In mid-February, Dr. Jan traveled to the Senkwekwe sanctuary at Virunga National Park to help the Congolese Wildlife Aurhoity (ICCN)  with the introduction of the mountain gorilla orphans Ndeze and Ndakasi to Maisha and Kaboko. After a few months of being able to view each other from their separate forest enclosures , the four mountain gorillas are being brought together though a gradual process that’s being closely monitored by Dr. Jan, Debby Cox a primate expert form the Jane Gödel Institute, and ICCN and MGVP caretakers. Here’s Dr. Jan’s first report:

Debby Cox and I arrived at Rumangabo February  18, prepared to introduce Ndeze and Ndakasi to Kaboko and Maisha at Senkwekwe. We planned for every contingency we could think of with Andre and ICCN’s Dr. Arthur (we were hoping Eddy could be here but he is home with malaria, poor guy). As always, however, the gorillas had plans of their own.

Plan A on the first day was to quickly move Ndeze and Ndakasi to the new night house so that they could be across the aisle from Maisha and Kaboko that afternoon and night. The caregivers would carry them through the forest about 100 meters and deposit them in the new nighthouse. Andre assured us that they carry the girls in the forest all the time, and it should not be a problem. However, Ndeze and Ndakasi had other plans – they wanted to explore the forest. It took a bit of time, a lot of patience and some coaxing and bribing, but they finally made it to the new house and seemed confident and excited to be so close to the big gorillas they had been watching from the tree tops for the past 2 months. Maisha and Kaboko were quite relaxed and regarded their new neighbors with calm curiosity.

  Making a rope swing for the kids.
The next morning, in preparation for the introduction, new tire toys, a swing toy made from a rubber hose, and numerous food toys were installed into the night house as hopeful distractions. Ndeze seemed to be the most confident of the two girls, so she was chosen to be introduced to the big kids first. At 9am the tunnel between her room and the rooms where Maisha and Kaboko were resting was opened and by 9:15 Ndeze and Kaboko were walking together on either side of the wire mesh wall separating them. Things remained very calm, and at one point Ndeze reached through the mesh and pulled Kaboko’s face toward her and they touched noses in a gorilla kiss. Ndakasi was tense, and stayed quietly in a hammock, separated from the others, watching the interactions.

Ndakasi hiding in her hammock.At 10:00 we collectively decided to open all of the doors and allow Ndakasi to join in the introduction. Unfortunately she was not all that interested. She was frightened and screamed each time Maisha or Kaboko moved in her direction. There was much diarrhea as well. We quickly closed the door so that she could relax a bit, and thought that maybe if she watched Ndeze with the big kids she would become less frightened.

For the rest of the morning Ndeze continued to stay in the same space with Maisha and Kaboko, and while she was nervous, they had several very nice, calm interactions. Ndakasi, however, was still very nervous, keeping her eye on Maisha and Kaboko at all times, even screaming when Ndeze had an interaction with them. At one point we had to ask Andre to leave the room, because Ndakasi kept looking to him to help her get out of her situation. Poor girl just didn’t know what to do with these big gorillas.

Testing the locks.

By 11:45 everyone looked tired, and things were relatively calm, so the doors were closed separating Maisha and Kaboko from Ndeze, and allowing Ndeze and Ndakasi back together for a rest period. It took Ndakasi a while to calm down, and finally everyone slept a bit.

Plan A for the afternoon was to open all the doors again, but Ndakasi screamed immediately when the shift door was opened just for cleaning, clearly telling us that she was not ready. Time for Plan B – we gave them the afternoon to get to know each other through the mesh rather than in person – and the afternoon was calm for all intents and purposes.

A long day of observations.

The next day’s plan was to open doors again and take our cues from the gorillas and make new plans if necessary. In the morning, Ndakasi and Ndeze seemed much less frightened, but still nervous. Throughout the morning the doors were left open for Maisha, Ndakasi, and Ndeze. Kaboko remained very calm, even though separated.  Maisha was relatively good with the girls, displaying and touching them on occasion, bumping them out of the hammock, and dragging them short distances. Ndeze and Ndakasi would scream, but stop almost immediately.  Ndakasi was very defensive and aggressive when Maisha approached, dropping to the floor from the ceiling several times, but again, calmed down once she moved away. Ndeze seems to be “protecting” Ndakasi when Ndakasi is frightened. Ndeze will move voluntarily into the room with Maisha. 

After 12:15 pm Maisha got out of her hammock and entered the cage with Ndeze and Ndakasi, who were hanging from the ceiling.  Maisha reached for Ndakasi, as she had been doing all morning, and Ndakasi panicked, dropping to the floor on her back.  She was stunned for about 3 minutes, not moving normally and disoriented. The door was closed between Maisha and Ndeze and Ndakasi to evaluate her condition.  After 3 minutes she was alert and responsive, moving well, favoring her right arm a bit.  Within 7 minutes she was completely normal, eating banana and behaving calmly, now that Maisha was no longer perceived as a threat.   Ndakasi continued to behave normally, pupils normal and using the right arm normally for the rest of the day. It is assumed she was simply stunned by the fall, with no serious head injury.  Introductions were stopped for the day.

The following day Ndeze and Ndakasi were showing signs of stress. Their appetites were decreased and their stomachs were flat. Ndakasi ate favored food items only. They were still practicing avoidance behavior, moving to the furthest cage from Maisha and Kaboko.  We made the decision to stop open door introductions for a week, allowing Maisha and Kaboko to go outside, and the little girls time to adjust. 

We all agree that we should not rush this introduction. We’ll do it on gorilla time.