Maisha means “life.” Not much is known about the early life of the now 13-year-old mountain gorilla. She was born in 2001 in Virunga National Park, DR Congo, during a period of serious conflict in the region, when rebels still used the park as a hideout and the forest was being cleared by farmers at an alarming rate. In December 2004, 3-year-old Maisha was poached from the park and brought to a cave in Rwanda where she was kept tied up inside a sack for two weeks and fed only corn and sugarcane.
After hearing rumors about the infant, Volcanoes National Park staff and the Rwandan police organized a sting operation: on December 18 they confiscated Maisha from the poachers, and she was turned over to Gorilla Doctors for treatment. Upon arrival she was thin and her nutritional status was very poor. No wonder: three-year-old gorillas still need milk to keep them healthy and the poachers had not given her any for many days.
In collaboration with staff from the Karisoke Research Center of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and caretakers from Volcanoes and Virunga National Parks, Maisha was nursed back to health and slowly recovered from the terrible trauma of her ordeal. While she had suffered greatly at the hands of humans, Maisha grew inseparable from her new human caretakers. She also became obsessed with eating, and to this day she jealously guards the best pieces of food at mealtime.
In 2006, Maisha, along with several Grauer's gorilla orphans confiscated in DR Congo, moved into Gorilla Doctors’ newly renovated interim gorilla quarantine facility in Kinigi, Rwanda. Now part of a group, Maisha had the chance to interact with other gorillas, although she still preferred to keep company with her human caretakers. Over the years, new gorilla orphans moved to Kinigi, including mountain gorilla Kaboko in 2007. Of the 8 gorillas in the group, Maisha and Pinga, a female Grauer’s gorilla, were the eldest and held the highest ranking. Pinga could be aggressive to show her dominance, but Maisha was generally very calm and confident, except at feeding times.
In 2010, after the Senkwekwe mountain gorilla sanctuary was completed in Virunga National Park, Gorilla Doctors and our partner organizations agreed that it was time for Maisha and Kaboko to return to their home country: the Kinigi facility was getting too cramped for growing gorillas, and at the Senkwekwe sanctuary, Maisha would be able to roam in a large forest enclosure and be with other mountain gorillas, Ndakasi and Ndeze.
On November 23, 2010, Maisha and Kaboko were loaded into crates and made the 4-hour drive from Kinigi, Rwanda, to the Senkwekwe sanctuary in Virunga National Park, DR Congo. The two were initially placed in their new indoor night house, which had views of the forest. Upon being let out of their crates, both gorillas stood up and peered out the windows with wonder at the lush vegetation outside. Neither had seen the forest since being poached. After being let outside, Maisha immediately climbed the tallest tree and spotted Ndakasi and Ndeze, who were staring right back from trees in their enclosure next door. The process of integrating the two pairs of gorillas into one family group had begun.
No single orphaned mountain gorilla has ever been successfully reintroduced from captivity to a gorilla family in the wild. Gorilla Doctors and other stakeholders believe that if the orphans are ever to be released, their best chance for survival would be if they were reintroduced as a cohesive family unit. In February 2011, Gorilla Doctors and Virunga National Park staff decided it was time for the four orphans to live together.
Bringing the orphans together was more complicated than one might think. In the wild, a family group’s dominant silverback, the strongest and most experienced male, helps determine the social structure of the family and the ranking of the different members. In the case of these four mountain gorilla orphans, there was no silverback: Maisha held the highest social ranking, but had no serious leadership experience. Kaboko, the sub-adult male, was a moody adolescent. Ndakasi and Ndeze had never interacted with bigger gorillas before, and were quite convinced they were the queens of their realm.
The orphans were brought together in an indoor enclosure with the two pairs residing in two rooms separated by bars so that they could see each other up close but not touch. Gradually, over a period of many weeks, the young gorillas were allowed to share the same space. There was much angst, yelling, and confrontation while the two youngsters learned to accept Maisha’s authority, and Maisha learned to protect Ndeze and Ndakasi from the mischievous Kaboko. However, the four gorillas learned to live together in the same enclosure, venturing outdoors during the day and sleeping indoors in the evening.
In late June 2013, another infant male mountain gorilla was rescued outside of Virunga National Park. Matabishi was found alone in a cornfield with a large wound on his back (possibly due to a rope restraint) suggesting he may have been a victim of gorilla trafficking and had been held captive by poachers for several weeks. Under the Gorilla Doctors medical care, Matabishi’s health improved and after a period in quarantine, he was integrated into the group with Maisha, Ndeze, and Ndakasi. Maisha immediately appointed herself as the infant’s surrogate mother and the pair are never far apart.
As the only adult in the group, Maisha has the unique experience of being a female group leader. In the wild, the lead role would always be filled by an adult male. Maisha gets along well with Ndeze and Ndakasi during playtime, but they must be separated for meals because Maisha refuses to share. Presumably it is a challenge for Maisha to learn how to be a good adult gorilla when she hasn’t had any adult gorilla role models in her life, but she is is doing her best. We have enjoyed seeing her embrace the role of surrogate mother to Matabishi and she happily spends hours with the infant, embracing him, grooming him, and riding him around on her back.