On June 18, a 1.5-year-old female Grauer’s gorilla orphan was transferred from Senkwekwe Center in Virunga National Park to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center in Kasugho, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The operation was coordinated by GRACE, Gorilla Doctors, Virunga National Park, and ICCN and partially funded by a grant from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The gorilla, named Lulingu after the village near Kahuzi-Biega National Park where she was confiscated by ICCN in February 2016, has been cared for at Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro and Senkwekwe Center and by Gorilla Doctors since her confiscation. GRACE is the only facility that provides rehabilitation for Grauer’s gorillas whose families were killed by poachers. The ultimate goal is to reintroduce gorillas back into the wild where they can aid conservation efforts. Grauer’s gorillas only live in Eastern DRC and their population has declined by nearly 80% over the past 20 years. There are currently only 3,800 wild Grauer’s gorillas remaining. It has been 11 months since the last gorilla arrived at GRACE.

Despite getting a late start due to stormy weather, the transfer went smoothly. Lulingu was calm and slept in her caregiver’s arms during the 1-hour plane ride, and sedation was not necessary. Lulingu was then met on the airstrip by the GRACE team who transferred her by car to GRACE Center. In the car she was curious, often looking out the window, and quickly bonded with senior GRACE Caregiver Aldegonde Saambili. “Lulingu was perfect,” said Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko, GRACE veterinary advisor and Disney veterinarian who helped manage the transfer. “Five minutes into the two-hour drive, she reached over from her caregiver’s lap to play with Aldegonde then fell asleep on her chest.”

Lulingu will undergo quarantine at GRACE to ensure she is healthy and adapting well to her new environment. During this time she will have around-the-clock care from human caregivers. To ease the transition, Babo Ntakarimaze, who cared for Lulingu at Senkwekwe since February, accompanied her to GRACE and stayed until she was comfortable with her new caregivers. When ready, Lulingu will be introduced to the 13 other orphan gorillas at GRACE that live in a surrogate family group and range within the world’s largest gorilla forest enclosure. When new gorillas are young like Lulingu, one of the adult females in the group typically ‘adopts’ them and assumes responsibility for carrying, protecting, and sleeping with them. Lulingu will be the youngest gorilla at GRACE but will have many playmates, as there are several young ones in the group.

On her first day in the GRACE forest, Lulingu immediately climbed up a tree and began eating Myrianthus fruits, a gorilla favorite but a food she likely has not encountered since being captured from the wild. Lulingu then climbed to the top of another tree and promptly made a very good nest. GRACE Animal Care Manager Dalmas Kakule was unsurprised. “We sometimes think that these gorillas need us, but they already know how to be gorillas. They are the ones that teach us.”

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 with 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, Los Angeles, and Utah’s Hogle Zoos. For more information about GRACE, please visit www.gracegorillas.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you would like to help, please visit our secure online donation page.