The Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage
The Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage : Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage is one of the most interesting places to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the only home to orphaned mountain gorillas in the Africa opened in 2010 and has become known as the only place in the world were mountain gorillas have lived successful in captivity. This centre is located at the headquarters of Virunga National Park near Mikeno lodge and it was named after the great silverback gorilla “Senkwekwe” who headed gorilla family called Rugendo during a great massacre of some members in 2007 by rebel forces hiding in the forest national park. The idea of the gorilla orphanage centre came up when two orphaned gorillas (Ndakasi and Ndezi) who survived the massacre were rescued and there was no suitable place to take proper care of them. A decision was made to set up a centre to cater for young mountain gorillas that have lost their parents due to poaching, animal trafficking or fighting between government forces and rebels in the park area. Under the leadership of Andre Bauma and the management of Virunga National Park, the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage centre offers a rare opportunity for primate lovers to contribute directly to a worthwhile conservation effort while also observing mountain gorillas interact closely with humans. The Gorilla Doctors who are a team of Veterinary doctors working on gorilla conservation projects in Africa and caretaker staff at the centre help protect and raise the orphans among which include treating mountain gorillas in the wild.
Apart from mountain gorillas, the Senkwekwe Centre is also home for rehabilitation of young Eastern lowland gorillas which are removed from traffickers, treated for a given period of time before and then transferring them to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education centre (GRACE) for orphaned lowland gorillas. The Senkwekwe mountain gorilla sanctuary has also earned praise for its community outreach and educational activities near the centre. Maintaining mountain gorillas in captivity is very challenging and expensive. This achievement is even more remarkable given the sometimes volatile situation in the park caused by rebels. It is important to point out that the success of this mountain gorilla orphanage wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the significant funding from well-wishers, individuals and above all gorilla conservation organizations like the Murry Foundation, Gorilla Doctors, Dian Fossey Foundation, Gearing Up 4 Gorillas, The Howard Buffett Foundation, World Heritage Organization, David and Lucile Packard Foundation among others. Some of these organizations have also funded similar organizations like the Okapi conservation project in Congo.
There are over 10 orphaned mountain gorillas that have live at the centre and these gorillas stay in the orphanage throughout their life and form a new group of their own in the orphanage. One of the reasons why the gorillas cannot be re-joined to their old families is that they get too used to being with humans, the privileges and the comfortable life in the enclosure. They would find it difficult to find food on their own without the care-givers at the sanctuary. Wild gorillas have group dynamics and hierarchy that the orphans would struggle to cope with. The only alternative for them is to remain with their new group of youngsters. Below are some of the mountain gorillas found in the Senkwekwe gorilla sanctuary sine it was opened in 2010;
- Maisha; Maisha is one of the orphaned gorillas in the sanctuary born in 2001 and was the first orphan to be received at the Senkwekwe Gorilla sanctuary, the name “Maisha” means life and her birth happened during a particularly difficult time in the Virunga park. The park was being used as a hideout by one of the rebel groups in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo when poaching and clearing of park forests for agriculture was still rampant. In 2004, Maisha was taken captive by poachers and taken to a cave in neighboring Rwanda. The police in Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park heard rum ours about her presence and rescued her from the poachers. During her rescue, she was found thin and in a very poor health state but luckily for her, the Gorilla Doctors were there to take good care of her at their center in Rwanda. Maisha regained her form within no time and also recovered from the great trauma she received while in the hands of the poachers. When the Senkwekwe center was completed in 2010, she was transferred to DR Congo as a 9-year old. Maisha was a natural leader with motherly instincts. She became the matriarch as the number of orphans grew. As the oldest and with no dominant male, she helped keep order among warring members and protected the caretakers as they went about with their work in the centre. Unfortunately, Maisha started developing a low appetite and diarrhoea which persisted despite treatment. She died after a long illness whose cause was never discovered.
- Yalala; Yalala is a female that belonged to the Kabirizi family. She was found lying on her back after being caught in a snare set up by poachers. Her family tried to set her free but abandoned her when there was nothing more they could do. Her foot was severely damaged by the snare and had to be amputated.
- Ndeze; a 10-year old female is also a survivor of the infamous 2007 massacre of group members from the Rugendo family under Senkwekwe. She was found clinging to the breast of her dead mother. Her mother was known as Safari and a much loved member of Senkwekwe’s family. She and Ndakasi were later transferred from a house in Goma to their new forest home at the Senkwekwe Centre.
- Matabishi; Matabishi Is a younger male who was rescued and joined the orphanage in June 2010. Matabashi was found abandoned in corn field near the park boundary. It is believed that poachers left him near the boundary out of fear that they would be arrested by the park rangers. Maisha the Matriarch had a soft spot for Matabashi and took great care of him as if he was her own offspring. She would carry him on her back while also grooming and protecting him from the other stubborn youngsters.
- Kaboko; This male orphan was also caught trapped in a snare set up by poachers. The snare inflicted a deep wound on his right hand which required immediate amputation. Kaboko was very mischievous and playful while in the centre but had problems with his stomach/intestines. The 2012 unrest in the park and heavy gunfire between government forces and rebels is believed to have stressed him further leading to his death at the age of five in 2012. The Gorilla doctors had gone back to Rwanda and couldn’t come to his aid in such a volatile situation.
- Ndakasi; Ndakasi Is a 10-year old female who survived the 2007 massacre of the Rugendo group under the leadership of Senkwekwe the great silverback. Since the Sanctuary was not complete by then, Ndakasi and another female Ndezi were first taken to live in Goma town however, the conditions there were not good. The enclosure was not spacious and it was difficult to maintain an acceptable level of hygiene. Moreover, being a large and congested town, Goma had a noisy and dusty environment.
The Senkwekwe Centre is located near the luxurious lodge – Mikeno lodge which is about 10 minutes’ walk from the lodge. Visitors to the Senkwekwe Gorilla sanctuary are usually those who have come to do some of the activities offered at the Virunga National Park like Mountain gorilla trekking and hiking Nyirangogo, and birdwatching. Visiting the Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage is perfect for those who have completed gorilla trekking and have spare time to go visit the Senkwekwe orphanage. The visit to the orphanage is special because mountain gorillas that live in an enclosure and have constant contact with humans develop new behaviors that may not be seen with those in the wild. One thing to look out for is how they interact with humans compared to those in the wild.
The Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage is run by a group of caretakers, gorilla doctors and staff from Virunga National Park. The caretakers stay with the orphans full time and ensure that they are well fed while also monitoring any signs of sickness or mood changes. Medical personnel from the Gorilla Doctors pay monthly visits to check on the infants and treat any injuries or illness. The area chosen for the gorilla orphanage is scenic with lush green forest that offers similar conditions to their relatives deep in the forest. Other smaller primates like baboons, vervet monkeys and Colobuses love visiting the place although the electric fence surrounding the large forest enclosure keeps them away. New gorillas first live in a secluded enclosure before finally being introduced to the others in the gorilla orphanage. There is deck were visitors can watch as the caretakers feed and play with the orphans. Each orphan has a special caretaker. The bond between the caretakers and orphans is very strong indeed and this is because gorilla infants show much more affection than young children. New residents who have been recently rescued and still too young are fed on milk foods before being given fruit and other natural vegetation. Their food consists of mainly carrots and cauliflower. The food is bought from Goma town while water for washing, cleaning and cooking is got from a reservoir in the enclosure.
Whereas it is important for all wild animals to live free among their own in the wild, the Senkwekwe mountain gorilla orphanage centre has shown that it can deliver the same wild environment but with greater safety for the primates. By the end of the visit, you would have appreciated the great effort put by the staff of the facility towards the survival of the primates. Those who wish to contribute to the success of the facility can make donations and volunteers can get involved with the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage, one needs to contact the management of park. Apart from visiting the enclosure, there are other alternative activities that can arranged by Mikeno lodge in collaboration with staff of Virunga National Park.