At the beginning of January 2021, eight boxes of chamomile tea were carefully packed into a diplomat’s suitcase in Scotland and fast pathed aboard a plane to Kinshasa in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). A big favor was underway. The matter was too important to risk the delays of normal mail.

This was just the first leg of the journey. The tea’s destination was extremely remote: Kasugho, a tiny village in North Kivu. From Kinshasa, two private plane rides carried the tea to Butembo, the largest town with an airstrip in a remote corner of the eastern DR Congo. The tea was collected in Butembo and driven 80 km (~50 mi) along muddy, rugged roads to meet its lucky recipient, Muyisa.

Muyisa had no idea this special delivery was coming, and certainly no clue about the lengths taken especially for her. That’s because Muyisa is a 10-year-old, 65 kg (145 lb.) orphaned Grauer’s gorilla.

She lives at GRACE, the only sanctuary in the world for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas like her. Rescued as infants from the illegal wildlife trade, every gorilla at GRACE suffered the trauma of losing their family to poaching. Muyisa is no exception.

A gorilla, Muyisa, leans back against a tree while resting on the ground.

Grauer’s gorilla Muyisa rests in the forest habitat at GRACE.

Gorilla Care During Difficult Times

Muyisa was rescued as an infant on the border of Rwanda and DR Congo. She was confiscated from poachers, who had killed her family and were looking to sell her illegally.

Muyisa was found badly stressed, coughing, and with nasal discharge. Upon confiscation, rescuers took her to Rwanda for care. Then, due to insecurity, Muyisa was not able to return home to DR Congo for the next three years.

During this time, she lived alone with only a human caregiver. Though she was well cared for, the trauma of losing her family and stress from living in isolation resulted in some unusual behaviors. She began plucking her hair as a method of self-soothing and coping.

One gorilla hugs another, Muyisa, while a third watches.

Another rescued orphaned gorilla at GRACE embraces Muyisa. After living in isolation from other gorillas for several years due to insecurity, Muyisa was quickly accepted into her surrogate family. Today she is a much-loved member of the gorilla family.

A Gorilla Family for Muyisa

When Muyisa arrived at GRACE, she was physically embraced by the other gorillas and integrated seamlessly into the group. She was already four years old at the time of her arrival. But, she still wanted older females to carry her, likely because she had missed this physical bond as an infant.

To celebrate this homecoming, her name was changed from the Rwandan word “Ihirwe” to the Congolese word “Muyisa,” both meaning “luck.”

A gorilla, Muyisa, rides on the back of another.

Another female gorilla carries Muyisa on her back. Already 4 years old – and almost the same size as the other females – Muyisa still wanted older females to carry her upon her arrival at GRACE. This was likely because she missed this physical bonding as an infant.

A Cup of Tea to Calm

Muyisa’s plucking symptoms greatly reduced after she joined the surrogate gorilla family, but they did not disappear. Just like in people, sometimes old gorilla habits die hard. Although Muyisa receives award-winning care at GRACE, she still plucks her hair from time to time, leaving her with bare patches.

There is no concern for Muyisa’s welfare beyond the hair loss. She is a very sociable and much-loved member of the GRACE family group. But at GRACE, we strive to provide the most comprehensive animal care and welfare for each individual gorilla.

A collage of 2 photos. The first shows a gorilla leaning to kiss or touch another gorilla. The second shows a closeup of a caregiver's hands making tea.

Left: Muyisa dotes affection upon Lulingu, the youngest female at GRACE. Right: Animal Care Manager Dalmas prepares a cup of Pukka chamomile tea for Muyisa (which she will drink cold).

Luckily, our expert team of animal care and husbandry advisors offered a creative idea!

GRACE’s world-class animal husbandry experts prescribed Muyisa to take chamomile tea twice a day. Advisors knew of anecdotal cases in which tea calmed anxious behaviors in primates.

Gorilla Caregivers: Tea Taste Test

Like all of the staff at GRACE, Animal Care Manager Dalmas Kakule cares deeply for the gorillas. He works hard to ensure they receive the best care possible.

Chamomile tea is not found in GRACE’s region of DR Congo. Dalmas wanted to be sure it was suitable for Muyisa, so when the tea arrived, he tasted it first. Dalmas declared the chamomile tea was “Good! It is very good.”

A staff member prepares a cup of tea outside.

Animal Care Manager Dalmas Kakule prepares a cup of chamomile tea. Before giving tea to Muyisa for the first time, Dalmas taste-tested it to make sure it was suitable – since chamomile tea is very rare in eastern DR Congo!

Tea for Muyisa Shows Promise

Dalmas and the care team at GRACE began offering Muyisa tea in early Spring 2021. They report that Muyisa drinks it without hesitation. It is adorably cute, rather noisy, and seems to be effective!

While she still had flare ups, today Muyisa’s behavior and hair seems to be much better than before. This could be from the tea, or it might be the special attention Muyisa receives (Dalmas reports that the other gorillas seem a little envious!). Either way, we are happy to report that Muyisa is enjoying her special delivery from Scotland to DR Congo!

So that’s “the tea” on gorillas and tea…it just goes to show that we really are a lot alike. Next time you take tea, to destress or unwind after a long day, imagine Muyisa sipping her chamomile in eastern DR Congo.

Help GRACE Gorillas

About GRACE

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 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 gracegorillas.org.