An endangered female Grauer’s gorilla, confiscated from poachers in Rwanda three years ago, was airlifted home to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) on, May 19 by United Nations peacekeepers in a transfer coordinated by a coalition of conservation partners that included the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN), Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (Fossey Fund), Gorilla Doctors, Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), and Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
Gorilla Doctors drove the orphaned gorilla from Kinigi, Rwanda to the Congolese border town of Goma early in the day, with logistical support from Fossey Fund, RDB, and local law enforcement. From there, a U.N. helicopter transported the 4-year-old gorilla – named “Ihirwe,” which means “luck” in the local Kinyarwanda language –to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center in Kasugho, a remote region of northeastern DR Congo.
At GRACE, Ihirwe will join 13 other orphaned gorillas in the world’s only sanctuary dedicated to Grauer’s gorillas. This will be her first chance to live with other gorillas after she was illegally captured from the wild by poachers in 2011.
The MI 8 transport helicopter rescue was part of the U.N.’s regularly scheduled air traffic within the region as part of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) effort, and arranged to transport the gorilla through GRASP. The flight reduced what would have a grueling 150-mile (250 kilometers) trip overland to less than two hours.
“GRASP is extremely grateful to the MONUSCO officials who made this transfer possible,” said GRASP coordinator Doug Cress. “We recognize that moving endangered species to safety is not normally part of a peace-keeping mission, but MONUSCO’s willingness to help underscores its commitment to protecting DR Congo’s natural heritage.”
Ihirwe was confiscated from poachers as an infant, and had been living in a quarantine facility in the town of Kinigi, where Fossey Fund and Gorilla Doctors provided caregivers to stay with her 24 hours a day since her arrival, acting as surrogate parents. The Gorilla Doctors’ international team of veterinarians nursed the young gorilla back to health after her rescue and have overseen her medical care throughout her time in Rwanda.
“We are thrilled to see Ihirwe finally return home to DR Congo and join other gorillas of her own subspecies at GRACE,” said Gorilla Doctors Regional Veterinary Manager Dr. Jan Ramer. “Under round-the-clock care, we have watched Ihirwe grow from a malnourished, frightened infant at the time of her rescue, to a healthy, confident young gorilla.”
The international collaboration to transport Ihirwe to her new home represents the strong commitment of both Rwanda and DR Congo to protecting their countries’ great apes. At GRACE, Ihirwe will re-learn forest skills and be integrated into a gorilla social group so that one day she may be released back into the wild.
“It is heartening to see Ihirwe make the transition to a new family at GRACE after caring for her in Rwanda for nearly three years,” said Clare Richardson, President and CEO of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. “By actively engaging Congolese communities living near gorilla habitat through our Grauer’s Gorilla Research and Conservation Program in DR Congo, we are also making an effort to stem the animal trafficking that produces these orphans.”
The 2013 GRASP report, Stolen Apes, estimates that a minimum of 2,972 great apes are lost from the wild each year in Africa and Asia through illicit activity, and gorillas comprise 14 percent of that total.
Eastern Lowland gorillas – also known as Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) — are classified as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and are found only in eastern DR Congo. Seriously threatened by habitat loss, human encroachment, illegal trade, disease, and regional instability, it is estimated that no more than 5,000 Grauer’s gorillas remain in the wild.
“The cross-border collaboration that helped bring Ihirwe home to DRC to be with other gorillas has been inspiring to behold, as it demonstrates the commitment of both countries to gorilla welfare and conservation,” said Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE Executive Director. “GRACE is honored to have been part of this effort and looks forward to helping Ihirwe adjust to her new life.”