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Orphaned gorillas find a safe haven

From Jessica Ellis, CNN
  • Orphaned gorillas being taught to survive in the wild
  • GRACE is first center for Grauer's gorillas in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Many of the gorillas had been violently taken from the forest by poachers
  • Conservation becoming increasingly important in DRC

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (CNN) -- In a remote, rural area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has opened the country's first rehabilitation center for Grauer's gorillas.

Called GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education), the center's goal is to teach orphaned gorillas how to survive in the wild as a new, self-sufficient "family," with the longer-term goal to release them into a natural habitat in a neighboring forest in the Congo Basin.

These young gorillas are physically and emotionally fragile, most having suffered from extremely traumatic conditions and experiences. Many have been violently taken from the forest by poachers, intent on selling them either as bush meat or for the animal trafficking trade.

CNN's Jessica Ellis and Ferre Dollar recently followed the first group of gorillas to be transported to the forested area from a temporary facility in Goma, in eastern DRC.

The endangered gorillas of Goma
Congo's conservation village
Orphaned gorillas return to the forest
'Lungs of the world'

The pioneering young orphans were airlifted to GRACE by a helicopter donated by MONUC, the United Nations peacekeeping force in the DRC -- a first for a U.N. mission. Traveling by road would have been almost impossible due to poor infrastructure and potential trauma to the animals.

Mapendo, Amani, Kighoma and Ndjingala were all originally snatched from the forest and their families by poachers. They are all Grauer's gorillas, a subspecies related to the Mountain gorilla, but live exclusively in eastern DRC.

Sandy Jones is the confiscated gorilla rehabilitation manager for the Dian Fossey Fund and now the manager of GRACE. "All of the gorilla species are endangered because Congo is so unexplored they have not done a real census on how many Grauer's gorillas there are," she says.

"But at the rate at which we know they are being killed and the forest is being destroyed we are really concerned that if things aren't stopped and changed now they can be wiped out very soon."

This freshman class of GRACE gorillas range in age from between one and five years old. Mapendo, whose name means "love," was rescued in December 2007. She was confiscated along with a male gorilla but he only survived for two days.

When Amani -- which means "peace" -- was rescued a year ago she had a large wound on her leg. "It seemed obvious that her mother was shot and she was caught in the crossfire," Jones explains. "It took many weeks to heal but now she is walking perfectly normal."

Kighoma -- "drums" -- is the only male in the group. He arrived in May 2009, and Ndjingala was rescued earlier this year. She is only a year old and was named after the place from which she was taken.

"A lot of primates, when they are taken by poachers, they have ropes around their hips and it digs in and so they have bad wounds and Ndjingala suffered from that," Jones says.

The Dian Fossey gorilla fund and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project have been caring for rescued gorillas in temporary quarters in Kinigi, in Rwanda, and in Goma.

Now they (the gorillas) are in the real forest and they are climbing and getting some forest food, so they are happy.
--Dr. Eddie Kambale, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project

"What I know is that many of them have died," says Dr. Eddie Kambale of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. "We may have, I can say, about 20% that have been taken from the forest."

The GRACE center is the first facility of its kind in east Central Africa. It has room for up to 30 young gorillas to live in species-typical groups and roam through 350 acres of natural habitat.

Kambale helped bring the four orphans from Goma to GRACE. "The gorillas are enjoying this place compared to where they were," he says.

"In Goma there was too much noise and dust from the road; here is less pollution so this will be good for their health. Now they are in the real forest and they are climbing and getting some forest food, so they are happy."

The remaining rescued Grauer's gorillas currently cared for by the Dian Fossey Fund and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project will leave Kinigi on a second airlift scheduled for early next year.

"Having the gorillas here will help give the people a glimpse of the world of gorillas," says Debby Cox, of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.

Cox worked with the local community to build the infrastructure for GRACE. "When the local people see gorillas as so much like us -- they live in families, the infants need their mothers, they hug each other -- you immediately get an empathy coming," she says.

"So we need to work with the people in this area, and that helps create stability and that creates confidence too."

While for decades the world has only heard bad news from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conservation is striking an increasingly important chord of awareness among the people.