By Molly Feltner

Heavily armed Kahuzi-Biega National Park rangers prepare to enter the forest.It had already been a long, frustrating day in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. After many hours in the thickly vegetated forest, and in heavy rain, Drs. Dawn, Eddy, and Martin and a ranger team could not get close enough to safely dart two juvenile female gorillas with snares around their limbs. The gorillas were members of the Chimanuka group, the only fully habituated family of Grauer’s gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega.

The park, which is located in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, has been at the center of civil war and rebel conflict for the last 20 years, and most recently the threat of violence has prevented park authorities and the Gorilla Doctors from being able to closely monitor the habituated gorillas.

A park holds Isangi at the park headquarters on September 13.The disappointed Gorilla Doctors team made its way back to park headquarters at Tshivanga. Upon arrival, Dr. Eddy saw a park ranger with a tiny baby gorilla in his arms. It could only be there for one reason — it had been poached from the forest and was now an orphan.

The Gorilla Doctors’ immediate concern was biosecurity. Baby gorillas have vulnerable immune systems, and the infant had likely been exposed to many people who could be carrying infectious disease. Masks were distributed to everyone around the infant. Drs. Eddy and Dawn took the baby, a female who appeared to be about nine months old, and performed a physical exam. She looked to be in fairly good health and was relatively calm. 

Drs. Dawn and Eddy perform a physical exam on the baby.The Gorilla Doctors learned what had happened to her: A man from the Congolese nonprofit Jeunesse Pour le Conservation de l’Environnement, a community group that promotes the conservation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, brought the baby gorilla to the park headquarters after having protected the baby gorilla in captivity for some time. He explained that members of Raiya Mutomboki, a rebel group active in the region, brought the gorilla to his organization in early August after confiscating the gorilla from another rival rebel group, the FDRL. While it’s impossible to confirm these details, it was very likely that the orphan had been violently removed from her family – typically, poachers will kill a baby gorilla’s mother and other family members in order to take the infant and sell it on the black market.

As there were no facilities for temporarily housing an orphan gorilla at Tshivanga, the baby was taken to the Lwiro Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center for confiscated chimpanzees, monkeys and other forest wildlife. Plans were made for Dr. Martin and the Gorilla Doctors team to transport her to the Senkwekwe Center at Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo, North Kivu, the nearest facility that could provide appropriate long-term housing and care for the orphan. Despite recent fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congo army, the park headquarters remained a safe haven.

On September 15, after receiving permission from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park authorities, an ICCN ranger brought the orphan to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, to meet the Gorilla Doctors. The infant, which had spent most of her life in the forest, was about to embark on a long journey. First, she needed to cross Lake Kivu by speedboat to reach Goma, the capital of North Kivu province: the boat captain and passengers were stunned to see a gorilla, but allowed us to buy tickets for the two-hour journey.

Dr. Martin holds Isangi while driving from the Goma port to TCCB headquarters.When we finally reached the port at Goma, curious onlookers pressed around our group to catch a glimpse of the gorilla. Thankfully, we were whisked away in a truck by Dr. Jacques and Pierre Kakule, the director of the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB). At TCCB headquarters in Goma we met Innocent Mburanumwe, the chief of Virunga National Park’s gorilla sector, who was coordinating with Virunga National Park Orphan Caretaker Andre Bauma to prepare Senkwekwe’s smaller gorilla enclosure for the orphan.

Isangi explores the yard at TCCB.The infant had a chance to stretch her legs and walk around the yard with Dr. Martin, with whom she quickly bonded. Dr. Martin, who had never dealt with such a young orphan before, quickly proved to be natural gorilla parent.

Isangi passes out on the drive to Rumangabo.After picking up Janvier Kakule Kayivumba, the former caretaker of the Grauer’s gorilla orphan Shamavu, we headed up to the park. While we bounced along rough roads, passing by refugee camps and through military and M23 roadblocks, the infant, oblivious to her surroundings, fell asleep with her arms outstretched on Dr. Martin’s lap. Just like a human baby, the rocking motion of the truck lulled her into a nap.

Finally safe at Virunga National Park.Once we reached Rumangabo and got out the truck, the infant seemed to notice familiar sights and sounds. She saw the forest, chirping birds, and blue monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Dr. Martin walked her to the small forest enclosure at Senkwekwe, being careful to avoid the large enclosure where Maisha, Ndeze, and Ndakasi live in order to avoid spreading disease. After nearly eight hours of travel, the infant was famished and happily ate the bananas Dr. Martin gave her. 

Bonding with Dr. Martin.To prevent disease transmission from the orphan to Maisha, Ndeze and Ndakasi, Andre and the other mountain gorilla caretakers cannot care for her. When her new caretaker Janvier entered the enclosure, the infant tentatively walked up to him. He bent down and she crawled up in his arms for a moment before retreating back to Dr. Martin. As she sat with Dr. Martin, his cell phone rang: Dr. Eddy reported that he and Dr. Dawn had successfully removed the snares from both gorillas in Chimanuka group.

Getting to know caretaker Janvier.The next morning, after spending the night with Janvier, the infant was very comfortable with her caregiver. She was eating carrots and pineapple, and drinking watered-down juice from a bottle. The baby appeared at ease with her surroundings, and was even calling to Maisha, Ndeze, and Ndakasi, who were watching her from trees in their enclosure.

Isangi and Janvier.After discussing possibilities for the orphan’s name, we decided upon “Isangi,” the name of the village where the rebels handed her over to the community conservation group. This follows in the tradition of other Grauer’s gorilla orphans, such as Lubutu and Ndjingala, who were also named after the places where they were confiscated. The Gorilla Doctors, the Congolese Wildlife Authority, and other gorilla conservation organizations will meet soon to make decisions about her future. Until then, we are satisfied that she is safe and happy at the Senkwekwe center. 

Here is a video of Isangi’s confiscation and transfer to Virunga:

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