Tackling Food Insecurity through Animal Husbandry

“A future for gorillas, built on community” beautifully summarizes GRACE’s philosophy. We know that ultimately, the fate of the gorillas and the forest they depend upon, lies in the hands of the Congolese people. GRACE is fortunate to be in an area where local people are committed to protecting gorillas. However, this region has experienced years of insecurity and poverty making day-to-day life challenging. The past two years have been especially difficult as various armed groups have moved through, looting farms and homes. As a result, food insecurity has become a big concern. When families lose everything, many resort to going into the forest to obtain food. Forests in our area are home to Grauer’s gorillas, chimpanzees, and other endangered species, so hunting and encroachment is something we work to prevent.

Women preparing food in Katoyo village (photo: GRACE).

In Congolese culture, it is primarily women who are responsible for providing food for the family. To help address the issues of food shortage and forest encroachment, the GRACE team engaged with members of a local women’s group to brainstorm solutions that would benefit humans and wildlife. As a result of these discussions, we launched a program in 2018 aimed at improving guinea pig husbandry. Our rationale for choosing guinea pigs was simple: if a domestic source of protein was readily available, women may be less likely to go into the forest for food. Guinea pigs are hardy animals that reproduce quickly, and they are a desired protein source. There is also a history of raising guinea pigs locally, although they have become scarce lately due to looting during insecurity. Fewer than 25% of households that once had guinea pigs still had them at the beginning of 2018.

But guinea pigs provide more than food for families. Women told us that they liked having guinea pigs because it is a household asset that they can control. To sell something like a goat requires a family consensus, but decisions about guinea pigs can be up to women. They can trade them for school fees for their children or barter for other goods such as soap or cooking oil. Thus, guinea pigs empower women.

We understand that the guinea pigs will ultimately be food for families, but from the outset of this project, we wanted to ensure that they have humane care during their lives. We also wanted to maximize reproduction and litter survival to ensure a good return on the investment of resources.

To accomplish these goals, we partnered with members of the Behavioral Husbandry and Animal Care team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for advice on best practices in guinea pig care. Our next task was to determine how best to relay this information to women in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Literacy levels around GRACE are low, so we created a pictorial manual that simply illustrates techniques for guinea pig care that would be relevant, given the resources available in the region. Luckily, one of the experts at Disney is also an artist so was able to not only help develop the manual, but to also illustrate it for us. For the women who could read, we translated the manual into four languages (Kinande, Kiswahili, French, English). Angela Miller from Disney, who worked on the manual said the project was rewarding. “The opportunity to create this manual was a unique and rewarding way to share our animal care knowledge to provide a resource for the audiences in DRC,” she said.

Illustration from manual showing that guinea pigs need a place to hide to feel safe.

The program is set up on a “Pay-It-Forward” system. Women apply to be part of the training program and, if chosen, they attend a husbandry workshop where they receive training and sign a participation pledge, agreeing to care for the guinea pigs as detailed in the workshop and manual. Each woman also receives one male and two female guinea pigs and agrees that once the guinea pigs reproduce, they will repay one male and two female guinea pigs back to the project. In this way, additional women can be trained and also receive three guinea pigs.

In late 2018, we hosted our first guinea pig husbandry workshop for 10 women from local women’s groups. For the first training, women were chosen that have demonstrated leadership in the community. The goal is for participants to be instructors for future workshops. The workshop gave instruction on guinea pig husbandry but also included lessons inspired by humane education. For example, we emphasize that there are similarities in what all animals need to survive and thrive. “[The training] also teaches empathy, responsibility and stewardship and allows these amazing ladies to show that they can make a difference in their families’ daily lives,” explained Dr. Tammie Bettinger, a GRACE advisor and consultant who helped organize the program. 

Some of the first cohort of women to complete guinea pig husbandry training (photo: GRACE).

The first workshop was a success and the women loved the opportunity to learn new things, interact with one another, and improve their husbandry skills. They are now applying the teachings from the workshop to their guinea pig care routine. The guinea pigs are doing their part too – there have been 21 babies born to date!

In 2019 we look forward to seeing how the program progresses. The GRACE education team is working with workshop participants to monitor progress and ensure women have the skills and resources needed to take on the leadership role of teaching future workshops. The women are excited to share their knowledge and successes with others in the community and take great pride in being able to care for their families while also protecting the forest. Once more women are involved, we will be able to assess the program’s impact on food insecurity and local forest use.

Program participant at home with her guinea pigs (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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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.