secure their own forests so their ancestral lands would be around for future generations. These reserves were also protecting the precious wildlife that existed within their boundaries, especially Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), the little-known gorilla subspecies that is endemic to eastern DRC.

While at TCCB, Jackson was involved in the first ever census of gorillas in Tayna Nature Reserve. He even had a close call with a lone silverback male who charged the survey team, an experience that made Jackson appreciate the impressive power of Grauer’s gorillas-the largest of the four gorilla subspecies.

Male Lubutu was confiscated from poachers in 2011.

His time at TCCB was exciting because peace for DRC was on the horizon. The country had been embroiled in war since 1998, and a staggering 5 million people lost their lives as a result of the conflict. Like most Congolese, Jackson was directly affected by the war. He lost brothers and close friends in the fighting. His family’s cattle were also killed. The war in DRC and also in neighboring Rwanda created hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people in need of food, fuelwood, and other resources. This resulted in enormous pressure on Grauer’s gorilla habitat. Over the past few decades, 50% of forests have been lost and the total gorilla population has plummeted by as much as 75%. Now only 5,000 wild individuals are thought to remain. Since 2003, authorities have intercepted 20 Grauer’s gorilla infants, mostly as they are being sold illegally as pets. Infants were captured during poaching events and were typically found in terrible conditions including being tied up or stuffed inside bags, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The orphans deserved a better life and they also have an important conservation role to play. The remaining gorilla habitat is fragmented and the population is lacking in genetic diversity; thus, scientists think reintroduction is an option that must be considered. Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature authorities wanted to make long-term arrangements for the orphaned gorillas, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International agreed to help. Kasugho was chosen as the location for the new GRACE Center because it is in natural gorilla habitat, which would give the gorillas a good environment and facilitate reintroduction. The ultimate goal is to one day return the gorillas to the wild.

Jackson (far right) discusses construction plans for the 24-acre gorilla forest enclosure with George Kakule, GRACE Facility Coordinator, and the project engineer.

After completing his studies at TCCB, Jackson was tapped in 2008 by Fossey Fund’s Dr. Alicia Lilly who was leading the GRACE Center project. He was hired as the logistician in charge of organizing GRACE’s construction. That year, Jackson also received a scholarship to represent GRACE at the International Primatological Society Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. This was his first trip out of Africa and he still talks excitedly about everything he experienced, including the funny Mr. Bean films on the plane!

Jackson explains a GRACE construction project to community members.

Sadly, about a year later, all of the GRACE progress came to halt when Lilly died unexpectedly. The project then suffered another serious setback when violence broke out again in the region. The village of Kasugho fell under attack in 2009, and many of the village’s businesses were destroyed, including the radio station- this remote area’s major link to the outside world. Most of the villagers and all of the expats fled during this time, but Jackson stayed. During this troubled period, Jackson was the one who kept the vision of GRACE alive. Taking it one day at a time, he kept working toward getting GRACE built so that the gorillas could one day come. Jackson proudly says that he has been part of GRACE “from the very first stone.”

In 2010, Jackson (left) gives tour of new gorilla night house to community leaders, including regional king, Mwami Stuka (center).

Without his leadership prompting everyone to stay the course, the dream of GRACE Center might have never become a reality. Dr. Tammie Bettinger, Animal Operations Director at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, who helped lead the project’s recovery said, “Jackson has been there from the very beginning. It has been rewarding to watch him mature from a TCCB student into the great leader he is today.”

Jackson organizing the helicopter transfer of 6 gorillas to GRACE from Rwanda in 2011.

The first orphans arrived at GRACE in 2010 and there are now 13 gorillas. They are learning how to be gorillas again by socializing in a ‘family’ group and eating a wild-like diet. They will soon range within a 24-acre forest enclosure where they will gain more experience with foraging, nest-making and other survival-critical skills. GRACE is also now working with other NGOs as part of the Conservation Action Plan for Grauer’s gorillas to identify suitable gorilla reintroduction sites and raise local awareness about gorilla conservation.

Jackson was promoted to GRACE Center Manager in 2011 and now oversees all of its programs and its 22 Congolese staff. There has been a steady stream of challenges since the initial hardships surrounding GRACE’s construction. For example, the recent loss of the oldest male gorilla, Ntabwoba, has been hard on everyone, including Jackson who helped care for Ntabwoba to the very end. But Jackson says that these challenges are made easier because of the great people on the GRACE team. He says that working with them is the most rewarding part of his job. In addition to his Manager role, Jackson uses his veterinary skills as the facility’s onsite veterinary technician. He also serves as the main liaison between the project and the local community.

Jackson regularly examines gorilla fecal samples for parasites.

Jackson assisting Disney’s Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko during a recent surgical procedure at GRACE.

Jackson and his wife Denise have made Kasugho their home and are raising their six children there along with five nieces and nephews they adopted after Jackson’s sister died. Together, they are ambassadors for the project and are committed to integrating GRACE’s conservation mission into their community. “The incredible community support we have at GRACE is primarily due to Jackson’s leadership,” said Rick Barongi, GRACE Board Chair and Executive Vice President of Conservation at the Houston Zoo. “He is respected by everyone and plays a critical role in the long-term success of GRACE and other conservation efforts in this remote part of DRC.”

Jackson and Denise with six of their children.

Jackson firmly believes in the Congolese people and advocates for people from other countries to “come and see Congo and make their own conclusions. It is not what you hear in the news”. He says that people want to make a better future for their children and to preserve DRC’s natural heritage. Jackson feels fortunate to be able to work toward these goals through his role at GRACE.

Jackson (left) celebrates the opening of GRACE with the local community.

Jackson views his Disney Conservation Hero award as something that was earned by the entire GRACE team and the community that supports the project. He and Denise therefore hosted a large celebration for GRACE staff and community members at their home to thank everyone for their contributions. GRACE DRC Director, Luitzen Santman, was there. In his speech addressing the staff, he celebrated Jackson’s leadership and the progress GRACE has made. He said, “Jackson and this team are the future of GRACE. It’s only by working together that we have made progress for gorillas in one of the most challenging environments in Africa.” Santman also remarked that “Jackson is like a brother to me, and I will forever be grateful for his friendship.”

GRACE DRC Director, Luitzen Santman, awards Jackson his Disney Conservation Hero medal.