By Molly Feltner, MGVP Communications Officer

On March 12, Gorilla Doctors Jan, Eddy, and Jacques and MGVP and Virunga National Park caretakers renewed their work to integrate mountain gorilla orphans Maisha, Kaboko, Ndeze, and Ndakasi into a family. Up until recent weeks the two young gorillas Ndeze and Ndakasi  and the two older gorillas, Maisha and Kaboko, had been living in separate forest enclosures at the Senkwekwe Sanctuary in Virunga National Park, DR Congo. The gorilla conservation community believes if these orphans are to be released into the wild, their best chance for success would be to return as a family. In the past, attempts to return single captive gorillas to established gorilla families have failed.

Ndakasi looks to her father Andre so she doesn’t have to look at Maisha.Integrating the four has not been easy. Ndeze and Ndakasi , who were both brought into captivity as very young infants when their mothers were killed in 2007, have grown up in human care and are not used to being around bigger gorillas. In the wild, young gorillas must submit to older siblings and other adult gorillas, who would punish them for bad behavior and make them wait before having the chance to eat tasty foods such as bamboo shoots. However, Ndeze and Ndakasi  have grown up quite spoiled by their loving father, Virunga National Park caretaker Andre Braum. Having to defer to the authority of big gorillas is something new.

Maisha: Too busy having fun to worry about the screaming kids.

To be able to better monitor the gorillas and step in if any serious fighting takes place, the four gorillas are being introduced to one another indoors in their night house. Once all the gorillas find peace with one another, they will be allowed to roam freely in their forest enclosure.  But, getting to this point takes a lot of time and patience. Here is Dr. Jan’s report of the integration:

Ndeze enjoys a bottle of fruit.On March 12, the Doors were opened to all cages at 1:30 PM after bedding 2 cages with banana trees, providing 2 new climbing structures and preparing many food enrichment items.

Ndeze immediately went to play in the bananas, and Ndakasi watched from a tunnel.  When Kaboko approached Ndakasi she screamed, which brought Ndeze to her assistance, and from that moment on Ndeze was excited and hyper-vigilant.  Miasha displayed, but did not bother Ndeze or Ndakasi, however Kaboko became more aggressive and bit Ndeze several times on the head, back and leg.  This interaction was stopped with water and at 2:20 Kaboko was separated from the others. 

Here is a video of Ndakasi and Ndeze yelling at Maisha:

Things were more calm after Kaboko was excluded, however Ndeze and Ndakasi continued to move away from Maisha when she approached, with Ndakasi being appropriately submissive when Maisha got too close. Ndeze screamed each time Maisha approached Ndakasi and would even charge toward Maisha.  More food enrichment was introduced, which kept Maisha busy, and after about 5 minutes of calm the doors were closed so that wounds on Ndeze could be evaluated.

Ndeze’s boo boo.Andre entered the cage with Ndakasi and Ndeze and easily looked over Ndeze’s body – there is a puncture wound on her head, but fairly superficial. There are several abrasions on her back and a deep bruise on her left thigh, but nothing is serious. She was given 250 mg Acetaminophen orally at 3pm. 

13 March 2011

Two cages were bedded with grasses and banana trees and nuts scattered.  Again, many food enrichment items were available.  Maisha was separated from Kaboko, with neither animal becoming upset by this separation.  Overhead tunnel doors were closed and the door between the two bedded cages was opened, allowing Maisha access to Ndeze and Ndakasi, at 10am. Initially Ndeze screamed each time Maisha approached Ndakasi, who remained very submissive, but over the course of the first hour, screaming subsided.  Maisha remained completely appropriate, displaying occasionally, touching and dragging Ndakasi occasionally. Ndeze was very upset when Maisha touched Ndakasi, but eventually stopped screaming or even pig grunting.  

Ndeze remained nervous for the rest of the day, as did Ndakasi – however all 3 gorillas remained together for 6 hours without any injury.  For at least an hour there were no personnel present in the hallway, and the gorillas remained quiet.  Ndakasi did fall several times during the day when she was in a panic to move away from Maisha, falling directly on Maisha at one point, and Maisha simply moved away.  Kaboko watched the proceedings from his room, munching on snacks or napping.

Ndeze chills out for a bit.At 4pm the doors were closed and the gorillas will remain separated overnight.  Ndeze bit Ndakasi after they were separated, and Maisha responded by grunting at Ndeze loudly as if to tell her to stop, which was interesting.  The same configuration(Maisha, Nde and Nda) will be attempted again in the morning, with the 2 cages bedded with bananas and grasses, much enrichment, and minimum of personnel.

We suspect the integration will take some weeks, and recommend that Kaboko not be introduced until Maisha and the girls have a good bond, but as always with animal introductions, we’ll take our cues from the gorillas on a daily basis.

March 16

Quick update – Maisha has been going in with Ndeze and Ndakasi for the past several days and each day things are more calm. Andre reported that yesterday Ndakasi was sleeping next to Maisha and she is beginning to eat when Maisha is present. Ndeze is tolerating Maisha… that relationship (and change in status for Ndeze!) may take a bit.  Andre will make the decision when he will begin allowing Maisha to sleep with Ndeze and Ndakasi at night, and once that bond is strong, Kaboko will be introduced. 

Maisha: Food makes everything better.

March 21

Emmanuel de Merode , Virunga National Park’s Chief Park Warden, called yesterday to say that things are going very well with the gorillas. Ndeze even slept with her head on Maisha’s stomach! Fingers crossed, and slowly slowly I think this will work!