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?
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.”
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.
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: https://givingtuesday.mightycause.com/organization/Grace-Gorillas
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.