Caregivers are critical to gorilla survival – Support them on Giving Tuesday!

Amani in 2016. Photo by Ground Media

Earlier this year, 11-year-old female Amani began losing weight and body condition and started refusing her favorite foods. Also worrying, she began spending more and more time on her own. This was odd because she is usually very social and friendly with other gorillas. Amani faces physical challenges related to the injury she suffered when her family was poached. A bullet tore through her knee, leaving it permanently damaged. So, unlike the other gorillas, she cannot forage for enough food in the forest. Instead, GRACE caregivers carefully monitor and supplement her diet to make sure she is getting the nutrition she needs. So when Amani fell ill, we were very concerned.

Something was definitely wrong, but even after a complete health assessment under anesthesia, the cause of Amani’s decline remained frustratingly elusive. It was clear, however, that we had to get her to eat! But how do you convince a gorilla to do that?

Beth Schaefer works with GRACE caregivers on gorilla care protocols.

Enter the GRACE caregiver team. Back in 2010 when the first orphaned Grauer’s gorillas arrived at GRACE, they had limited experience. After all, there were not many people in eastern DRC who had seen gorillas up close, let alone cared for them! GRACE’s core mission over the past 8 years has been to train our Congolese team to ensure the best care possible for the gorillas. We enlisted the help of experts in gorilla care from leading U.S. zoos, and these advisors have worked closely with the GRACE caregivers both remotely and onsite in DRC. In an impressively short span of time, the caregivers have grown into an award-winning team with the ability to deliver state-of-the-art care for gorillas, despite GRACE’s very remote location. “It has been a privilege to see the staff mature into a confident, professional team,” said Beth Schaefer, General Curator at Los Angeles Zoo and Co-Chair of GRACE’s Animal Care & Welfare Advisory Group. “A highlight for me was watching a caregiver give a presentation about gorilla care at another ape sanctuary. That moment cemented in my mind that GRACE caregivers are leaders among their peers and truly can make a major difference in saving great apes from extinction.”

Dalmas Syangeha Kakule, GRACE Manager of Animal Care, holds an anesthetized gorilla’s hand during a health check.

But saving gorillas takes more than specific skills. “You can teach how to monitor dental health or how to do an ultrasound, but you cannot teach dedication and passion for the work,” noted GRACE Executive Director Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “This is where the GRACE caregivers shine.” GRACE DRC Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke agreed. “Sometimes in addition to medical treatments, the gorillas need something like emotional support.” He said, “it’s almost like they want to give up, but then they can be turned around when a caregiver is there willing them to get better.”

This intensive support is what saved Amani’s life this year. Multiple times per day, the caregivers prepared a variety of foods for Amani including vegetation, fruits, nutritional biscuits, and even homemade soups. She is a very picky eater in general but was worse than usual. And she is also very smart so could instantly detect any medicine the caregivers tried to sneak into her food! The caregivers spent hours each day coaxing Amani to eat and take her medicine. It was frustrating and difficult at times, but they refused to let her give up. Eventually, she began to try bits of the foods prepared for her. It took a long time and much effort to get her health to rebound. The caregivers continued this intensive routine for nearly three months! Thankfully, Amani recovered fully and is now back to her old self, eagerly eating and socializing with the other gorillas. She is alive today because of the hard work and dedication of the GRACE caregivers.

Amani during January 2018 illness and several months after recovery.

Their commitment to the gorillas is more important than ever. Over the past 18 months, the region around GRACE has suffered from insecurity that forced thousands of people to flee the violence. Now a nearby Ebola outbreak has added to this threat. Yet despite these incredibly difficult circumstances, the GRACE caregivers have continued their work uninterrupted. They refuse to abandon the gorillas and show up every day to give them the second chance they deserve. GRACE Animal Care Manager Dalmas Syangeha Kakule summed it up best: “The gorillas are our brothers and sisters, we can never give up on them.”

On this Giving Tuesday, please help save gorilla lives by supporting the critical work of the GRACE caregiver team. You can donate today through our Mighty Cause campaign:

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:


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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.