GRACE DRC Team Named Disney Conservation Heroes

We are thrilled to announce that the DRC team for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center has been honored with a Disney Conservation Hero Award. This award recognizes local citizens for their commitment to saving wildlife, protecting habitats and inspiring communities to take part in conservation efforts. Conservationists from around the world were nominated, and this year, only 13 awardees were chosen for this honor.

Dalmas Kakule, Animal Manager, monitors a gorilla during a health check-up (photo: GRACE).

In particular, the GRACE team was nominated for their outstanding courage and dedication in 2017-2018 when insecurity erupted near the sanctuary. Most villagers fled the conflict, but the GRACE team stayed. They were given the option to leave, knowing the gorillas could survive for a time in the forest without supplemental food, but they refused. Dalmas Kakule, Animal Manager, stressed, “The gorillas are our brothers and sisters. We could not abandon them during danger.” The team sent their families away to safety, left their homes in the village (many of which were ransacked during conflict), and moved into the GRACE compound to continue their work. For months, they waited out the troubles, subsisting primarily on food from the GRACE farm. Their presence kept the gorillas alive and well and the facility safe. “This insecure period was the greatest challenge GRACE has ever faced,” said Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg, Executive Director. “I still get emotional when I talk about the team’s bravery and commitment to the gorillas during this time. No one hesitated, and it was unanimous. We must continue. Our team is just incredible.”

A Congolese-led Effort

When GRACE was being built in 2009 most staff members had never even seen a live gorilla. The task of providing expert care and building a state-of-the-art gorilla facility was therefore a major challenge. Gorilla experts from U.S. zoos were brought in to help design and build the gorilla buildings and enclosures, airlift orphaned gorillas to GRACE, integrate gorillas into one social group, and train the GRACE staff in animal care, facility maintenance, and conservation education. Expert advisors continue to work closely with the team and build capacity through remote and onsite trainings. Although GRACE is supported by fundraising and administrative efforts in the U.S., all DRC operations are now run by Congolese, a transformation that happened–impressively–after just seven years. Dr. Tammie Bettinger, who has been involved with the project since its beginning, said this milestone was due to more than capacity building efforts. “Training certainly played a major role, but the deep commitment and incredible work ethic of the Congolese is ultimately what made it happen,” she said. Since the initial building phase, the DRC team has independently designed and built a second gorilla night house, forest enclosure, and the first quarantine facility. They’ve used the training techniques that they have learned to help manage changing gorilla group dynamics and monitor gorilla health. Their emergency interventions have saved gorilla lives.

The team’s excellence has not gone unnoticed. GRACE caregivers have been called upon by other great ape sanctuaries requesting remote and onsite assistance with difficult animal cases. GRACE educators, who usually work in rural areas around GRACE, were recently invited to Kivu International School, one of the top schools in our province, to teach gorilla conservation. Female team members have become local role models, working with women’s groups to improve skills in areas such as livestock husbandry. The team is proud of their work and takes their role as conservation ambassadors seriously. “I am proud to be a messenger to others for the protection of gorillas,” said caregiver and veterinary assistant Evariste Katsongo. “Through my role at GRACE, I inspire other people to take action for conservation.” The biggest measure of success is the pride the team has instilled in the community. A recent survey of three nearby villages found 87% of people said GRACE’s work in their area was a source of personal pride.

GRACE staff practices during lunch break for a song and dance performance about gorilla conservation (photo: GRACE).

There’s No “I” in Team

The hero award is shared by the entire GRACE DRC team. This tight-knit group not only pulls together but also boosts each other up. They come from diverse backgrounds, and those with advanced education offer English, French, and computer lessons during lunch breaks for staff members who want to gain more skills. Caregiver Devotte Kavira says, “It’s wonderful to be part of a team where we support one another.”

Yet the day-to-day conditions remain difficult for the GRACE team, and the work is hard. The sanctuary’s remote location adds to the difficulty of daily operations. Then there are the unexpected challenges such as fighting forest fires without access to water, repairing collapsed bridges, and sometimes working without electricity. Currently, GRACE is also threatened by the second largest Ebola outbreak in history. But every day, the GRACE DRC team shows up and carries on. Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, GRACE DRC Director, put it best: “The team does it quietly, humbly, and without complaint. They are proud of their work and 100% dedicated. Really, they are true heroes.”

When the award was announced to the team, they were ecstatic. Jonathan Katsongo, GRACE Center Manager, summarized their appreciation this way: “We are very happy to find that the whole world understands the hard work that we are doing to rescue the life of orphaned Grauer’s gorillas. We crossed a very difficult period of insecurity, so this award was a positive surprise for us, and we are very happy.”

Watch the moment at the GRACE staff meeting when the Disney Conservation Hero Award was announced to the team:


The Disney Conservation Fund focuses on supporting nonprofit organizations and their work to engage communities in the protection of wildlife and critical ecosystems across the globe. Since 2004, Disney has honored more than 160 Conservation Heroes from around the world for their extraordinary conservation efforts. This year, with the inclusion of the Conservation Hero Awards, the DCF distributed $5 million in grants to support 76 organizations working to protect the magic of nature around the world. For information on Disney’s commitment to conserve nature and a complete list of recent Conservation Hero Award recipients, visit Disney.com/Conservation.

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.