Orphan Lulingu integrating with gorillas at rescue center
In July, after an orphan gorilla was rescued from an armed group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Virunga National Park, the International Fund for Animal Welfare helped bring her to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) to rehabilitate with her own species of Grauer’s gorilla. This blog from GRACE—an update on how Lulingu is adapting to life at the center—has been reprinted with permission.
We are happy to announce that Lulingu was successfully integrated into the gorilla group at GRACE! Lulingu arrived at GRACE in late June (see blog post) after being cared for briefly at Centre Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro and the Senkwekwe Center in Virunga National Park. She was rescued in February 2016 near Kahuzi-Biega National Park from poachers aiming to illegally sell her (see Virunga’s blog post). Lulingu spent five months in quarantine at GRACE where she was cared for around-the-clock by two expert caregivers, Devotte Kavira Kihira and Kambale Muviri. She was 18 months old when she arrived, one of the youngest gorillas at GRACE to date.
“Because of her young age, we went slowly with her quarantine program to make sure she was well prepared for integration,” said Dalmas Kakule, Animal Care Manager. “Honestly, though, she surprised us. She is an exceptional gorilla — very easy-going and strong — so we expect her to do really well in the family group.”
Integrations are carefully orchestrated and overseen by GRACE’s Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group, which consists of gorilla experts who have supervised dozens of gorilla integrations in zoos. Lulingu was first introduced to the gorillas from afar, then up close. Integration day was the first time she was able to physically interact with the gorillas.
On the morning of Lulingu’s integration, the caregivers made sure they had thought of every detail so things would go smoothly. They weighed Lulingu one last time, did a final health exam, and rehearsed everyone’s role. “It was such a happy day for the staff,” said Executive Director, Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “Our aim is for these gorillas to have a family again, so our ultimate reward is watching the little ones join the group. When Lulingu was accepted by the gorillas, staff members were so pleased they were high-fiving and hugging each other in celebration!”
Lulingu was initially introduced to alpha female Pinga. Pinga scooped her up immediately and began walking around, holding her in a protective posture, just like a new gorilla mother. Once they had become acquainted, the pair went outside to join the rest of the group. Four young females — Muyisa, Ndjingala, Isangi, and Kalonge — gathered around Pinga to inspect the newest group member. Despite all the excitement, Lulingu remained calm and started foraging alongside Pinga. Lulingu even appeased the eager young females by riding on their backs for short distances.
Two other high-ranking adult females, Mapendo and Itebero, were and continue to be very interested in mothering Lulingu. Pinga gets first dibs, but these females spend time with Lulingu whenever possible. Lulingu is smart and knows to seek out their company whenever she’s had enough of the young females playing the ‘carry Lulingu around’ game!
Eight-year-old male Kighoma leads the group but is not very interested in young gorillas. He is busy protecting the group and keeping the other males in line. He has been gentle with Lulingu, however, suggesting he has accepted her as well.
Two days after her integration, Lulingu began going into the 24-acre forest enclosure with the group. She was used to the forest because she went there often during her quarantine, but now she is able to play in the trees with the other youngsters — a beautiful sight to see! Lulingu is doing a great job following the group and foraging alongside them.
Pinga is taking her mothering job very seriously, which is expected given her successful surrogate track record. GRACE Center Director Jackson Mbeke shared that a few days ago the group was coming back from the forest and Pinga ended up way ahead of Lulingu because Lulingu had gotten side-tracked playing with other gorillas. As soon as Pinga realized it, she came rushing back to collect Lulingu and carry her inside. She did this before Lulingu had even noticed that they had been separated! Mbeke remarked “Pinga is a professional mother, so Lulingu is in very good hands.”
We wish Lulingu all the best as she starts her new life back with gorillas!
Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center – GRACE was founded in 2009 and is the only facility in the world dedicated to providing in situ rehabilitative care for Grauer’s gorillas orphaned by poaching. GRACE’s ultimate goal is to return gorillas to the wild. GRACE also works with local communities, through education and other outreach programs, to help ensure the long-term survival of wild gorilla populations. Grauer’s gorillas only live in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and have lost 77% of their population in the past 20 years due to poaching. They are Critically Endangered and considered to be one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world.