Jackson Mbeke Named Disney Conservation Hero

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.

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Born: 2006 (estimated) Rescued: 2006

Tumaini means “hope” in Kiswahili. Rescued from poachers near Goma in 2006, Tumaini was very young, between three and six months old, and in poor health. Tumaini is a peaceful and very social member of the group at GRACE, but can become protective of her food, especially her favorite – wild bananas. Tumaini seems to want to be the most dominant gorilla in her age group and likes to display often to show off. She is shorter than other gorillas her size, which may be a result of stunted growth from malnutrition experienced at an early age.


Born: 2010 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

Shamavu was carried around for weeks in a small backpack while his captors searched for a potential buyer. Once confiscated, he received medical attention in Virunga National Park and then was transferred by plane to GRACE. Shamavu is the youngest male in the group of 14 gorillas at GRACE. He’s full of restless energy with an inexhaustible eagerness to play. He and male Lubutu are best pals and they’re often seen wrestling and chasing each other up trees, around stumps and through their night quarters. Shamavu boasts thick dark hair and striking eyes. Watch Shamavu’s trip to GRACE.


Born: 2002 (estimated) Rescued: 2005

Confiscated near Goma in eastern DR Congo, Serufuli was named after a North Kivu, DR Congo governor. She was between two and three years of age when she was rescued. Serufuli is a beautiful gorilla that is described by staff as kind. She is one of the quieter gorillas and rarely causes a stir, but she has close friendships with both of the highest-ranking females at GRACE — Pinga and Mapendo — and can influence who is seen as the dominant female by the group.


Born: 2003 (estimated) Rescued: 2005

From the moment Pinga was rescued from poachers, her rescuers knew that she was a gorilla destined to be in charge! Pinga has always been very “wild-like” in that she is not human-oriented — a promising quality that will make her a strong candidate for reintroduction. Pinga is the oldest female at GRACE and led the group for several years before male Kighoma came of age. She is still one of the highest-ranking females in the group, but now jockeys for the alpha female role with Mapendo. Pinga has been the loving surrogate mother to almost every orphan gorilla at GRACE.


Born: 2009 (estimated) Rescued: 2010

When Ndjingala was barely one year old, she was rescued from captors who were trying to sell her illegally. She was in bad shape when she was found. Her captors had tied her using a rope around her waist, which had worn deep cuts into her hips – plus she was sick. Fortunately, Ndjingala’s health slowly improved. Ndjingala loves to play and climb trees, and has a bit of a goofy side. She has started to be interested in mothering younger gorillas and often carries them around on her back.



Born: 2010 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

Muyisa was rescued in 2011 on the border of Rwanda and DR Congo. She was taken into Rwanda, and then due to insecurity could not return to her home in DR Congo for three years. During this time, she lived alone with only a human caregiver and she unfortunately suffered from stress and pulled out much of the hair on her head as a result. Remarkably, when Muyisa met the group at GRACE, the gorillas physically embraced her and she integrated seamlessly into the group. Today, she is a confident young female who loves playing with gorillas her age.


Born: 2004 (estimated) Rescued: 2007

Mapendo, whose name means “great love” in Kiswahili, was about three years old when she was confiscated from poachers in December of 2007. She is a tough girl, and very smart. She occasionally uses tools, including branches which she uses to rake in food out of her reach when her caregivers are not looking! Mapendo is one of the highest-ranking females in the GRACE group, jockeying for the role of alpha female with Pinga.


Born: 2015 (estimated) Rescued: 2016

Lulingu is the youngest gorilla at GRACE, and is really adorable. All of the older females love Lulingu and try to carry her whenever her surrogate mother Pinga will let them. The GRACE caregivers think Lulingu (sometimes called “Luli”) is the perfect little gorilla because she always takes her food and medicine and loves the forest. She is adventurous and loves to climb high in trees. Lulingu has always had an independent nature — on her first day in the forest, she immediately climbed a tree and made her own nest! See her full story here.


Born: 2009 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

When Lubutu was about one and a half, he was rescued by the wildlife authority from four people illegally trying to sell him. He was extremely sick at the time from eating human foods. Despite his rough start, Lubutu adapted well to life at GRACE. Lubutu is now healthy and happy. He is silly and gentle and has endeared himself to every person who has met him. Lubutu is growing up and starting to show more silverback-like behavior, but he still loves to play — especially chasing and wrestling games with his best friend Shamavu!


Born: 2006 (estimated) Rescued: 2008

Kighoma was held captive in near the Tayna Nature Reserve in eastern DR Congo by a militia group. Such groups often keep young gorillas and other wildlife as mascots. He was rescued by a man named Kighoma, the brother of a local king, so that is how he got his name.Kighoma is the oldest of the males at GRACE and is currently the alpha male. He is a gentle leader, always looking out for the safety of the other gorillas in the group.


Born: 2012 (estimated) Rescued: 2014

Kalonge was confiscated by the Congolese wildlife authority in 2014 after villagers discovered her caught in a snare. Today, she is one of the boldest members of the GRACE group. She is an energetic, rough-and-tumble gorilla who likes to play and have her own way. Kalonge can be a trouble-maker with high-ranking females like Pinga, because she wants to be in charge! Despite her leadership aspirations, little Kalonge has many friends and loves to play all day every day!


Born: 2003 (estimated) Rescued: 2004

Itebero was only about one-and-a-half years old when she was confiscated from poachers. She was named after the village in eastern DR Congo where she was rescued. Itebero is considered the smartest gorilla at GRACE by caregivers. She uses tools such as branches to help her access food out of her reach. She even has used the advanced “hammer-and-anvil” technique of cracking palm nuts to get to the oil inside, a method previously thought to be restricted to chimpanzees who are known for their tool-using abilities. Itebero’s tool use even made headlines!


Born: 2007 (estimated) Rescued: 2009

On the day she was rescued, Amani was found stuffed into a plastic bag and was very dehydrated. She had a bullet lodged in her right leg as a result of the poaching incident that killed her family. While she is still a little slow and walks with a limp, she has healed well. Many of the GRACE caregivers believe that Amani is the most beautiful gorilla at GRACE because of her pretty face and sweet personality. She loves to play with the younger gorillas and is a peacemaker after conflicts within the group.


Born: 2011 (estimated) Rescued: 2012

Isangi’s family was killed by poachers when she was around 9 months old. Isangi is tough young gorilla for surviving the ordeal that took her from her family group. She walks around almost as if she is the dominant female, like nothing can harm her. She is quite mischievous, and really loves her food. She tries to sneak tasty treats from the caregiver’s food buckets, and will even try and steal food from other gorillas.p.