Dr. Jan shares her experience of moving the orphaned mountain gorillas Maisha and Kaboko back to Congo.

We tried to think of everything that could possibly go wrong.  After many meetings and a few sleepless nights, we had Plan A, Plan B, back-up medical kits and emergency darts prepared. It was finally moving day for Maisha and Kaboko, the two orphaned mountain gorillas who have been living in the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project Confiscated Gorilla Quarantine Facility in Kinigi for the past several years. This move was an important trans-boundary collaboration between the wildlife authorities in Rwanda and DR Congo (Rwanda Development Board – RDB, and Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature –ICCN) , along with the Trans-boundary Secretariate and the NGOs who have worked so hard to save these orphans (MGVP and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International). They were moving to Senkwekwe Center – a lovely and large forest enclosure at Rumangabo, where they will be introduced to Ndeze and Ndakasi, the only other mountain gorillas in human care in the world.

Morning in Kinigi on moving day.As always, the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry… The gorilla orphans in Kinigi have 3 sleeping rooms and always sleep with the same partners. Our plans revolved around which gorillas were in each room so that Maisha and Kaboko could be safely anesthetized and removed from the remaining 6 Grauer’s gorillas.  Naturally, for the first time in years, Kaboko decided to sleep in a different room the night before the move!  Plan C was born.   Also, we had planned to have all Gorilla Doctors present for this phase of the move in case there were any unexpected emergencies, but a young gorilla in Uganda was found with a snare the day before the move. Dr. Fred and Dr. Mike went to Uganda to try to help this poor little gorilla.  We divided our forces and hoped for the best in all 3 countries!

Dr. Eddy prepares to dart Maisha.It was a clear, cool morning when we headed up to Kinigi at 5:30.  Dr. Magdalena went into the facility first, as she is well known to the gorillas and had been working with the caregivers to train the gorillas to accept an oral sedative.  That piece went very well, and within 30 minutes all gorillas were somewhat sedate.  Several had to be “topped off”, but the plan was a small success.  Next came the darting of Maisha and Kaboko.  They were each successfully darted by Dr. Jean Felix and Dr. Eddy, and each had a complete examination.  Next they were placed in the waiting shipping crates, one in each of our Land Cruisers.  Dr. Noel and Elisabeth, along with two of the caregivers known to the gorillas, rode in the back of the trucks to monitor and comfort Maisha and Kaboko during the 4 hour road trip.

Dr. Jan checks on Maisha in the truck.The procession to the border between Rwanda and DR Congo consisted of our two trucks, a Trans-boundary Secretariat truck, RDB and ICCN trucks, and a Karisoke truck. Police along the route had been alerted and allowed us to pass freely. Immigration and customs officials on both sides had been briefed, and we traveled across the border without a problem.  Curious onlookers peered in the windows at the border, but you can’t really blame them – I suspect most of us would peer too if a gorilla went down our street!

Caretaker Fabien talks to Kaboko during a stop at the DR Congo border.Once across the border and into DR Congo, the caravan added an ICCN armed escort, and we drove the bumpy 1.5 hours to Rumangabo without incident.  I was in the car with Maisha, and she began hooting a little as she recovered from her sedative.  She was confused and nervous, but sat quietly in the crate while Innocent, her caregiver, talked to her softly and gave her a bit of banana now and then. At one point he even sang to her a little song about how much she was going to like it in her new home at Senkwekwe Center!

As caretaker Innocent and ICCN rangers struggle to carry Maisha to the night house, she rests inside happily snacking on grass.We pulled up to the gate at Rumangabo about 2:30 in the afternoon.  I always love driving into the Park Headquarters there. The air is cool and the trees form a canopy along the lane leading to the first big office building.  This day was no exception.  Maisha and Kaboko looked around their forest surroundings as they were carried in their crates down the steps to their new night house.  Maisha even picked up some elephant grass and munched on it as she was being carried down the steps – she looked a bit like a princess!

Maisha in the night house.Sandy Jones, the former Confiscated Gorilla Care Manager at Kinigi and now the manager of GRACE, came to Senkwekwe Center to help during Maisha and Kaboko’s first week adjusting to their new home.  Andre, the ICCN gorilla manager who has been caring for Ndeze and Ndakasi for the past 3 years was also on hand.  They both greeted us with big smiles as we moved the crates into the new night house.  Maisha and Kaboko were clearly ready to be out of the crates, and once in their new rooms began to investigate every nook and cranny, grabbing the yummy food that had been scattered for them as they went. Maisha even hummed as she chewed a mango!  They seemed to settle in rather quickly, although Maisha did check every window, door and lock several times.  They took food from Fabien, Innocent, and Andre.  And then we all breathed a sigh of relief.  This was a moment we had all been waiting for, hoping for and planning for, for a very long time.

We left Fabien, Andre and Innocent with Maisha and Kaboko so that all could settle in to their new environment.   After a long, stressful day, everyone slept well that night, including the gorillas, although Fabien told me they did not get to sleep until after 9pm!

Baboons at Rumangabo.The next morning was clear and beautiful.  Baboons did greet us as we made our way from our tents down to Senkwekwe Center to check on the gorillas.  Everyone was looking well!  Maisha charged at the bars when she saw me, and then went back to eating  – I suspect I represented all veterinarians who had ever done anything evil to her than morning… but it was good to see both gorillas bright and alert, enjoying their breakfast of celery, bananas, mangos and potatoes.

Serge climbs a tree to trim the branches.Sandy, Dr. Eddy and I then began the task of waking the new forest enclosure to be absolutely sure there were no escape routes.  We found a couple of trees that needed trimming, because at the canopy level there were leafy avenues to the greater forest!  Andre found Serge, a tree climber extraordinaire!  This guy could climb almost any tree in the forest, and climbed very high into several to “trim” the upper branches with a machete he had tied to a rope around his shoulder.  Absolutely amazing.

The final inspection.We worked throughout the day checking electric wires around the exterior wall and several trees, cleaned the yard of all construction material, and at the end of the day did a final walk around to assure ourselves that it was safe and secure for the gorillas.  Little did Maisha and Kaboko know what wonders would be awaiting them tomorrow.  We went to bed that night under a gorgeous full moon, each one of us full of anticipation – almost like Christmas Eve, only a little nervous…

Maisha climbs a tree.Five o-clock did not come early enough the next morning!  We trotted down to Senkwekwe Center, scattering baboons and alarming colobus monkeys.  The gorillas were getting a little testy – especially Maisha.  She continued to test all doors and locks, and both peered hopefully out of the windows and doors.  It was time to let them into their new, large, lush forest enclosure.  Andre, Sandy and Fabien walked the perimeter one last time and checked all doors and locks.  Once assured it was secure, Fabien and Innocent stayed in the yard, because they are well known and trusted by the gorillas, and we opened the door.  Our hearts were pounding as we watched Maisha race out the door into the sunshine.  Kaboko was a little hesitant, but followed Maisha within a minute or two.   Immediately Maisha led the 2 caregivers and Kaboko on an inspection of the perimeter.  Slowly and deliberately they walked around the large enclosure, with Maisha looking carefully at the wall, doors, wires and trees.  Once that was accomplished she easily climbed up the tree nearest to the adjacent enclosure containing Ndakasi and Ndeze!  The very tree Serge had climbed and trimmed the day before!  She sat comfortably, watching the little girls as they stared back at her.  Ndeze climbed up a tree as close as she could (but not close enough to get over the wall!) to get a better view of Maisha.   Ndakasi preferred to stay with her caregiver – she looked like she just was not sure of this big gorilla on the other side of the wall.  It was fascinating to watch them watch each other.  There was actually very little drama – only great interest.  Once she got her fill of the little gorillas Maisha turned her attention to the rest of the enclosure – she looked like she was surveying her realm!

Ndeze watches Maisha from another tree.For the rest of the day, Maisha climbed a few trees, displayed at blue monkeys that dared to venture into her yard, and in general seemed to be having a grand time. Kaboko, on the other hand, seemed a bit shell shocked, and preferred to hide in the foliage.  In fact, we did not see much of him at all that day.  Which was a surprise to us all – we had guessed that the two gorillas would stick together.  Another example of humans not being able to out-think an animal…  Ndeze and Ndakasi had a great day too, climbing, wrestling, spinning on rope toys, and keeping an eye on the new kid on the block next door.

That night Maisha came into the night house readily – she is a creature of comfort and food.  Kaboko chose to make his night nest outside. We were a little worried, because we couldn’t guess what was going on in his mind, but it was a nice night and we knew he would be fine.  The next morning Maisha went out without her caregivers, and immediately went to Kaboko. They spent the day together, and he even climbed a tree or two.  Kaboko really came out of his shell, and they both are enjoying exploring the vast foliage, trees and valleys of their new home.  Another sigh of relief was breathed by all!

Maisha and Kaboko sit on the stoop on their night house eating.Now the big gorillas will go through a 30-day quarantine from the little kids, and sometime in January the four will be slowly and carefully combined to form a new mountain gorilla family at Senkwekwe Center.  The ultimate and ideal goal for these animals is reintroduction to the wild, but this cannot be done for several years at least, as the group learns to live like wild gorillas at Senkwekwe.  For the time being, they’ll live in a situation as close to their mountain forest home as possible, thanks to the hard work and dedication of all partners on this project.   Stay tuned for more information on the adventures of Maisha, Kaboko, Ndeze and Ndakasi!