The "Kinigi Six" Gorillas Await Their Last Step to Freedom

One of the "Kinigi Six" gorillas. c. 2011 IFAW/M. Booth

On the heels of the grizzly bear airlift in British Columbia, the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) wildlife rescue team is now focused on another airlift, this time, a remarkable mission to move six endangered Grauer's gorillas back home to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Our involvement started a number of months ago when we received a call from fellow colleagues at Disney and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (Fossey Fund) to help with the challenging move of orphaned gorillas from a temporary facility in Kinigi, Rwanda to the GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) center near Kasugho, DRC.

Last Tuesday, I had an opportunity to see the 'Kinigi Six' for the first time. I had heard much about them so it was a great feeling to finally meet them.  In reality it was more like 'spying' on them rather than 'meeting' them.

Their outdoor enclosure in Kinigi is surrounded by a 9 feet-tall perimeter wall made out of red brick so the only way to get a peek was to climb on top of our Toyota Land Cruiser and hope that they would stay out in the open. This facility is closed to visitors so the gorillas are essentially kept isolated from human interaction aside from their caretakers and vets from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP).

In this privileged viewing session we got to see the gorillas eat, play, relax and play some more.

The orphans look absolutely great! They are alert, look healthy and seem to be in great shape for the move. It's quite a turnaround for them, after a traumatic start in life some of them are hardly recognizable.

The 'Kinigi Six' orphaned gorillas spend their last days in Rwanda before being relocated by land and air to their new home at the GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) center in Kasugho, Democratic Republic of Congo. These endangered Grauer's gorillas all lost their mothers to poaching in the DRC.  c. 2011 IFAW/M. Booth

Their tragic story began somewhere up in the Virunga Mountains of Congo where their peaceful gorilla existence was abruptly destroyed at the hand of poachers. Without their families, infant gorillas have no chance of survival which is where artificial rearing by human caretakers becomes their only hope.

Katie Fawcett from Fossey Fund warns not to be fooled by their tough exterior. She explained that gorillas, even more so than other primates like chimpanzees, are highly sensitive creatures.

They are visibly shaken after going through traumatic episodes. The first few weeks in human care are very much touch and go. During that critical time, no matter how much care they receive, it's the gorillas who choose to give up and die or fight for their lives.

Pinga, Serufuli, Dunia, Itebero, Tumaini and the lone male Ntabwoba are fighters.

The gorillas are now aged five to eight years old. Grauer's gorillas (aka Eastern lowland gorillas) are an endangered species and researchers estimate their population may be as low as 5,000 individuals left, all found within the DRC.

Grauer's are the largest of gorilla subspecies making them the biggest primates. Adult silverbacks can get to weigh more than 500 lbs! The 'Kinigi 6', thankfully, have yet to reach their full size but they have outgrown the temporary facility and the caretakers are slowly loosing their ability to handle them in a safe way.

The time to move them is now, there is still a chance to right some of the wrongs done to them.

How did these Grauer's gorillas end up in Rwanda for their rehabilitation? Well, the answer is both astonishing and inspiring. The Rwandan and Congolese authorities agreed to an unprecedented conservation collaboration to help a lone mountain gorilla named Maisha. The Grauer's gorillas were moved as infants to Rwanda to help Maisha become habituated to other gorillas. Maisha has since left Kinigi and it's now time to repatriate the 'Kinigi Six'.

Transporting gorillas across international borders and into a part of the world that is plagued by civil unrest is not a walk in the park.  The best and safest way to move them is by air so that's where the helicopter comes in.

An emergency grant from IFAW made it possible to secure the transport and all six gorillas will be moved by road, cross the border into Goma, DRC and then flown one by one to a drop zone about 45min of flight-time away to reach the GRACE center.

The new center is the first facility of its kind in east central Africa, with room for up to 30 young gorillas to live in species-typical groups and roam through 350 acres of natural habitat. This will be their last step to freedom.

-- MB

Stay tuned for more updates on the 'Kinigi Six' as we follow their journey back home to Congo and please go to www.ifaw.org to learn more about our animal rescue efforts around the world.

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