December 4, 2009

Orphaned Mountain Gorilla Babies Returned To Congo National Park

More than two years after being evacuated following the 2007 killings of their mothers, mountain gorilla babies Ndakasi and Ndeze this week returned home to the Democratic Republic of Congo, moving into a new custom-built forest sanctuary.

The Dec. 1 move was coordinated by the UC Davis-based Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which has been providing veterinary care for the orphans since they were rescued.

"The move was a great success thanks to the tremendous effort of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project staff, and the caretakers and staff from the Congolese wildlife authorities," said UC Davis wildlife veterinarian Mike Cranfield, who is the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project's executive director and co-director of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program.

"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 Mountain Gorilla One Health Program was established at UC Davis in April with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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. These two young females and two other orphans are the only mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in captivity in the world. An estimated 750 mountain gorillas survive in the wild.

"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."

Since the 2007 gorilla massacres, the orphans had been living with caretakers in the city of Goma in a makeshift facility run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. While the orphans received excellent care at the Goma facility, its location in the middle of a hot, dusty city directly behind a busy hotel was far from ideal. A rebel invasion of Virunga National Park delayed the construction of the sanctuary until this year. The area has now been deemed safe for the gorillas to return.

The orphans' new home is Senkwekwe Center, built near Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo. The facility was constructed by the Congolese wildlife authorities (known locally as the ICCN, for Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature) in part with significant donations from the nonprofit group Canadian Friends of the MVGP.

Named after Ndeze's silverback father, who was also killed in 2007, the sanctuary encloses 2.5 acres of natural forest and includes a 1,600-square-yard interior holding facility where the babies are currently staying. Under round-the-clock care by ICCN staffers, Ndakasi and Ndeze will be able to explore an environment filled with trees they can climb and planted with native foods they can eat.

"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. He and fellow Congolese Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project veterinarian Jacques Iyanya will also follow up with regular health checks.


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