Progress at GRACE Amid Serious Challenges
The past two years have proven challenging for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, the world's only sanctuary for orphaned Grauer's gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). Serious insecurity broke out in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where GRACE is located, in mid-2017. Competing Mai-Mai forces took control of nearby villages for months at a time, and much of the local population was displaced by the violence.
In 2018, security began to slowly improve, but then an outbreak of the Ebola virus was declared in August. Butembo, the closest town to GRACE, has been one of the epicenters of the outbreak, which continues today and is now the second largest in history.
The GRACE DRC staff remained onsite throughout these crises, and the day-to-day care of the gorillas continued uninterrupted, thanks to their dedication and courage. For their unwavering commitment to the gorillas, the entire team was recognized by the Disney Conservation Fund as Conservation Heroes.
Protecting our staff, the gorillas, and the GRACE site have been prioritized, and we have had to adjust some of our activities and programs accordingly. For example, strict biosecurity protocols were put into place at GRACE when the Ebola outbreak began, and our onsite local visitor program was suspended to decrease exposure risk to GRACE staff and the gorillas.
Amid these challenges, we have managed to also make progress on some key projects. In 2018, we opened a second habitat for the 14 Grauer's gorillas in our care, giving them a total of 15.8 ha of forest for daily use. This is important for their rehabilitation, as the gorillas now forage for nearly all of their food on their own inside the forest.
Additionally, in 2018 we completed construction on an education center, which will serve as a hub for all of our education and community outreach activities. Because in-person contacts had to be limited due to Ebola concerns, GRACE's education team has shifted their focus to small-scale projects. One major ongoing effort is to reduce the amount of wood people use for household cooking fires by promoting the use of more efficient stoves. Our 100-household community survey showed that wood is the main source of fuel used in villages around GRACE and that people are extracting wood from the forests, including in and around Tayna Nature Reserve, an important habitat for wild Grauer's gorillas and chimpanzees. We adopted a stove design that reduces wood use by 47 % on average and so far 124 households have installed these stoves.
Our other main community initiative addresses the problem of local food insecurity caused by livestock theft by armed groups. We trained a cohort of female community leaders in guinea pig husbandry and welfare, and they have started a successful breeding program that has produced 126 offspring to date. Offspring will be given to other families in a "pay-it-forward" model that will make this program sustainable. We will be expanding these two promising pilot projects in 2020.
We felt it was important to independently verify that everything at GRACE adhered to sanctuary best practices to ensure that we were doing all that we could to provide the best life for the gorillas in our care. We therefore applied for, and in 2019 received, Accredited status with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), the only globally recognized organization that provides standards for identifying excellence in animal sanctuaries. GRACE is the first great ape sanctuary in Africa to receive GFAS accreditation.
At GRACE, we also recently launched Africa's first 24/7 live-stream gorilla camera in partnership with Explore.org, a philanthropic multimedia organization that sponsors the world's largest live nature network. The GRACE camera is located at the entrance of the gorillas' forest habitat, so online viewers can watch in real time as the gorillas come and go each day. GRACE is in a remote area and is not open to tourists, so this camera is a resource that can help us share the gorillas with the world. This is important as the GRACE gorillas can act as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild and hopefully increase support for their protection.
Sonya Kahlenberg, Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke and Tammie Bettinger