Preparing Gorillas for Reintroduction

When baby gorillas are rescued from poaching, they often need to relearn wild gorilla skills. They may have been in captivity or in poor circumstances for extended periods. GRACE specializes in helping rescued gorillas learn the skills they need to survive in the wild, with access to:

  • Forests
  • A surrogate gorilla family
  • Wild gorilla food
  • Vegetation for building nests
  • And, of course, space to play!

GRACE is the only sanctuary in the world for critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas. Our rehabilitation focus prioritizes the welfare of every individual gorilla in our care, with the ultimate goal of preparing the gorillas for reintroduction back into the wild.

The forest habitats at GRACE are one essential part of the gorillas’ rehabilitation. The forests give the gorillas a safe area to hone critical survival skills like coordinating group travel, finding and processing wild foods, and building nests in trees and on the ground for sleeping.

What’s So Special About the Forest Habitats at GRACE?

The original 24-acre forest habitat at GRACE, constructed in 2015, constitutes the world’s largest gorilla enclosure. The enclosure is located in natural Grauer’s gorilla habitat in eastern DR Congo. More than 200 people from local communities–over half of them women–worked with GRACE to build the first forest habitat.

When the doors to the forest habitat were first opened in March of 2015, the GRACE gorillas had not been in a forest for years. For some of them, it was their first forest experience since being captured from the wild.

It was unclear how the group would react to their new surroundings, but upon entering the enclosure, the gorillas – led at that time by the group’s dominant female, 13-year-old Pinga – immediately began feeding on vegetation and exploring the forest. Within minutes, the younger gorillas were climbing and playing in trees.

In 2018, we added a second enclosure of 15 acres. The gorillas now have access to a total of 39 acres of forest habitat. We alternate the gorillas between the two habitats to allow time for plants to regrow in the dormant habitat.

Now, the gorillas spend most of their time every day together in the forest habitats — and they’ve gone a long way in developing survival skills that can only be learned in the forest.

Keeping the Family Together: Group Travel

Each of the 14 Grauer’s gorillas at GRACE was rescued as a lone infant, after losing their families to poaching. They all arrived in our care at less than 3 years of age. Despite the trauma and in some cases isolation of their early lives, over time this little group has developed in to a family not unlike those seen in the wild.

In the wild, groups are centered around the silverback leader who protects them from outside threats, including males from other groups. The GRACE group has a dominant silverback (aged around 12), adult females (in their 20s), young males (or “blackbacks”), and younger females – including Lulingu, the youngest gorilla at GRACE who is now about six years old.

At GRACE, silverback male Kighoma decides the path the group should take in the forest each day. Like any good silverback, Kighoma exhibits protective behaviors like coming out to investigate strange noises and posturing when threatening situations arise (e.g., people unknown to the gorillas are around). Kighoma is young still, and in his early days of leading the group he was more likely to keep eating his food and not be bothered to protect the group. But now, he takes his job seriously. He is often seen standing in a big, confident stiff stance, asserting his dominance while watching over his group.

Although Kighoma is the undisputed leader of the group, GRACE caregivers are noticing sub-grouping at times when the gorillas are foraging in the forest. Sometimes a sub-group will be led by Lubutu, a younger but growing male, and sometimes by adult female Pinga who led the group for a time before Kighoma was a silverback.

We are watching carefully how the dynamics in the group shift as the gorillas age. But for now, Kighoma’s leadership is unquestioned!

Let’s Eat! Finding and Processing Wild Foods

Gorillas are herbivorous, meaning they eat a lot of vegetation, much of it very fibrous. This means they need a lot of time to digest. In the wild, gorillas follow a pattern of eating for a couple of hours, resting for a couple of hours, and then traveling to a new food patch and repeating the feeding, resting, traveling cycle.

The 39 acres that make up the GRACE forest habitats contain at least 119 different species of plant, 85% of which are known to be eaten by gorillas. Gorillas use their hands and teeth to manipulate plants to get to the good food inside—stripping plants for the tasty inside pith, or avoiding prickles and stings. Despite the huge amount that the gorillas eat, they can appear very deliberative in the process.

As GRACE’s Program Manager Dr. Katie Fawcett puts it: “I think one of my favorite things when watching gorillas feeding is how their huge fingers delicately manipulate their food. And I love how selective the gorillas are from a seemingly vast salad bowl of vegetation!” 

Some of the gorillas’ favorite foods are the banana palm and elephant grass. Elephant grass in particular is important, because it’s used to construct nests for resting during the day and for sleeping at night. High-ranking females in the group will often try to keep big piles of elephant grass all to themselves.

In the lives of the GRACE gorillas, it is an important plant indeed!

Is it Bedtime Yet? Building Nests

A gorilla will make a new nest for sleeping every single night and sometimes also during the day for resting.

The nests are made by layering vegetation in a circle around the gorilla’s body. Sometimes nests are made with the same food that they have been eating! In the wild, the place where the gorillas stop for the night is usually close to where they last fed.

All gorillas from the age of about four will make their own nest each night. Sometimes, if an adult female dies or transfers out of the group when her infant is still young, the young gorilla will nest together with the silverback in the group. When conservationists are counting gorillas in the forest, often they are actually counting gorilla nests as gorillas themselves are hard to find!

This has been a particularly popular nesting spot in the forest habitat lately. We’ve seen several gorillas resting in this area – here, adult female Serufuli makes herself comfortable.

And Of Course: Playtime, Naptime, and Time with Friends

No day in the life of a gorilla is complete without a little playtime, naptime, and general lounging around with your friends. Gorillas are one of our closest relatives, and their habits in the forest are a great reminder of the similarities between humans and 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: 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.