National Geographic
Menu

Orphaned gorillas returned to Congo nature park

The only two baby mountain gorillas in the world in captivity, orphaned in 2007 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following the slaughter of their mothers in the wild, moved yesterday to a new sanctuary within the country’s Virunga National Park, the Congolese Wildlife Authority said today.

gorilla-orphans-photo.jpg

Ndeze and Ndakasi, the 2 1/2-year-old female orphans, had been living in the city of Goma outside the park since mid 2007 because of the conflict in eastern Congo, the agency said in a statement.

“The successful transfer of these orphaned mountain gorillas from unsuitable conditions in Goma to the Senkwekwe Centre here in Rumangabo is a big victory in the fight to ensure the survival of the subspecies,” said Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park.

“But we have not yet won the war to protect the gorillas or Virunga from the many threats that continue to endanger them both. We must not forget that Virunga remains arguably the most threatened park in Africa.”

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Virunga is home to 200 of the world’s mountain gorillas and a small population of eastern lowland gorillas.

Formerly known as Albert National Park, Virunga covers 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers) in the eastern part of the Congo adjacent to Uganda and Rwanda. The region has been devastated by war and poverty for many years and there has been armed conflict in the park. Many rangers and gorillas have been killed.

Virunga National Park is managed by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

The orphans have been moved to a 16,000-square-feet pen within the 2.5-acre Senkwekwe Centre, pending the completion of a larger perimeter wall. The wall, as well as visitation platforms, an education center and veterinary facilities, are expected to be completed by March 2010.

“The Senkwekwe Centre will provide a cleaner and more hygienic environment, that will enable us, as vets, to keep the gorilla orphans healthier,” said Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

“The orphans will now have the chance to grow up in a safe, healthy environment that is very similar to their natural habitat and close to their surviving family members.”

“The orphans will now have the chance to grow up in a safe, healthy environment that is very similar to their natural habitat and close to their surviving family members,” said Cranfield, who is also co-director of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program. 

Founded in 1986 shortly after the death of Dian Fossey, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project provides veterinary care to the approximately 750 mountain gorillas living in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The Mountain Gorilla One Health Program–a partnership between the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center funded by the the Packard Foundation–investigates the disease threats facing mountain gorillas, helps expand medical care for the humans working in and around the gorilla parks, and improves the health and well-being of livestock to benefit the families who depend on them for nutrition and income.

UC Davis wildlife veterinarian Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program, said it is too soon to know whether the orphans might ever live free.

“Whether or not Ndeze and Ndakasi can be returned to the wild will be the decision of the Congolese wildlife and park authorities, and will depend on the gorillas’ development over the next several years,” Gilardi said. “Moving them to this new, much more naturalistic setting is certainly a step in the right direction, and a vast improvement for their current well-being.”

Banana tree pulled down

“The orphans seemed to adjust to their new surroundings right away,” said Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project regional veterinary manager Jan Ramer. “Within 15 minutes they had pulled down a banana tree and started eating it.”

“While it’s a tragedy that gorillas are not able to live in the forest with their families, this facility allows them to live at the right altitude, in the right climate, and among the right vegetation for wild mountain gorillas. It’s the best place for them right now,” she added.

One of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project’s veterinarians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eddy Kambale, will stay with the orphans at Senkwekwe Center for a week to make sure they continue to adjust well to their surroundings, according to a UC Davis statement. “He and fellow Congolese Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project veterinarian Jacques Iyanya will also follow up with regular health checks,” UC Davis added.

Center named after murdered silverback

The Congolese Wildlife Authority started building the Senkwekwe Centre, named after the silverback that was murdered by unknown assailants in July 2007, a year ago, but work was stopped following a rebel invasion of the park, the Congolese Wildlife Authority said in its statement.

The Congolese Wildlife Authority launched a campaign in mid-November to raise U.S.$100,000 for the completion of the Senwkekwe Centre. All funds raised by December 24 will be matched, dollar for dollar, by the United Nations Foundation.

To find out how to make a donation and to see more pictures and read about the relocation of the orphaned gorillas, visit Gorilla.CD, the Virunga National Park Web site. 

You might also be interested in:

thumb-photo-Rutagarama.jpg

Mountain gorillas need support network for survival, conservationist says

Eugene Rutagarama, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, discusses the successes and challenges in mountain gorilla conservation.