GRACE Director wins international award for compassionate conservation

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 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.

View more photos of Mbeke:
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:
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:

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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.