United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UN Helicopter returns Gorilla Orphan to DR Congo


Goma -- An endangered female Grauer's gorilla, confiscated from poachers in Rwanda three years ago, was airlifted home to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) by United Nations peacekeepers on May 18 in a transfer coordinated by a coalition of conservation partners that included the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN), Rwanda Development Board (RDB), Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (Fossey Fund), Gorilla Doctors, Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), and Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC).

Gorilla Doctors drove the orphaned gorilla from Kinigi, Rwanda to the Congolese border town of Goma early in the day, with logistical support from Fossey Fund, RDB, and local law enforcement. From there, UN helicopters transported the 4-year-old gorilla - named 'Ihirwe,' which means 'luck' in the local Kinyarwanda language - to the GRACE Center in Kasugho, a remote region of northeastern DR Congo.

At GRACE, Ihirwe will join 13 other orphaned gorillas in the world's only sanctuary dedicated to Grauer's gorillas. This will be her first chance to live with other gorillas after she was illegally captured from the wild by poachers in 2011.

The MI 8 helicopter rescue was part of the UN's regularly scheduled air traffic within the region and part of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC's (MONUSCO) efforts, who arranged to transport the gorilla through GRASP. The flight reduced what would have been a grueling 150-mile (250 kilometers) trip overland to less than two hours.

'GRASP is extremely grateful to the MONUSCO officials who made this transfer possible,' said GRASP coordinator Doug Cress. 'We recognize that moving endangered species to safety is not normally part of a peacekeeping mission, but MONUSCO's willingness to help underscores its commitment to protecting DR Congo's natural heritage.'

Ihirwe was confiscated from poachers as an infant, and had been living in a quarantine facility in the town of Kinigi, where Fossey Fund and Gorilla Doctors provided caregivers to stay with her 24 hours a day since her arrival, acting as surrogate parents. The Gorilla Doctors' international team of veterinarians nursed the young gorilla back to health after her rescue and have overseen her medical care throughout her time in Rwanda.

'We are thrilled to see Ihirwe finally return home to DRC and join other gorillas of her own subspecies at GRACE,' said Gorilla Doctors Regional Veterinary Manager Dr. Jan Ramer. 'Under round-the-clock care, we have watched Ihirwe grow from a malnourished, frightened infant at the time of her rescue, to a healthy, confident young gorilla.'

The international collaboration to transport Ihirwe to her new home represents the strong commitment of both Rwanda and DR Congo to protecting their countries' great apes. At GRACE, Ihirwe will relearn forest skills and be integrated into a gorilla social group so that one day she may be released back into the wild.

'It is heartening to see Ihirwe make the transition to a new family at GRACE after caring for her in Rwanda for nearly three years,' said Clare Richardson, President and CEO of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. 'By actively engaging Congolese communities living near gorilla habitat through our Grauer's Gorilla Research and Conservation Program in DRC, we are also making an effort to stem the animal trafficking that produces these orphans.'

The 2013 GRASP report, Stolen Apes, estimates that a minimum of 2,972 great apes are lost from the wild each year in Africa and Asia through illicit activity, and gorillas comprise 14 per cent of that total.

Eastern Lowland gorillas - also known as Grauer's gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) - are classified as 'endangered' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and are found only in eastern DR Congo. Seriously threatened by habitat loss, human encroachment, illegal trade, disease, and regional instability, it is estimated that no more than 5,000 Grauer's gorillas remain in the wild.

'The cross-border collaboration that helped bring Ihirwe home to DRC to be with other gorillas has been inspiring to behold, as it demonstrates the commitment of both countries to gorilla welfare and conservation,' said Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE Executive Director. 'GRACE is honored to have been part of this effort and looks forward to helping Ihirwe adjust to her new life.'

GRASP is a unique alliance of 95 nations, conservation organizations, research institutions, United Nations agencies and private companies committed to ensuring the long-term survival of great apes and their habit. For more information, visit www.un-grasp.org or contact grasp@unep.org.

INSTITUT CONGOLAIS POUR LA CONSERVATION DE LA NATURE (ICCN) is the Democratic Republic of Congo's Wildlife Authority. ICCN has a legal mandate to enforce the conservation laws that are designed to protect Congo's flora and fauna.

RWANDA DEVELOPMENT BOARD (RDB) is Rwanda's wildlife authority that operates within a coalition of investment and innovation sectors. RDB's Conservation and Tourism Department manages all aspects of the nation's biodiversity, while promoting the sustainable development of Rwanda's eco-tourism industry.

THE DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND INTERNATIONAL is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. Founded by Dr. Dian Fossey as the Digit Fund and renamed after her death, the Fossey Fund operates the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, and maintains a staff of scientists, trackers and anti-poaching patrols in Volcanoes National Park. The Fossey Fund also studies Grauer's Gorillas and their habitat and works with community-managed reserves in the DR Congo through its Grauer's Gorilla Conservation and Research Program. In addition, the Fossey Fund operates extensive education, health and other community outreach programs. For more information, visit www.gorillafund.org

GORILLA DOCTORS - Founded in 1986 at the request of the late gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, the Gorilla Doctors are dedicated to conserving Central Africa's endangered mountain and Grauer's gorillas through life-saving veterinary care and a One Health approach. Powered by the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project Inc. and the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, Gorilla Doctors treats wild human-habituated gorillas suffering from life-threatening injuries and illnesses, aids in the rescue and treatment of orphaned gorillas, conducts gorilla disease research, and facilitates preventive health care for the people who work in the national parks and come into close contact with the gorillas. To read about Ihirwe's rescue and medical care, go to http://bit.ly/IhirweRescue . For more information about the Gorilla Doctors, please visit www.gorilladoctors.org

GORILLA REHABILITATION AND CONSERVATION EDUCATION (GRACE) CENTER - Founded in 2009 by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) and Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, GRACE is the only facility in the world dedicated to providing in situ rehabilitative care for orphaned Grauer's gorillas and ultimately aims to reintroduce gorillas back into the wild. GRACE also works alongside local communities, through education and other outreach programs, to help ensure the long-term survival of wild gorilla populations. Other major partners for this project include Disney and the Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Utah's Hogle Zoos. For more information about GRACE, please visit www.gracegorillas.org

THE GREATER VIRUNGA TRANSBOUNDARY COLLABORATION (GVTC) is a mechanism for strategic, transboundary collaborative conservation of the biodiverse Greater Virunga Landscape, found in DR Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The mission of GVTC is to strengthen transboundary collaboration for conservation and sustainable development across the Central Albertine Rift. For more information about GVTC, please visit: www.greatervirunga.org

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