Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

The Forgotten Gorillas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

I set off into the mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on the back of a Chinese-built motorcycle. I’d paid the driver $30 to take me six hours over dirt roads so that I could visit GRACE, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, the only existing sanctuary for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas.

Also known as eastern lowland gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas take their name from Rudolf Grauer, the Austrian who brought the first specimen to Europe around 1910. Even though they are the largest of the four gorilla subspecies, with silverback males weighing well over 500 pounds, conservationists sometimes call them “the forgotten gorilla,” owing to their lack of media attention and their virtual absence from zoos. Living solely in the eastern Congo, they face constant threats to their survival from hunting and agricultural expansion. Their habitat has decreased to 7,402 square kilometres, half of what it was fifty years ago and only 13 percent of their historic range. In 1994, their population was evaluated at about 17,000, but by 2004, after almost a decade of war that killed more than five million people, the Grauer’s gorilla population was estimated at 5,000 and has likely continued to decline.

In 2010, GRACE opened with the support of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Houston Zoo. Accompanied by a UN convoy, an American film crew reached the sanctuary to document the event. Since then, no journalists had visited. 

I began my trip from Goma, a Congolese city on the border of Rwanda. To avoid using rebel-occupied roads, I booked a seat on a small Russian-piloted plane north to Butembo, a city near the Ugandan border. From there, I hired the motorcycle. For the next six hours, my driver avoided potholes and the stones protruding from the unpaved roadway. Large trucks passed, their tops crowded with men whose bare feet hung from the sides, the dust so thick that I put on a particle mask and gave one to the driver. We passed through police checkpoints, climbing higher, the air now thin and cool.

GRACE is built on a rise in the Tayna Gorilla Reserve, at an altitude of 6,000 feet. It lies less than fifty miles to the west, as the crow flies, from the Virunga National Park, home to the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. Both the Grauer’s gorillas and their high-altitude cousins have suffered from the ongoing violence in the eastern DRC. Unrest has made access difficult for conservationists, and with little trade or social stability, impoverished people often depend on bushmeat for survival. Human overpopulation has sped the expansion of agriculture and the destruction of forests, and poachers kill gorillas and attempt to sell the infants as pets. Whereas adult Grauer’s gorillas have shorter fur than mountain gorillas, the infants of both subspecies look so similar that, when confiscated from traders, they can be identified only through genetic testing.

At GRACE, I climbed onto a wooden platform to observe twelve gorillas within the large enclosure: four males and eight females, between three and thirteen years of age (gorillas become adults at fourteen). They’d all been brought to the sanctuary as infants and integrated into a family with the long-term goal of reintroducing them into the wild. The oldest in the group were starting to take on the role of its protector and a large male and female neared the wall, grumbling and studying me. In the sunlight, their brown irises shone a deep rusty orange.

Recently, the Congolese government’s park service (ICCN—Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) announced its intention to separate the group, placing some gorillas not only in zoos but, according to testimonies from Congolese conservationists, in unspecified Chinese research facilities. As reported in the DRC’s Journal de Kin, early in 2013 the government requested two gorillas to be displayed at the Kinshasa Fair. Several weeks after GRACE refused to send them, the government demanded that gorilla couples be sent to three zoos in the Congo, two in Kinshasa and one in Lumumbashi. The leaders of the Tayna Gorilla Reserve publicly accused the government of hosting Chinese envoys who were seeking gorillas for research facilities. They claimed that their contacts in the Congo’s park service had informed them of the Chinese request for gorillas, and that the discussion of zoos was simply a ploy.

According to both Congolese and Western conservationists, the government’s plan poses a threat to the family of gorillas. Like humans, they have complex social and emotional lives. They bond and thrive in close-knit communities. Sanctuary gorillas have already faced deep emotional trauma. As infants, they saw their families killed and endured harsh conditions at the hands of traders. Most infants die before they can be sold, and those who make it to GRACE—approximately two to three a year—do so only after difficult journeys. They are placed in the protection of gorilla specialists and individually nourished by a human handler with whom they bond. But as GRACE’s DRC director, Luitzen Santman, explained to me, once they join other gorillas in the sanctuary, they forget their human ties. They joyfully recognize their own kind and immediately integrate into the community, with the older gorillas nurturing and raising them.

Separating the gorillas would also threaten the purpose of GRACE, a sanctuary whose uniqueness and successes can be recognized only through an understanding of the eastern Congo’s history. It and the reserve were created despite being in the heart of a region with chronic warfare. During the Second Congo War, from 1998 to 2003, the country broke into four factions, and militias and rebels moved through the mountains, fighting insurgent campaigns. Despite this, local Congolese leaders inspired communities to establish the reserve and make peace with armed groups.

The sanctuary is a point of pride for the local Congolese and a symbol of their investment in the reserve. Many of them described it as a reward to the communities for their success in educating people and protecting gorilla habitat. It has twenty full time employees, and each day they go into the forest to gather three hundred kilograms of leaves and stems for the gorillas. Aside from the Zoo Antwerpen, which hosts two Grauer’s gorillas, there is no other place on earth where they can be seen in captivity.

The Congolese government’s decision to move the gorillas comes at a time when worldwide accredited zoos no longer accept great apes from the wild and receive them only from captive breeding programs. The decision to place them in Congolese zoos—if this were truly the government’s intent—would be an anomaly. Furthermore, even with the dozen gorillas at GRACE, the captive population of Grauer’s gorillas is too small to maintain genetic diversity through reproduction. Conversely, GRACE’s reintroduction program would increase the diversity of wild gorilla populations. But the GRACE sanctuary depends on the support of nearby communities and international donors. Both would be threatened by degrading its mission and reducing it to une animalerie—a “pet shop” as Harvard zoologist Richard Wrangham cited Kinshasa-based conservationist Claudine André at the 2013 Great Ape Summit. Without the sanctuary—at a time when humans are increasingly encroaching on the habitat of Grauer’s gorillas—there would be nowhere to put confiscated infants.

The people of the Tayna Reserve have so deeply made conservation part of their lives that they have declared their intention to prevent the removal of the gorillas, praying for their safety and announcing that they will defend them by force if necessary. So far, the government has not followed through with its assertion that it will take the gorillas without GRACE’s permission. The removal of the gorillas seems unlikely without military or police intervention as well as technical support from those running the sanctuary. Negotiations continue in Kinshasa, with both Western and Congolese conservationists meeting with the Congo’s park service to resolve the conflict.

Photos take with the permission and cooperation of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and GRACE © DFGFI and GRACE