The Congolese Wildlife Authorities (ICCN) are increasingly concerned about the survival of Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following the rescue of two poached infant gorillas in separate incidents in September. Civil war and illegal resource extraction by armed militias in the areas where Grauer’s gorillas live has made it extremely difficult for ICCN and other conservation groups to monitor and protect this endangered species.
Emmanuel de Merode, the Director for Virunga National Park said, “Civil War represents a breakdown in the rule of law, and this appears to have provoked a surge in the illegal trade in endangered species across Congo’s eastern forests. Baby gorilla trafficking is terribly damaging for endangered gorilla populations because many members of the gorilla’s family will probably have been killed to obtain the infant.”
In the last four years, 10 Grauer’s gorilla orphans were confiscated from poachers, and authorities investigated numerous other reports of illegally-held gorillas. Closely related to the more famous mountain gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, also known as eastern lowland gorillas, can only be found in eastern DRC in Kahuzi-Biega, Virunga, and Mikeo National Parks, plus isolated forest reserves. The population size of the species is unknown but most experts believe there may be fewer than 4,000 remaining, down from an estimated 17,000 in 1995.
Baraka (left) and Isangi (right) meet at the Virunga National Park Senkwekwe Gorilla Sanctuary
The two most recent rescued gorillas are being cared for at Virunga National Park’s Senkwekwe Orphan Gorilla Sanctuary at the park headquarters of Rumangabo, north of the city of Goma. Despite recent fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congo army around Virunga National Park, the headquarters has remained a safe haven.
The first 9-month old female gorilla, named Isangi, was brought to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park headquarters by a community conservation group which claimed to have received the baby from the Raiya Mutomboki rebels who are active in the region. The baby was examined by the Gorilla Doctors, Dr. Dawn Zimmerman and Dr. Eddy Kambale, and found the infant to be in relatively good condition after 6 weeks in captivity.
On September 20, Virunga National Park Gorilla Sector Warden Innocent Mburanumwe and other ICCN and local officials successfully undertook a sting operation following a tip-off by local community members, and confiscated a four-month-old female Grauer’s gorilla orphan from men attempting to sell her in the city of Goma. Her captors claimed to have taken the baby from the Walikale area, an insecure region where numerous armed groups compete for control over mines. After the men were arrested and transferred to the court authorities in Goma, the infant was moved to the sanctuary in Virunga National Park where three trained carers provide her with 24 hour care. Gorilla poaching is considered a serious crime in Congo and can lead to a lifetime prison sentence.
“The infant appeared to be weak and dehydrated from her two weeks in captivity,” said veterinarian Dr. Eddy Kambale. “We were able to quickly transport her to Virunga’s Senkwekwe Center where she is now receiving 24-hour care. She is eating and drinking and appears to be stable. She is crying a lot like a normal baby.”
The infant was named “Baraka,” meaning blessing in Swahili. Both Baraka and Isangi will remain at the Senkwekwe Center for a quarantine period. Organizations involved in the conservation of orphaned Grauer’s Gorillas in the DRC will meet to discuss the orphans’ future.