The Usala Conservation Corridor: Keeping Grauer’s Gorillas Connected

Waterfall in the rainforest of eastern DRC.

We want to invite you to come on a conservation journey with us.

In the heart of the Congo Basin, a transformative conservation project is taking shape. The Usala Conservation Corridor, a project initiated by local communities and supported by GRACE, aims to create a safe haven for Grauer’s gorillas and other endangered species. But this project is not just about wildlife conservation. It’s about human rights, cultural heritage, and creating a sustainable future for those who call this region home.

This many-layered project is a thrilling combination of an Indiana Jones adventure story – with teams trekking days through dense rainforest and crossing hundreds of rivers on floating logs and unstable bridges – and a serious scientific expedition dedicated to uncovering the biological mysteries of a new land using the most sophisticated and advanced tools.

Through a series of blog posts, we will bring you behind the scenes so you can see everything that goes into protecting a vast area of intact rainforest in the Congo Basin while securing land rights and other benefits for local communities.

This project is the Usala Conservation Corridor.

What is the Usala Conservation Corridor?

River crossing in the Usala Conservation Corridor on the way to the village of Rama in eastern DRC.
The trek to Rama involved dozens of creative river crossings in the Usala Corridor.

The Usala Conservation Corridor is nothing short of a lifeline for Grauer’s gorillas and a host of other threatened and endangered species in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Grauer’s gorillas, the largest of the great apes, are under constant threat from habitat loss, illegal hunting, and human conflict. These threats have put Grauer’s gorillas on the critically endangered list, with a precipitous decline in their population in the last 20 years from nearly 17,000 in 1995 to only 6,800 today. They are only found in the forests of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the grim reality is that the existence of these majestic animals is hanging by a thread.

Like the gorillas, the communities living in the Congo Basin are vulnerable. Their rights to ancestral land and cultural practises are not protected by law, and decades of insecurity in the region is causing human migration on a staggering scale. However, it’s these very communities that hold the keys to successful conservation. Their knowledge, connection to the land, and commitment to protecting it are essential in the fight against biodiversity loss.

Map of the Usala Corridor, Tayna Nature Reserve and Maiko National Park
Map of the Usala Corridor created by Woodwell Climate Research Center.

If you look at the map to the right, you will see that the 284,000-acre corridor connects the community-managed Tayna Nature Reserve to Maiko National Park. Each of these is a biodiversity hotspot that provides important habitat for wild populations of endemic species like critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas and endangered okapis, as well as other endangered species including chimpanzees, pangolins, forest elephants, African gray parrots, and red colobus monkeys.

Also on the map, you can see a yellow wave advancing towards Tayna Nature Reserve from the east and the north. This yellow wave represents deforestation and human development, and Tayna stands as a bulwark against that advance. If the forests around Tayna are cleared, the reserve will quickly become a fragmented biological island.

We simply can’t allow that to happen.

Why are wildlife corridors important for Grauer’s gorillas?

Grauer's gorilla face
Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to the forests of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As humans, we take connectivity for granted. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are nearly 25 million miles of roads in the world and an estimated 801,000 miles of railroads. There are also countless footpaths, shipping lanes, and, for many of us, the ability to hop on a plane and travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

For species like the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla, it’s not so simple. They need to be able to move to find food, mix genes with suitable mates, adapt to a changing climate, and establish new home ranges. The only way they can do that is by moving through intact forest, and leaving its protection is not an option.

Protecting gorillas means protecting rainforests, and protecting rainforests means protecting gorillas.

What are the steps on this conservation journey?

Community Meeting in Usala.
Trained facilitators work hard to ensure communities understand and give consent for the creation of Local Community Forest Concessions (CFCL).

This initiative wasn’t born in a boardroom or a scientific laboratory. It was born from the vision of a traditional leader, Mwami (King) Eric Mwaka Eliba. For a decade, Mwami Eric had been pushing for the protection of the Usala Forest, an area encompassing over 284,000 acres. He knew that the protection of this forest was crucial for the survival of the gorillas and the well-being of his people.

He approached the Union of Associations for Conservation of Gorillas and for Development in eastern DRC (UGADEC) for assistance, who then approached GRACE. We were able to secure generous funding from the Rainforest Trust, along with other individual and foundation donors, and we are now working with UGADEC and the Reserve des Gorilles des Usala (RGU) to ensure the establishment and preservation of the Usala Conservation Corridor. The end goal: creating a safe haven for the Grauer’s gorillas while upholding the rights of the local communities.

Field Teams hiking through the Usala Corridor to reach the village of Rama.
The team from GRACE and UGADEC trekking through the Usala Forest to reach the village of Rama.

There are many more steps to take to establish this conservation corridor. Over the coming months, be on the lookout for new blog posts that will answer questions like these:

Why is it critical to protect the forests of the Congo Basin?

What legal structure are we using for the corridor?

How are we respecting the rights of communities? (Spoiler alert: it’s through a process called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC))

How do you map boundary lines in a tangled jungle with no roads?

How will we survey the epic biodiversity we expect to find in this corridor?

Once these Local Community Forest Concessions are created, how will they be maintained?

This initiative is a testament to what can be achieved when human rights and biodiversity conservation converge, and this series of posts will be a rare opportunity to get an insider’s view into how conservation is done.

We hope you will join us.



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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.