Filming at GRACE

We’re excited about all the positive feedback we’ve received about our new videos! If you haven’t seen them yet, please click here and here to view. Thanks again to Disney Conservation Fund for supporting the project. We thought it would be fun to capture a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of the films, so we asked David Rochkind, Creative Director of Ground Media and producer of the GRACE films, for some insight. Here’s what he said:

David Rochkind, Creative Director of Ground Media and producer of the GRACE films (photo by Ground Media)

“Throughout my career I’ve had the fortune to travel to some of the most magical places in the world, and spending time at GRACE was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.

“I grew up in a small suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan right next to the city’s zoo. The visits I made to the zoo helped instill in me a gratitude and wonder of our natural world that persist to this day. At GRACE, it was amazing to watch the group of gorillas living together and interacting as any family (including humans) would interact…playing, fighting and, ultimately, taking care of each other. I’ll remember for the rest of my life what it felt like to observe Amani. It was clear that she was wondering about me just as much as I was wondering about her. The experience gave me a new appreciation for wildlife and our responsibility to work towards protecting all that we have.

Female Amani (photo by Ground Media)

“We made these films as a team. I traveled to GRACE with Kohl Threlkeld and Jon Bougher, and we collaborated throughout the process. From the moment we left our homes in Washington, DC, we rode in three cars and flew in three planes setting foot in four countries before finally arriving to GRACE. It took four days to get to the remote location near Tayna Nature Reserve, and the three of us were carrying over 500lbs of camera equipment and supplies. After we managed to get all of our equipment, including a small drone camera, through customs at the Rwanda/DRC border, we settled into a beautiful car ride. From twisting through amazing, green mountain passes to crossing the equator, we enjoyed every second of it.

“We arrived to GRACE after nightfall when everything was dark, so the first things I noticed were the sounds. As I went to sleep that first night in a comfortable tent, I heard sounds I could barely place. It was like I was hearing them for the first time. I heard wind and birds. I heard footsteps in the distance of staff rustling about. I heard silence. But, most incredibly, I heard the faint sounds of the GRACE gorillas communicating as they settled in for the night.

The crew sets up to capture footage in the forest enclosure (photo by Ground Media)

“We were at GRACE for only seven days, so there was a lot to pack into a short time period. Most mornings we woke up with the sun or just before, some days to scout locations and some to capture footage just as the sun was peaking out from behind the mountains. Our typical day involved 12-14 hours of work, including filming, traveling, interviewing, scouting for locations and downloading footage at the end of the day. So much other than filming goes into making videos like these – even just talking to people as much as possible to better understand the project.

Kohl captures GRACE Animal Care Manager Dalmas Kakule recording observational data on gorillas in the forest enclosure (photo by Ground Media)

“One filming highlight was capturing aerial footage. We wanted to show people the vast forest landscape around GRACE. We thought it was important to give people who are not familiar with DRC or Africa a sense of place and environment. We also wanted to emphasize that GRACE occupies a small footprint within a vast natural landscape, and that the gorillas have access to a wild 24-acre forest enclosure. To do this, we brought a small drone with us and flew it around six times while we were there. I think it’s some of the most amazing footage we’ve ever captured.

“While working on the films, we knew that we had to find GRACE’s heartbeat. We had to discover the passion that pushes the project forward. We discovered that the inspiration lives outside the center’s walls – it’s based in the community members that encourage and support the efforts to bring Grauer’s gorillas back from the brink of extinction. It was an inspiring and unexpected story to tell. It was a story of hope for people and animals alike.

Children in Katoyo, the village nearest GRACE (photo by Ground Media)

“We met with community members who talked about the importance of the gorillas to their ancestors and to the story of who they are as a people. The gorillas seemed to represent the health and vitality of the community, and to see the gorilla population decline was akin to seeing an intrinsic part of the community disappear. To lose a gorilla isn’t simply losing an animal, it’s seeing a part of their history fade away. Likewise, fighting to save the gorillas is tantamount to fighting for their own future and promise. In that way, the work GRACE is doing empowers the community to work towards improving their future.

“And that point is important because it speaks to the fact that the work GRACE is doing has an enormous impact that reaches far beyond the 14 orphaned gorillas that they are currently rehabilitating. GRACE is a necessary megaphone for the general issue of conservation in central Africa and for the struggle to protect Grauer’s gorillas. Most importantly, GRACE is an example of how success in development and conservation can only come when there are empowered local communities that are driving the process.”

Ground Media team poses with the GRACE football team (photo by GRACE)


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 situ rehabilitative 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 If you would like to help, please visit:


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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.