UN Helicopters Return Gorilla Orphan to DR Congo
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.
“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.”