The rumors began in early February 2010: Somewhere in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, an infant gorilla was being offered for sale. Some said it was a pet. Either way, the situation was illegal and a very important life was at stake.
By the time the Congolese authorities had confiscated the gorilla, several weeks had passed. And the shivering, terrified, malnourished infant that was delivered into the arms of Eddy Kambale of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) on February 26th faced a difficult battle for survival.
Gorillas are notoriously fragile animals, and the stress of capture, confiscation and rehabilitation is often too much for them to survive. But this gorilla - nicknamed "Ndjingala", after the area in which she was confiscated from poachers - will not only receive the best care possible, she will ultimately get the opportunity to return to the wild.
The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center is a rescue facility specifically designed for the needs of East African gorillas and the first permanent sanctuary ever built for the species. Situated in the Kashugo region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo adjacent to the Tayna Nature Reserve, the GRACE will serve as the focal point of gorilla rescue and rehabilitation in the region and an important link between the in situ and ex situ conservation work in the region.
The GRACE center could not come at a more crucial time in the battle to conserve East African gorillas. Eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) are classified as "endangered" and mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are identified as "critically endangered" by the 2007 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List, and experts consider both subspecies at high risk for extinction within several decades.
The GRACE center is the result of a partnership between the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), Disney's Animal Programs, and the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN). Funded by a grant from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Apes Conservation Fund, in association with the Neu Family Foundation and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the GRACE center grew out of discussions between key players at the 2008 Gorilla Workshop in Orlando, Florida, and quickly became a reality. "This is a critical opportunity for us to help many more young gorillas that have been victimized by unlawful activity or habitat destruction, and also to strengthen our partnership with the people who are the true stewards of the land and the animals", said DFGFI president Clare Richardson. "All gorilla species are threatened with extinction. Both public education and rehabilitation services are critical to their chances for survival."
Over the past decade, it is estimated that at least 25 orphaned gorillas were confiscated in East Africa, but died before they could get proper medical care. The creation of an interim quarantine facility in Rwanda in 2006 - which is a joint venture of DFGFI and MGVP, and ultimately came to care for a mix of eastern lowland and mountain gorillas - made it clear that a permanent facility was required.
After funding was sourced, the GRACE project broke ground on 370 acres of donated land in Tayna in January 2009, and is targeted for completion in May 2010. The initial phase of construction is designed to accommodate 15 gorillas, which is good since there are already 10 being cared for at sites in Congo and Rwanda.
The gorillas - which range in age from 1-year-old infants (such as Ndjingala) to 6 adolescents housed at an interim quarantine facility in Rwanda - will be brought together at the GRACE center through an airlift being coordinated in conjunction with the peacekeepers serving with the United Nations mission in the region, known as MONUC. "Caring for the Earth we all share is not just the job of governments", said Alan Doss, head of MONUC. "It requires us to reach across boundaries and do things we would not normally expect to do."
The land for the new center was donated by the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB). The site is adjacent to approximately 222,000 acres of forest in a protected nature reserve.
But the region is also situated in one of the most embattled areas in all of East Africa, and the long-running guerilla war between the government forces and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel militias of Laurent Nkunda had a heavy impact on the project. Although Nkunda's arrest in late January 2009 seemed to indicate that the conflict would die out, military "sweeps" by the government forces in early 2009 to flush out rebel resistance swept through Kashugo on several occasions, forcing construction to be halted for extended periods and the temporary removal of construction coordinators to nearby Butembo for security reasons.
Brief military exchanges occurred during several of these clashes, and on February 11st, 2009, the rebel forces looted and burned the small radio station that operates from Tayna. On another occasion, a vehicle being used by the GRACE project was attacked and badly damaged by rebel forces. The military actions in the area also slowed the delivery of raw materials to the construction site.
The GRACE project also suffered a heavy blow through the unexpected death on May 29th, 2009, of DFGFI vice-president Alecia Lilly, who served as the director of the project from her base in Kigali, Rwanda. The loss of Lilly badly shook the project, and forced the partners to regroup and devise a new way forward. But the installation of Debby Cox, the former director of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) Uganda and a member of the PASA advisory committee, as the project director in January 2010 quickly put the GRACE center back on target. The project's handling facilities, veterinary block and staff housing are near completion, and a 2-acre socialization yard is being fenced to allow the gorillas to establish social bonds.
The GRACE center was designed to accommodate either eastern lowland gorillas or mountain gorillas, but only the former will be coming for now. A small recovery facility for mountain gorillas was recently completed in Rumangabo. Either way, all of the orphaned gorillas in Congo will be seriously considered for reintroduction, which is the act of returning animals to the wild, in accordance with guidelines established by the IUCN.
Although no East African gorilla has ever been successfully reintroduced, two PASA members in West-Central Africa - the Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG) sanctuaries in Gabon and Congo - have returned western lowland gorillas to the wild with amazingly good results. The PPG projects have collectively reintroduced over 40 gorillas, with survival rates at approximately 84% and 10 wild births. But it will be many years before Ndjingala and the other gorillas leave the safety of the GRACE center and venture out into the forests.
Reintroduction is an extremely difficult, complex, political, expensive and emotional process, and although PASA member sanctuaries have found success with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and monkeys elsewhere in Africa, there is no need to rush. Having already suffered so much, orphaned gorillas in East Africa need to recover their health - both physical and mental - before proceeding on to the next phase of their lives.