Lubutu’s Journey: A Rehabilitation Success Story

Just like wild gorillas, the Grauer’s gorillas at GRACE live together in a cohesive social group. Each gorilla was rescued as an infant, and the chance to live and grow in a surrogate family with other gorillas is a crucial part of their rehabilitation. But the GRACE gorillas aren’t babies anymore, they’re teenagers and young adults! And that means social dynamics and priorities of group members are shifting.

Take young male Lubutu, for instance.

The second eldest male at GRACE, after silverback group leader Kighoma, Lubutu has long been known by caregivers as a playful, goofy young male. He is silly, active, and always playing and wrestling with the other young gorillas, including his best friend Shamavu, the last and youngest male at GRACE.

But recently, caregivers have reported that Lubutu is demonstrating more silverback-like behavior. When the group is in the forest and they hear an unusual noise, Lubutu is often quick to investigate. He’s showing more interest in mating with the females, and when the group comes in from the forest these days Lubutu often observes the group and comes in last. Lubutu is also growing noticeably larger, and our advisors suspect that he may ultimately grow to be larger than Kighoma.

This means that a transition of leadership within the group may be in the future, if Lubutu looks to challenge Kighoma’s dominance.

A Rehabilitation Win

The possibility that Lubutu may grow to be larger than Kighoma is a rehabilitation success for GRACE, considering where Lubutu started. While his captors searched for an illegal buyer, Lubutu survived for at least nine months eating human foods like sugar cane, cassava and salted fish – foods which are unhealthy for gorillas and especially inappropriate for an infant gorilla who needs milk. When he was rescued, Lubutu was suffering from severe hair loss and malnutrition and was very weak, dehydrated, and traumatized.

Lubutu’s life turned around when he arrived at GRACE. Despite being isolated for so long, he took to the other gorillas immediately and quickly became an active, playful young gorilla. Still, he suffered some growth issues due to the malnutrition he experienced before being rescued.

So, while it may spell trouble for Kighoma, Lubutu’s growth is a great example of the important rehabilitative care that takes place at GRACE.

Kighoma and Lubutu

Before Kighoma matured into the silverback leader of the GRACE group, while adult female Pinga led the group, Kighoma and Lubutu were playful pals.

Unlike Shamavu, who took Kighoma’s transition to leader in stride, Lubutu was resistant at first. For several months, Kighoma and Lubutu had an ongoing spat as Kighoma established dominance. Conflicts declined as Kighoma’s role became secure. Now, Kighoma lets Lubutu and Shamavu be, and they respect his role as leader.

But Kighoma has a major size advantage, and as Lubutu and Shamavu grow Kighoma’s dominance may not be so secure. In the wild, young males typically transfer out of their group as they enter adulthood to look for a group of their own. While the GRACE gorillas live in a single group now, it is possible that caregivers will need to manage multiple separate groups in the future, if the males cannot live together. We continue to consult with experts from zoological institutions who have managed multi-male groups to determine the best social arrangement for all the gorillas in our care.

Who will Mapendo side with?

As Lubutu continues to grow and mature, adult female Mapendo may have an influence over which male ultimately leads. Mapendo herself is in a constant back-and-forth struggle with adult female Pinga for status as alpha female, but she is close with both Kighoma and Lubutu.

Caregivers suspect that Mapendo may prefer Lubutu to Kighoma, and merely have to like Kighoma more right now because he’s in charge.

Conflicts and challenges for dominance are a normal part of gorilla life, and learning to live within a social group is an important part of the rehabilitation process. While GRACE caregivers will continue to monitor the relationship between Kighoma and Lubutu closely, for now Kighoma’s dominance is clear and things are calm.

Time will tell whether this stays true.

Did you know?

You can virtually adopt the GRACE gorillas. Lubutu is looking for a protector—a company or person who is looking to make a serious contribution to wildlife and would love to cover the actual cost of his care. Lubutu can be adopted for $1,500 per month or $18,000 per year. If you would like to take on this special privilege, please email our Executive Director Tommi Wolfe at for more details.

Help GRACE Gorillas

Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the U.S. that operates the world’s only sanctuary for Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern DRC. 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 individuals remaining in the wild. GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can one day 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 protected forest habitats. GRACE also leads field research and 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:


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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.