A Day in the life of a GRACE Gorilla Caregiver

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a Gorilla Caregiver?

One word that comes to mind for team GRACE is dedication. Caring for 14 growing gorillas is no small feat. In fact, it requires an entire team working day and night all year long!

Every June, in partnership with Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), GRACE recognizes Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day. Today, we’re celebrating by sharing a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to be a GRACE Gorilla Caregiver.

Experts in Gorilla Care

GRACE’s Gorilla Caregivers are award-winning and internationally recognized for their commitment to excellence in animal care and welfare. Other great ape sanctuaries have even called upon GRACE caregivers for help with difficult animal cases.

Their emergency interventions have even saved gorilla lives.

Over 10 Years of Gorilla Care Experience

Before joining GRACE, only a few of our Gorilla Caregivers had ever seen a gorilla.

In GRACE’s early days, gorilla experts from U.S. zoos were brought in to train staff. They shared their expertise in animal care, facility maintenance, conservation education, and more. Since that initial phase, the DR Congo team has independently designed and built a second gorilla night house and forest habitat. They also built the first quarantine facility, to care for rescued gorillas upon arrival.

Today, the daily work of operating a sanctuary for 14 gorillas – along with GRACE’s conservation education and community engagement efforts – are all run by Congolese staff. The Gorilla Caregiver team remains connected to expert animal care advisors for remote support. But, they now manage training, enrichment, gorilla group dynamics, and monitor gorilla health each day.

The team has shown incredible dedication over the years to become the recognized gorilla experts they are today.

Gorilla Caregivers: A Day in the Life

Here’s a look at just one day in the life of a Gorilla Caregiver.

  • [6:00] Mornings are cold at GRACE. Before the sun comes up, GRACE’s Gorilla Caregivers arrive at the sanctuary. They must shower and change into uniforms (to reduce risk of disease transmission). Then they report for a morning meeting with the management team.
  • [6:45] GRACE Caregivers bring food to the 14 gorillas in their night house for morning feeding. The gorillas will forage for most of their diet in the forest habitat, but we supplement to ensure proper nutrition. Caregivers collect observation data on each of the gorillas, including how much each one eats, and who they are sitting close to during this time.
  • [Early morning] After the gorillas have their breakfast, they enter into the mixing yard – an outdoor area between the night house and forest habitat. GRACE Caregivers begin cleaning the night house. They also walk the perimeter and check the fence of the forest habitat to ensure everything is in working order before gorillas enter.

  • [Before 8:30] Gorilla Caregivers open the shift gate and watch as all 14 gorillas enter the forest habitat, led by silverback male Kighoma. The team continues to collect data on group dynamics and interactions.
  • [Mid-morning] Once the gorillas are in the forest habitat, Caregivers divide and conquer to complete a variety of tasks. Some walk the perimeter of the forest and climb tall watch towers to ensure the safety of the gorillas. Others continue cleaning or gather vegetation from the GRACE farm to feed the gorillas later in the day.

  • [Noon] Caregivers use a bell to call the gorilla group back into both the mixing yard and night house for lunch. GRACE staff must monitor the forest habitat at all times while the gorillas are inside, so this break gives Caregivers time to take lunch, too.
  • [Afternoon] Gorillas head back into the forest for the afternoon. Foraging, eating, playing, and resting are high on the gorillas’ priority list.

  • [17:00] Gorillas head back into a freshly cleaned and sanitized night house for the evening. Here, the gorillas will build nests for the night with materials provided by their Caregivers. They will sleep here overnight for safety and protection.
  • At the end of the day, most Caregivers return home to their families in Katoyo and Kasugho after getting washed and changing out of their uniforms. A small crew remains, with Caregivers taking turns on a rotating basis, to watch the gorillas overnight.

These dedicated caregivers will be back tomorrow, each showing the same determination and care for these gorillas that they have shown the past 10 years. In fact, their commitment is paving the way for gorilla conservation efforts in DR Congo.

Heroes for Gorillas

We’ve come a long way since GRACE was built in 2008. The transformation from never having seen a gorilla to excellence in gorilla sanctuary care results from the deep commitment and incredible work ethic of the team.

When asked about their commitment to caring for gorillas, GRACE DRC Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke put it best.

“The team does [their work] quietly, humbly, and without complaint. They are proud of their work and 100% dedicated. Really, they are true heroes.” – Jackson Mbeke

Please join us in thanking these Gorilla Caregiver heroes and all of our incredible DR Congo staff on this very special Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day!

To support GRACE Gorilla Caregivers and all of our conservation and education work in eastern DR Congo, consider a donation to GRACE.

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.

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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.