On April 17, 2007, mountain gorilla Nyiransekuye of the Kabirizi family gave birth to a healthy infant. She was named Ndakasi after the much-loved Virunga National Park ranger Benjamin Ndakasi Lola who passed away earlier in the year. Sadly, little Ndakasi was less than 2 months old when disaster struck: armed assailants attacked the Kabirizi family on June 8 and shot Nyiransekuye. Despite the danger posed by the attackers, a group of rangers led by Andre Bauma entered the forest to search for surviving gorillas. They found Nyiransekuye dead, with baby Ndakasi still clinging to her breast. Weak and dehydrated after 24 hours of not being able to nurse, Ndakasi was near death herself. As night approached, Andre held Ndakasi close to keep her warm and tried to hydrate her by dabbing milk on her gums and tongue.
Andre emerged from the forest the next day with Ndakasi, still alive, and brought her to a temporary housing in facility in Goma so that the Gorilla Doctors could examine and stabilize her. Ndakasi immediately took to bottle-feeding and was quite content to stay with her new foster parent Andre, who has served as Ndakasi’s primary caregiver ever since.
Two weeks into her care, Ndakasi developed severe pneumonia. Overnight, she became too weak to drink her milk and had difficulty breathing. The gorilla was so small—only about 18 inches long and weighing five-and-a-half pounds—that her chances of succumbing to a severe respiratory infection were high. Our veterinary team started her on antibiotics and intravenous fluid therapy, and thanks to an equipment loan from the United Nations hospital in Goma, the team was able to build her a makeshift oxygen tent. With round-the-clock intensive care, Ndakasi pulled through her illness and regained her strength and health.
Barely a month after Ndakasi’s rescue, once again tragedy struck the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park when the Rugendo family was attacked, leaving 5 gorillas dead. Another orphaned infant, 6-month-old Ndeze, was rescued by park rangers and joined Ndakasi and Andre at the orphan facility in Goma. Ndakasi and Ndeze became fast friends almost immediately, and their bond of sisterhood has remained unshaken ever since.
Under the watchful eyes of the Virunga National Park caretakers and the Gorilla Doctors, the two babies grew into playful, mischievous youngsters. In December 2009, Ndeze and Ndakasi journeyed back to Virunga National Park where they moved into the newly built Senkwekwe sanctuary (named after Ndeze’s father Senkwekwe) at the park’s headquarters. No longer confined to a small compound in noisy, crowded Goma, the two gorillas reveled in their forest playground, gleefully swinging from the branches of tallest trees while their human caretakers watched with awe—and anxiety—from the ground.
One year later, in November 2010, Ndakasi and Ndeze gained two new mountain gorilla neighbors: older orphans Maisha and Kaboko, who had been living at the Gorilla Doctors’ orphan care facility in Rwanda for several years, were moved into an adjacent large forest enclosure right next door. Ndakasi and Ndeze climbed to the tops of the trees in their enclosure and studied Maisha and Kaboko’s behavior intently. 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, an adult female, held the highest social ranking, but had no serious leadership experience. Kaboko, the subadult 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.
Sadly, on July 25, 2012, Kaboko, who had a history of gastrointestinal problems, suddenly became very ill and passed away. Due to intense fighting between armed groups near the Senkwekwe Center, the Gorilla Doctors were not able to reach him in time. Thankfully, Ndakasi, Ndeze, and Maisha remained safe and healthy during this difficult time thanks to their dedicated Virunga National Park caretakers.
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. Ndeze and Ndakasi display occasional bouts of jealousy, but Maisha is always quick to defend the new youngster in the group.
At age 6, Ndakasi is still the baby of the family and needs lots of attention from her human caretakers. While she suffered some serious health problems in 2011, including a concussion and a gastrointestinal infection, she is doing much better this year. She has regained the weight she lost last year and her hair is thick and lustrous again.