We are thrilled to announce that Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, DRC Director for Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, has been named the winner of the 2018 Virginia McKenna Compassionate Conservation Award given by the Born Free Foundation (see official announcement). The award provides support and recognition for outstanding conservationists and carers who place a high priority on animal welfare, while undertaking environmental education, conservation policy, and/or the protection of species under threat.

Mbeke looks on as the GRACE gorillas come in from the forest at the end of the day.

Mbeke manages GRACE’s team of 33 Congolese that operates the award-winning sanctuary in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas and conducts conservation initiatives around Tayna Nature Reserve, home to wild Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees. Mbeke started with GRACE when the project began in 2008 and has grown with it, first working as project logistician, then as GRACE Center Manager, and since 2016, as its first Congolese Director. He has won previous international accolades for his work with GRACE, but this is his first award for animal welfare.

The Virginia McKenna Award was given for Mbeke’s outstanding leadership of GRACE during armed conflict, which has engulfed the region around GRACE since April 2017. The GRACE team, led by Mbeke, cared for the gorillas day in and day out, even when most of the local population around them fled the violence. Armed conflict continues sporadically today, and there is an Ebola outbreak now threatening the region.

“Life in the DRC can be hard. I often cannot sleep because I am worrying about the safety of our team and gorillas,” Mbeke said. When things get really difficult, Mbeke said he just focuses on GRACE’s mission. “I have to take courage because the gorillas are depending on us. We cannot give up on them.”

Mbeke (far right) with the GRACE DRC team

“It takes an extraordinary leader to keep a team together when things are falling apart all around them,” said GRACE Executive Director Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “Jackson has been GRACE’s rock for years, but especially stepped up during the latest conflict and now the Ebola outbreak. The stresses on him have been incredible, yet he never complains or falters. He just figures out the best way forward. We feel so lucky and proud to have him leading our team in DRC.”

Dr. Kay Farmer, a great ape sanctuary expert who recently worked with GRACE on reintroduction planning, agreed. She said, “Jackson is a shining example of a conservation hero doing an amazing job protecting DRC’s charismatic species in extremely challenging conditions. He is an inspiration to young aspiring conservationists across Central Africa. There is not a more deserved winner of the Virginia McKenna Compassionate Conservation Award.”

Mbeke has a background in veterinary medicine and manages the gorilla veterinary care in addition to his director responsibilities at GRACE. “Jackson is very involved with the gorillas,” Kahlenberg said. “If one of them is sick, he drops everything to be there.” Jackson says he loves all the gorillas like family, but if he had to choose a favorite, it would be alpha female Pinga. “She is a strong lady who is very responsible,” Mbeke said. “I appreciate how she cares for and defends young gorillas. She is always thinking about the group!”

Mbeke with the GRACE gorillas

Mbeke first became involved with gorillas over a decade ago when he was a student at the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology. He conducted a census of wild Grauer’s gorillas in Tayna Nature Reserve and that experience fostered a love of gorillas and a desire to help conserve them for future generations. Dr. Tammie Bettinger, an advisor who has been involved with GRACE since its beginning, said, “Watching Jackson grow and mature over the past decade has taught me that inspiration can come from unexpected places – in this case, from a young student who wanted to ensure his children would get to see gorillas when they grew up.”

Mbeke (center) helps scout a location for GRACE in 2008.

Mbeke has lived in North Kivu his entire life and now resides in Katoyo village near GRACE with his wife Denise and their 8 children. Community support has been essential to GRACE’s success in this difficult part of the world, and Mbeke has been instrumental in this regard. “Jackson is an important leader in the village and has worked hard to cultivate community partnerships for GRACE,” Kahlenberg said. “This has generated strong local support for conservation and, ultimately, this is what is needed for gorillas to have a future here.”

Mbeke working with community members on a water conservation project

Mbeke expressed gratitude to the Born Free Foundation when he learned about his award and promised to continue his team’s work for Grauer’s gorilla welfare and conservation. “This award means so much to me, the team, and our local community partners,” he said. “This has boosted our spirits, and we will work to multiply our efforts for gorillas.”

The Virginia McKenna Award comes with a £15,000 grant that will be used by Mbeke and his team to help care for the gorillas and conduct humane education work with local communities to promote empathy for gorillas and other animals.

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About GRACE: Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is the world’s only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas. The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers have dropped by nearly 80% in the past 20 years due to heavy poaching. They are considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world with only 3,800 remaining. GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can return to the wild. GRACE maintains 39 acres of forest for the gorillas, and the gorillas live in a single group that functions as a surrogate family for the orphans. GRACE also partners with local communities on education and conservation initiatives to protect a critical population of wild gorillas living in Tayna Nature Reserve. For more about GRACE, visit: www.gracegorillas.org.
About Born Free: Born Free’s mission is to ensure that all wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, are treated with compassion and respect and are able to live their lives according to their needs. Born Free opposes the exploitation of wild animals in captivity and campaigns to keep wildlife in the wild. Born Free promotes Compassionate Conservation to enhance the survival of threatened species in the wild and protect natural habitats while respecting the needs of and safeguarding the welfare of individual animals. Born Free seeks to have a positive impact on animals in the wild and protect their ecosystems in perpetuity, for their own intrinsic value and for the critical roles they play within the natural world. For more information about Born Free please visit: www.bornfree.org.uk