The Senkwekwe Centre for Gorilla Orphans

Linda Fox

21 Dec 2017

NWS Linda visits a pioneering primate project in the DRC

Situated at Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo is the Senkwekwe Centre for Gorilla Orphans. Visiting this centre last week while staying at Mikeno Lodge during my trip to the DRC was such an inspirational experience. The centre is the only facility in the world that cares for mountain gorilla orphans who have been victimised by poachers or animal traffickers, and who likely witnessed their family members being murdered. Nowhere else in the world have mountain gorillas thrived in captivity.

From the viewing deck, looking over the large forested enclosures where the orphans live, I watched the bond between a caretaker and the latest edition to the orphan family. Yalala, a baby female gorilla who was found caught in a poacher’s snare, is lying on her back in the sun while her caretaker is gently grooming her soft exposed tummy. Gorillas are very social and tactile, and the contact between the two is reassuring and calming to Yalala. Their bond is so special to watch: she puts her arm out and clasps her caretaker’s shoulder, gazing into his eyes.

The Gorilla Doctors who attended to Yalala believe the family group she belonged to - known as the Kabirizi family - tried to free her, but were forced to abandon her when they failed. Sadly her foot had to be amputated and she will not be able to be reunited with her family. She is still in the next-door enclosure to the current orphan family – composed of females Ndakasi and Ndeze, both 10 years old, and a younger male, Matabishi. They are all very curious about the new resident, constantly looking over the wall from the taller trees and trying to conduct raids into her enclosure to “rescue” her. So as soon as she has healed enough and settled into her new surroundings she will officially meet her new family.

Established in 2010, Senkwekwe’s first resident was Maisha, a then 9-year-old female gorilla who was rescued back in 2004 from poachers who had abducted Maisha. Initially cared for by the Gorilla Doctors at their centre in Rwanda, Maisha was moved to Senkwekwe upon its completion, and served as matriarch as her adoptive family grew until she passed away from illness earlier this year. One of her closest caretakers and manager of Senkwekwe, André Bauma, said that Maisha “had the spirit of a leader. As the alpha female of the group, she kept order between the gorillas as well as protecting the rangers and myself in our daily work… She was part of my family.”

Another former member of Senkwekwe’s orphan family was Kaboko, a male who died at the age of 5 back in 2012. As with Yalala, Kaboko was also found entrapped in a poacher’s snare. During treatment from the Gorilla Doctors, it was necessary to amputate his right hand. Although as mischievous and boisterous as one might imagine from a young male gorilla, Kaboko suffered from gastrointestinal problems that eventually led to his death. He became ill during a period of intense fighting that raged between the Congolese army and M23 rebels during July 2012, which meant the Gorilla Doctors stationed at Rwanda were unfortunately unable to reach him to provide the aid that may have saved his life.

The care and courage exhibited by the Gorilla Doctors and all the staff at Virunga and Senkwekwe is truly an inspiration. To maintain mountain gorillas in captivity – and see them thrive, at that – is an unprecedented achievement, and the fact that this pioneering work is done in the face of external threats makes it all the more remarkable. Although no-one wants to see a mountain gorilla orphaned, it is reassuring to know that when unfortunate situations do arise, there is a dedicated team on hand to care for them; and, most importantly, a family to welcome them.

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Comments

Judith

31/7/2018 10:18 AM

Are there staff positions available for carers Iam a mature phyc nurse Thankyou Judyx

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