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.
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:
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.”
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.