5 Ways Gorilla Conservation Empowers Women

Women play an essential role in biodiversity conservation around the world. In GRACE’s region of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), women tend to be in charge of their children’s education and their family’s natural resource use. Empowering women through conservation education training is essential for encouraging sustainable behaviors that protect gorillas, reduce forest loss, and benefit people.

In DR Congo, women are traditionally the primary caregivers for their family. They are often the first educators for children. In a region where people depend on the forest to meet basic needs, women directly influence their family’s commitment to conservation.

GRACE knows that protecting gorillas and forests means engaging with and empowering people. Through our conservation education and sustainable livelihood programs, GRACE partners with local women’s associations to build a brighter future for people and wildlife living within 15 km of GRACE.

Here are just 5 ways GRACE is empowering women through conservation education programs.

GRACE is empowering women through conservation education programs that help reduce food insecurity by providing training, support, and initial stock for guinea pig husbandry.

1. Reducing food insecurity for women and families

In Congolese culture, it is primarily women who are responsible for providing food for the family. GRACE leads training on guinea pig husbandry, teaching women to elevate the care and welfare provided to domestic animals like guinea pigs.

The rationale is that if a domestic source of protein is readily available, people may be less likely to go into the forest for food. The program benefits people and wildlife because it helps reduce:

  • Small-scale hunting and forest encroachment, which threatens gorilla habitat;
  • Food insecurity for families by providing a reliable source of protein.

As an added bonus, guinea pig husbandry helps empower women in household decision-making. Women taking part in the program report that with larger livestock, such as goats, they cannot make decisions about selling them without consulting their husbands. But with guinea pigs, women can trade or sell them at their discretion.

The program is set up on a “Pay-It-Forward” system. Women who complete the training course sign a participation pledge, agreeing to care for the guinea pigs as detailed in the workshop and manual. Then, GRACE Educators help those women become trainers of other women in the community.

2. Improving health and well-being through fuel-efficient cookstoves

In our region of eastern DR Congo, wood is the primary source of fuel for cooking. As the human population expands, there is more intrusion into gorilla habitat to collect firewood. GRACE collaborates with women’s groups to build and install fuel-efficient stoves. These stoves use locally available materials and reduce the amount of wood needed per household.

Cooking more efficiently helps families too. Collecting firewood is challenging work and takes time and effort. Women and children are primarily responsible for firewood collection. Fuel-efficient stoves result in more time for other activities and cleaner air in their kitchens.

3. Sharing agricultural best practices and sustainable fuelwood

The GRACE Farm grows gorilla food to ensure proper nutrition for the 14 rescued gorillas at the sanctuary. We invite local community members to the farm to learn about beneficial planting techniques, irrigation, soil science, and crops that can be added to the farms or gardens in their home compounds.

At the farm and in local communities, we have also created woodlots with fast-growing trees. Community members receive seedlings they can grow in their own gardens. In a few years, the woodlots will provide a source of household fuelwood that will benefit women and protect the forest.

4. Promoting the importance of women in the community

International Women’s Day, celebrated every March 8th,  is considered the most important day of the year at GRACE. In DR Congo, we partner with women’s groups in local villages to hold community celebrations.

Events span multiple villages and highlight the important roles that women play in their communities. Speeches, radio broadcasts, poems, processionals, and other celebrations throughout the day commemorate the importance of women and bring attention to the unmet needs for women and girls in an effort to close the gap on gender equality. Activities led by the women, such as tree planting, stove workshops, and community clean-ups, also promote gorilla and forest conservation in eastern DR Congo.

On International Women’s Day, women often wear identical dresses made from the same fabric as a sign of unity. These events help build pride and showcase the impact of empowering women through conservation.

5. Building capacity in leadership, gorilla care, and more

GRACE relies on women in leadership, gorilla care, farming, community outreach, research, and so much more. Our mission in DR Congo would not be possible without the women on staff and our advisors who devote their energy and expertise to protecting gorillas and uplifting communities.

At all levels of our organization, and in our work in local communities in DR Congo, women are essential to GRACE’s success.


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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.