Zoo honors GRACE caregiver with gorilla namesake

The Dallas Zoo recently named their new gorilla “Saambili” (sahm-BEE-lee) in honor of GRACE caregiver Aldegonde Saambili. The infant, a female, was born on June 25 and is the first gorilla born at the zoo in 20 years.

“We are thrilled about the GRACE namesake,” said Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE Executive Director. “Aldegonde plays a critical role on our animal care team, and this is a beautiful way to recognize her hard work and that of our entire Congo team. It also underscores the zoo’s strong commitment to our partnership and helping gorillas in the wild.”

Dallas Zoo was among GRACE’s earliest supporters, and has played a key role in helping to grow the project. Zoo staff members have served as technical advisors, on GRACE’s board of directors, and even traveled to Congo to help build capacity at GRACE. Keith Zdrojewski, Dallas Zoo’s Curator of Primates and Carnivores and a member of GRACE’s Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group, helped GRACE open its first gorilla forest enclosure in 2015. “GRACE is so close to my heart,” he said. “The caretakers there are some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. I’m proud to honor Aldegonde with the recognition she deserves,” said Zdrojewski.

Watch the moment Aldegonde found out about her namesake:

Aldegonde Saambili is one of GRACE’s most experienced caregivers. She specializes in helping newly orphaned infants. This is a challenging job as this is when gorillas are most vulnerable and likely to succumb to stress. Most gorillas that are confiscated are younger than 3 years, which is before they would be weaned from their mothers in the wild. Thus, they require intense, around-the-clock care.

Aldegonde feeding Isangi (2013)

Though it’s impossible to replace a mother’s support and affection, Aldegonde provides the best substitute care possible. She attends to her charge’s every need and walks the gorillas into the forest every day where they begin to re-familiarize themselves with their natural habitat. She also stays with infants through the night, just as their gorilla mother would. As a mother of three older children, Aldegonde draws on her maternal experience during the long days and nights with the gorillas. She says, “I am their family, I take care of them like a parent, like my own kids.” Aldegonde has been a surrogate mother for nearly all of the infants at GRACE. She is also now a mentor to younger caregivers, teaching them the specialized skills needed for this important job.

Lulingu resting in forest with Aldegonde (2016)

While human care is necessary in this initial period of dependency, gorillas are integrated into a group with other orphans as soon as possible so they can begin the process of relearning social skills. But caregivers like Aldegonde play a crucial role in the critical period between a gorilla’s arrival at GRACE and their integration into a gorilla group.

Since coming to GRACE in 2010, Aldegonde has made the nearby village of Katoyo her family’s home. There, she is a leader in the women’s association, a group of local women who help each other provide for their families through agricultural initiatives and other projects. Aldegonde also helps organize annual festivities for International Women’s Day, an event that recognizes the many achievements of women and is highly celebrated in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Aldegonde (center) with other GRACE female staff members during 2018 International Women’s Day celebration.

Aldegonde is a hard worker and fast learner. Since arriving at GRACE, she has taught herself French and is now learning English and computer skills. Thanks to her job as a caregiver, Aldegonde has been able to send her children to school as well as help provide for other family members.

Aldegonde (front, right) during a staff computer training course at GRACE (2018).

Life here can sometimes be difficult, however. Last year, warring armed groups caused villagers to flee their homes to seek safety. Aldegonde also once fell seriously ill after being bitten by a snake while working on her farm. But she is committed to her work, which she considers very important. Working with gorillas at GRACE has given Aldegonde an appreciation for how special these endangered great apes are. She calls them “beautiful animals”. Her experience has also made her a conservation advocate. She says, “I believe that gorillas are very important for the world and would like people to care that they exist and not poach them. I wish that we do everything we can to protect them. For the world to see them and our children to still see them, we have to protect them.”

Aldegonde in GRACE’s quarantine facility with new arrival Lulingu (2016).





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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.