Women Are Critical to & Benefit from Gorilla Conservation

As we have done since GRACE began, last week on March 8, the GRACE team celebrated International Women’s Day with our local community. This globally observed day is popular in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with parades and events held across the region. In fact, according to GRACE staff, it is considered the “most important event of the year”. Women often dress in fabric cut from the same cloth as a sign of unity. The event is an opportunity to highlight the important role women play in their communities and also to underscore the unmet needs for women and girls. In DRC, those needs are great, as the country currently ranks 176th out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index. This means DRC lags way behind on indicators of female empowerment, reproductive health, and economic status.

What does this have to do with gorilla conservation? A growing body of evidence suggests that increasing the involvement of women in conservation can empower women and bring important benefits such as improving women’s health and increasing income opportunities. Women play integral roles in their communities and tend to be in charge of their children’s education and their family’s natural resource use. Thus involving women is essential for achieving positive conservation outcomes.

Female staff members during a computer skills class at GRACE (Photo: GRACE 2018)

Women have always played a critical role in GRACE. We employ hundreds of people each year for our various projects and women make up around 65% of this work force. Local women’s groups have also regularly sought out volunteer opportunities to help GRACE. For example, they help plant trees for our wood lot and erosion prevention initiatives and tend the GRACE farm that feeds the orphan gorillas. In 2018, 69% of people who participated in our education programs were also women, including the 145 girls in our youth conservation clubs.

Women volunteering on the GRACE farm (photo: GRACE 2018).

How does female involvement impact GRACE’s conservation objectives? 

In 2018, GRACE launched two pilot initiatives aimed at helping to conserve nearby Tayna Nature Reserve, a stronghold for around 300 wild Grauer’s gorillas as well as chimpanzees and other endangered species. Our aim was to address two threats to this habitat: local extraction of wood from the forest and small-scale hunting. The latter threat has been exacerbated by recent insecurity in the region.

To design and implement these projects, we engaged with women’s groups comprised of representatives from different sectors of society (e.g., church, market sellers) because they are trusted leaders in their communities. To address wood extraction, we worked with a local engineer to come up with a stove design that uses on average 47% less wood, can be made out of inexpensive locally available materials, and is easy to maintain. For more see our stove blog post.

To address small-scale hunting, we began a project to help women improve husbandry for guinea pigs. The rationale is that if a domestic source of protein is readily available, people 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 that has been raised successfully in this region for years. However, at the beginning of 2018, fewer than 25% of households that once had guinea pigs still had them due to looting by armed groups. In 2018, we trained 10 women to lead this project. These women will train future participants in raising guinea pigs using methods to ensure ideal welfare conditions for the animals, which should lead to better production as well. To date, 85 guinea pigs have been born as part of this program. For more see our guinea pig blog post.

The first cohort of female trainees for our guinea pig program (photo: GRACE 2018).

While GRACE helped design, fund, and measure the impacts of these projects, their success was largely dependent on the women’s groups. Women volunteered to participate in the programs then talked to their neighbors about their experiences. On the fuel-efficient stove project, they even made video testimonials and gave live demonstrations during International Women’s Day. In just the first year, we were able to install 60 stoves in a single village, saving an estimated 21,840 kg of wood. Without this leadership that is embedded within communities, the stove and guinea pig projects would have failed to get off the ground.

A member of women’s group demonstrate a fuel-efficient stove for other women (photo: GRACE 2017).

How does female involvement in conservation help women?

The promising conservation outcomes from our 2018 pilot stove and guinea pig work were also accompanied by positive outcomes for women and their families. Although our measures are qualitative at this stage, the impacts were very real to women. Participants in the stove project reported significant health improvements from having less smoke in their kitchens as well as time savings, since they required less wood and had to travel shorter distances to gather wood to meet their household needs. Freed-up time allows children to spend more time in school and women to focus on other more productive activities.

Participants in the guinea pig project reported that raising these animals brought new autonomy in household decision-making. For example, women reported that for larger livestock, such as goats, they cannot make decisions about selling them for income without consulting their husbands. But with guinea pigs, women are able to trade them at their discretion, something that is commonly done to pay school fees for children.

No smoke anymore in my kitchen. My kids are not disturbed by the smoke and can’t get eye ache anymore…I wish that all women build this stove.” – Rozali, project participant

“We were traveling for long distances to look for wood. But now, some wood from my compound is sufficient.” – Gloriose, project participant

“Guinea pig meat is a big source of protein to fight malnutrition for kids and adults. It is a source of income to the family to solve some little financial problems, and can be paid to school for school fees.” Isesomo, project participant

International Women’s Day 2019 has come and gone, but our programs will continue to focus on women. In 2019, we will begin to scale up both the stove and guinea pig projects in collaboration with the women’s groups to increase their impact. We believe in a future for gorillas built on community, and women will continue to play a vital role in creating a future where gorillas and people can both thrive.

GRACE staff members during International Women’s Day (photo: GRACE 2017).

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

Help GRACE Gorillas


You're about to head to our online store.

Our apparel manufacturer is based in the UK and
uses UK sizes. Please be aware as you shop!

To see a sizing comparison guide, click here.
For questions, please email us at


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.