New Forest Enclosure Opens for GRACE Gorillas

Aerial view of new gorilla forest enclosure.
George Kakule (foreground) and crew put the finishing touches on the enclosure’s perimeter fence.

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.”

Young female gorilla Ndjingala climbs a tree in the new forest enclosure.

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 staff monitor gorillas from towers located outside the forest enclosure.

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 educator Honore Mustafa discusses with local visitors the attributes that make gorillas special animals.

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 siturehabilitative 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: https://gracegorillas.org/how-to-help/

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Female

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.

Male

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

 

Female

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

Male

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!

Male

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.

Female

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!

Female

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!

Female

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.

Female

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.