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Rescued Gorilla Orphan Returns Home

Posted by Tara Henson on 06/18/2014


Latest news from Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International


An endangered female Grauer’s gorilla confiscated from poachers in Rwanda in August 2011 was airlifted home to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) on May 19, 2014, by United Nations peacekeepers in a transfer coordinated by a coalition of conservation partners that included the Rwanda Development Board, Congolese Wildlife Authority, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Gorilla Doctors, Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, Great Apes Survival Partnership, and Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration.

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. The MI 17 transport helicopter flight was part of the U.N.’s regularly scheduled air traffic within the region as part of their Organization Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) effort, and arranged to transport the gorilla through Great Apes Survival Partnership. The flight reduced what would have a grueling 150-mile (250 kilometers) trip overland to less than two hours.

At GRACE, Ihirwe has joined 13 other rescued orphan gorillas in the world’s only sanctuary dedicated to Grauer’s gorillas. Ihirwe was confiscated from poachers as an infant, and had been living in a quarantine facility in the town of Kinigi, where the Fossey Fund and Gorilla Doctors provided caregivers to stay with her 24 hours a day since her arrival, acting as surrogate parents. 

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.”

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 DR Congo 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, Ph.D., GRACE executive director. “GRACE is honored to have been part of this effort and looks forward to helping Ihirwe adjust to her new life.”

Founded in 2009 by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority  and Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, GRACE is the only facility in the world dedicated to providing in situ rehabilitative care for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas and ultimately aims to reintroduce gorillas back into the wild. GRACE also works alongside local communities, through education and other outreach programs, to help ensure the long-term survival of wild gorilla populations. Other major partners for this project include Disney and the Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Utah’s Hogle zoos.

In other news at GRACE, the new forest enclosure, which will be the largest of its kind in the world, is just about ready for its debut, which is scheduled for this summer. This fenced-in area of forest will give the gorillas another step toward returning toward a true life in the wild. For information about GRACE, visit

The Oklahoma City Zoo is a Gorilla Council for Conservation Action member, supporting field protection for gorillas against poachers, human illness and other threats, continuing research and education on the gorilla ecosystem and aiding community development for the people who share gorilla habitats.

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