A New Forest for GRACE Gorillas!

Aerial view showing original forest habitat and new expansion.

One of our biggest achievements of 2018 was opening a new forest habitat for the 14 gorillas in our care. The habitat expansion project has been in the works for over a year and half and was generously supported by the Annenberg Foundation, Holtzman Wildlife Foundation, Arcus Foundation (subgrant from the Jane Goodall Institute), International Primatological Society, individual donors, and Nashville and Dallas Zoos.

The new habitat provides an additional 15 acres of former gorilla habitat to facilitate the rehabilitation of the gorilla orphans at GRACE that live in a single social group. They now have access to 39 acres (15.8 hectares)! The original enclosure opened in 2015.

GRACE team celebrates completion of one of the observation towers, a project funded by Dallas Zoo (photo: GRACE).
The GRACE gorillas forage for nearly all of their food themselves in the forest (photo: GRACE).

In the forest, gorillas learn and practice skills critical for survival in the wild, such as foraging, nest building, and coordinating group travel. They now forage for most of their food, as opposed to being provisioned, so the additional space was needed to accommodate the growing gorillas and help sustain the vegetation by rotating the group between habitats.

Building the enclosure fence was a massive undertaking and the project encountered significant challenges, including insecurity in the region which delayed construction multiple times. However, thanks to the hard work of the GRACE DRC team and the more than 200 local people who were hired for this project, we were able to persevere and get this done for the gorillas.

In addition to the solar-powered perimeter fence, we also built three observation towers outside the fence so our veterinary, caregiver, and research teams can monitor the gorillas’ whereabouts throughout the day. Thanks to the our successful 2018 Earth Day campaign, we also installed a solar-powered watering system to ensure the gorillas always have a steady supply of clean water. Additionally, our research team conducted an extensive vegetation survey of the new habitat to document the plants available to the gorillas. We found 119 different plant species in our survey with 85% of these known to be species consumed by gorillas.

Watch as the GRACE team explains how the forest habitat fence was built:

 

Preparations for the new forest including a vegetation survey by GRACE staff to document the foods available to the gorillas (photo: GRACE).

After completing all our safety checks, the gorillas were given access to their new forest in late 2018. The caregivers said that they could immediately hear the gorillas singing–a vocalization signaling excitement. “The gorillas are very happy with the new forest,” said Dalmas Syangeha Kakule, GRACE Animal Manager. “It has many large trees, so the gorillas have a whole new playground now,” added Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, GRACE DRC Director.

Shortly after opening the new forest, the GRACE team began replanting parts of the the original 24-acre forest. Gorillas’ intense foraging habits and our lack of ability to rotate gorillas to other areas meant that some areas of the original forest were over used in the past. In 2016, we started a farm to grow vegetables and vegetation for the gorillas. A focus has also been to devote part of the farm to the production of fast-growing gorilla foods such as elephant grass, bamboo, and banana plants so we could use these to repair the over-used forest areas.

Watch the gorillas in their new habitat (filmed in collaboration with Explore.org):

 

The new gorilla habitat is an important advance for GRACE because it will help sustain the life of our facility and also gives the staff more flexibility in management. Right now, the gorillas are living in one group but that may someday need to change since in the wild, males often do not tolerate other mature males in their group. There are currently three males at GRACE (one silverback, two not yet mature blackbacks). The new forest habitat is also an important achievement after a very challenging year. “It really was not easy getting this done because of the challenges in our region,” said Mbeke, “but we did it and are now very happy to watch the gorillas enjoy.”

GRACE workers carry banana plants from the farm to the original forest enclosure for planting (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.