“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