Dec 22, 2018

 

 

The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center  (or GRACE) is the world’s only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas, a Critically Endangered great ape that only lives in war-torn Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A close relative of the better-known mountain gorilla, Grauer’s gorillas are one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates with only 3,800 now remaining in the wild. They have lost 80% of their population in the past 20 years primarily due to poaching. GRACE cares for 14 gorillas orphaned after being captured illegally. GRACE gives them a surrogate family of other orphans and a natural forest habitat so they can be rehabilitated for eventual release back into the wild. GRACE teamed up with GoPro to film the journey to GRACE of a young gorilla named Lulingu and to follow her through the rehabilitation process. 

Below, GRACE Executive Director Sonya Kahlenberg, Ph.D., tells Lulingu's story.

Lulingu was just a baby – around 16 months old – when her family was killed for meat by an armed group. She was captured instead of killed, likely in order to be kept or sold as a pet. Gorillas are usually weaned around 3 years old, so it was way too early for her to be separated from her mother. She was found outside Kahuzi-Biega National Park in a village called Lulingu, which is where she gets her name. When found by the wildlife authority, Lulingu was hungry and had a gash on her waist caused by the chain her captors used to restrain her. Yet, she was surprisingly healthy. She is one of the lucky ones. Most gorillas in her situation succumb to malnutrition or other injuries before they can be rescued. Harder to diagnose were the psychological wounds that we knew Lulingu had. She had seen her entire family killed in front of her and had been kept for some time in the armed group’s camp.

Lulingu received care temporarily in Virunga National Park then was transferred to GRACE to join other Grauer’s gorillas. It’s about a 300 km journey, but we opted to travel by plane because the roads in Eastern DRC can be treacherous as well as dangerous, given the widespread insecurity in the region. On move day, stormy weather delayed our plans, but a break in the clouds finally allowed the 4-seater plane to take off. A veterinarian was onboard to watch over Lulingu during the 1-hour flight, but she quickly fell asleep in her caregiver’s arms. We landed on a rough airstrip nestled in a mountain valley then drove Lulingu the last 45 km to GRACE.

In our experience, what orphan gorillas need most is to be with other gorillas. However, all new arrivals must first go through quarantine to ensure they are healthy. During this time, human caregivers attend to their every need, 24 hours a day. Quarantine usually lasts 30 days, but Lulingu’s was longer because she suffered from diarrhea, a condition that can turn serious for little gorillas. So we had to proceed slowly and carefully to help her digestive system adjust to her new surroundings. The GRACE caregivers called Lulingu “the perfect gorilla” because she was an easy charge. She ate well, loved to play, and when she needed medication, she took it easily. 

The day Lulingu joined the gorilla group at GRACE was a joyous one for us. It was the first time since her capture that she was physically with gorillas again. Pinga, the alpha female, immediately started looking after her like an adoptive mother. Gorillas should never be taken from the wild, so giving them the opportunity to be reunited with other gorillas is at least something we can do to help right this terrible wrong. However, this is just the beginning of the story for Lulingu and her new family. Our ultimate goal is to return the gorillas to the wild where they can live free again. But for now, we are thrilled to see Lulingu happy and thriving at GRACE. We were fortunate to capture her story on film to share with the world. Thanks to GoPro for this amazing opportunity and partnership!