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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.