GRACE Responds to Regional Ebola Threat

On August 1, the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of Ebola virus in North Kivu, the province in which GRACE is located. Ebola causes hemorrhagic fever which leads to uncontrollable bleeding in victims. This outbreak is the Zaire strain of the virus, which has a fatality rate of 50-90%. As of today, 531 cases have been reported and 313 people have died. New cases are being reported daily.

The outbreak is centered around the area of Beni, which is 155 km from GRACE, but has moved to Butembo, the town nearest to GRACE that is home to more than 1 million people. This is the 9th recorded outbreak in DRC and the 4th in this region. The nearest cases are now 20 km from GRACE.

“We are very concerned,” said GRACE Executive Director Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “We began taking action as soon as the outbreak was declared in order to get in front of the threat. We are doing everything we can to be prepared.”

A doctor leads a seminar on Ebola for GRACE staff (photo: GRACE).

The first priority was to make sure that the GRACE team understood how Ebola is transmitted so they could best protect themselves, their families, and their community. GRACE held a seminar for staff about Ebola led by a local doctor. They also got instruction from workers from the Ministry of Health and the international NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which is working in the region in response to the outbreak. “There is much misinformation circulating about the disease, so at the outset we wanted to make sure our team got the facts and had a chance to get their questions answered,” Kahlenberg said.

GRACE team listens to instructions from staff at Doctors Without Borders (photo: GRACE).
A GRACE staff member reviews literature from the Ministry of Health about Ebola transmission (photo: GRACE).

Ebola is primarily transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola. So adherence to strict hygiene protocols is important. “We worked with our US-based veterinary advisors to set up protocols to best protect the sanctuary and staff,” Kahlenberg said. “We also reached out to another primate sanctuary in West Africa that had been through previous Ebola crises to make sure we had thought of everything.”

Temporary shower facility built for staff at GRACE (Photo: GRACE).
GRACE caregiver washes at one of the hygiene stations at GRACE (photo: GRACE).

GRACE already had health monitoring and hygiene protocols in place for staff, but all staff members are now required to shower upon arrival at work and before going back to the village. Usually this routine was reserved for gorilla caregivers only. A temporary shower facility was set up to accommodate this change, and also washing stations were installed around the GRACE campus. Staff members are required to disinfect themselves throughout the day. In addition, GRACE has temporarily suspended its onsite education activities and limited staff travel to lessen the exposure risk.

“Many of our projects are in a holding pattern until we get the all-clear from the health ministry. While we are eager to get back to our important work, it is of course more important to keep everyone safe,” Kahlenberg said.

Back in 2016, GRACE also started a farm which now supplies nearly all of the food for our team and the non-forest food eaten by the gorillas. This resource has been an asset during the outbreak because we don’t have to worry about food coming into GRACE from unsafe areas.

GRACE is one of the only NGOs working in the remote Kasugho region, and because we have trained educators on staff, we are uniquely positioned to help raise awareness needed to bring the outbreak to an end. Using materials prepared by the Ministry of Health on prevention of Ebola spread, the GRACE educators have been busy getting the word out about how to keep our communities safe. They have met with community groups and are also using our twice-weekly radio program called “Echoes of GRACE” to reach thousands of people with each broadcast.

GRACE educator Gracianne Basyanirwa discusses the importance of personal hygiene with local community members (Photo: GRACE).
GRACE educators have helped spread messages about Ebola prevention using radio (photo: GRACE).

GRACE DRC director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke thinks this effort is helping. “Community members seem motivated to follow the necessary protocols to keep Ebola out of the village and their families safe,” he says. “We are just helping them understand what they need to do.”

In addition to being dangerous for people, Ebola is also deadly for gorillas. Past outbreaks have killed thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild, for example. The most likely way that the GRACE gorillas could contract the disease would be from contact with infected humans. The gorillas are not managed hands-on by caregivers except when new infants arrive and are in quarantine. We have no infants right now, so that lowers the risk. But everything that has been put in place to protect the staff, will also protect the gorillas. Consulting veterinarian Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko who has worked with the project since 2010 said, “I am confident that our team is doing everything possible to keep themselves and the gorillas safe during this outbreak.”

“We want to thank everyone who has reached out in concern during this worrying time and to the individuals and organizations such as the Dutch Gorilla Foundation and Los Angeles Zoo that have stepped up to support our emergency response,” Kahlenberg said. “We are well prepared. Now we just need to hold on until it is over.”

Gorillas as well as humans are susceptible to Ebola (photo: GRACE).

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. At GRACE the gorillas live in a single gorilla group that functions as a surrogate family and spend their days in 39 acres of forest. 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

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Female

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.

Male

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

 

Female

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.

Female

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.

Female

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.

Male

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!

Male

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.

Female

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!

Female

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!

Female

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.

Female

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.