Mountain gorillas are arguably the most fascinating creatures in the wild. The opportunity of spotting them attracts thousands of tourists to Africa each year. There are only three countries where mountain gorillas can be sighted – Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though the gorillas look the same in all three countries, it is a different experience tracking the gorillas in each national park. One of the advantages of tracking mountain gorillas in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park is the opportunity of visiting the only orphanage for mountain gorillas in the world afterwards.
Senkwekwe Centre is located at the headquarters of Virunga National Park near Mikeno lodge. The centre is named after the great silverback gorilla “Senkwekwe” who led the gorilla group Rugendo during a great massacre of some members in 2007 by rebel forces hiding in the game park. The idea of the centre came up when two orphaned gorillas (Ndakasi and Ndezi) who survived the massacre were rescued and there was no suitable place to take proper care of them. A decision was made to set up a centre to cater for young mountain gorillas that have lost their parents due to poaching, animal trafficking or fighting between government forces and rebels in the park area. The Senkwekwe centre was opened in 2010 and has become known as the only place in the world were mountain gorillas have lived successful in captivity.
Under the leadership of Andre Bauma and the management of Virunga National Park, the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage offers a rare opportunity for primate lovers to contribute directly to a worthwhile conservation effort while also observing mountain gorillas interact closely with humans. The Gorilla Doctors and caretaker staff at the centre help protect and raise the orphans. Gorilla Doctors is a team of veterinary doctors working on several Gorilla conservation projects in Africa among which include treating mountain gorillas in the wild.
Apart from mountain gorillas, the Senkwekwe Center also helps in rehabilitating young Eastern lowland gorillas by removing them away from traffickers, treating them for a given period and then transferring them to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center for orphaned lowland gorillas. The center has also earned praise for its community outreach and educational activities near the center.
Maintaining mountain gorillas in captivity is very challenging and expensive. This achievement is even more remarkable given the sometimes volatile situation in the park caused by rebels. It is important to point out that the success of this mountain gorilla orphanage wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the significant funding from well-wishers, individuals and above all gorilla conservation organizations like the Murry Foundation, Gorilla Doctors, Dian Fossey Foundation, Gearing Up 4 Gorillas, The Howard Buffett Foundation, World Heritage Organization, David and Lucile Packard Foundation among others.
Information About the Gorilla Orphans at the Senkwekwe Centre
There are over 6 orphaned mountain gorillas that have lived at the centre since its opening in 2010. The gorillas stay in the orphanage throughout the remainder of their life and form a new group of their own in the orphange. One reason why the gorillas can’t rejoin their old families is that they get too used to being with humans, the privileges and the comfortable life in the enclosure. They would find it difficult to find food on their own without. Wild gorillas have group dynamics and hierarchy that the orphans would struggle to cope with. The only alternative for them is to remain with their new group of youngsters. Let us look at some of the inmates since the centre was opened:
Maisha: Maisha (meaning “life”) was born in 2001 and was the first orphan to be received at the centre. Her birth occurred during a particularly difficult time in the park. The park was being used as a hideout by one of the rebel groups in Eastern DR Congo. Poaching and clearing of park forests for agriculture was still rampant. In 2004, Maisha was taken captive by poachers and taken to a cave in neighboring Rwanda. The police in Rwanda and the Volcanoes National Park staff heard rumors about her presence and rescued her from the poachers. During her rescue, she was found thin and in a very poor health state but luckily for her, the Gorilla Doctors were there to take good care of her at their centre in Rwanda. Maisha regained her form within no time and also recovered from the great trauma she received while in the hands of the poachers. When the Senkwekwe center was completed in 2010, she was transferred to DR Congo as a 9 year old. Maisha was a natural leader with motherly instincts. She became the matriarch as the number of orphans grew. As the oldest and with no dominant male, she helped keep order among warring members and protected the caretakers as they went about with their work in the centre. Unfortunately Maisha started developing a low appetite and diarrhea which persisted despite treatment. She died after a long illness whose cause was never discovered.
Yalala: Yalala is a female that belonged to the Kabirizi family. She was found lying on her back after being caught in a snare set up by poachers. Her family tried to set her free but abandoned her when there was nothing more they could do. Her foot was severely damaged by the snare and had to be amputated.
Kaboko: This male orphan was also caught trapped in a snare set up by poachers. The snare inflicted a deep wound on his right hand which required immediate amputation. Kaboko was very mischievous and playful while in the centre but had problems with his stomach/intestines. The 2012 unrest in the park and heavy gunfire between government forces and rebels is believed to have stressed him further leading to his death at the age of five in 2012. The Gorilla doctors had gone back to Rwanda and couldn’t come to his aid in such a volatile situation.
Ndakasi: Is a ten year old female who survived the 2007 massacre of the Rugendo group under the leadership of Senkwekwe the great silverback. Because the Senkwekwe centre wasn’t complete by then, Ndakasi and another female Ndezi were first taken to live in house in Goma. The conditions there weren’t good. The enclosure was not spacious and it was difficult to maintain an acceptable level of hygiene. Moreover being a large and congested town, Goma had a noisy and dusty environment.
Ndeze: This ten year female is also a survivor of the infamous 2007 massacre of group members from the Rugendo family under Senkwekwe. She was found clinging to the breast of her dead mother. Her mother was known as Safari and a much loved member of Senkwekwe’s family. She and Ndakasi were later transferred from a house in Goma to their new forest home at the Senkwekwe Center.
Matabishi: Is a younger male who was rescued and joined the orphanage in June 2010. Matabashi was found abandoned in corn field near the park boundary. It is believed that poachers left him near the boundary out of fear that they would be arrested by the park rangers sooner or later. Maisha the Matriarch had a soft spot for Matabashi and took great care of him as if he was her own offspring. She would carry him on her back while also grooming and protecting him from the other stubborn youngsters.
Visiting the Senkwekwe Centre and Gorilla Orphanage
The Senkwekwe Centre is located near the luxurious Mikeno lodge (about ten minutes of walking from the lodge). Visitors to the centre are usually those who have come to do some of the activities offered at the Virunga National Park like chimpanzee trekking, Mount Nyiragongo hiking, gorilla trekking, birdwatching and game drives. Visiting the Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage is perfect for those who have completed gorilla trekking and have spare time to go visit the orphanage. The visit to the orphanage is special because mountain gorillas that live in an enclosure and have constant contact with humans develop new behaviors that may not be seen with those in the wild. One thing to look out for is how they interact with humans compared to those in the wild.
Visiting the gorilla orphanage is free for residents in Mikeno lodge. Those who are booked with other hotels need to contact the park for the possibility of visiting the centre in advance. The best way to do this is through your tour operator.
The Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage is run by a group of caretakers, gorilla doctors and staff from Virunga National Park. The caretakers stay with the orphans full time and ensure that they are well fed while also monitoring any signs of sickness or mood changes. Medical personnel from the Gorilla Doctors pay monthly visits to check on the infants and treat any injuries or illness.
The area chosen for the orphanage is scenic with lush green forest that offers similar conditions to their relatives deep in the forest. Other smaller primates like baboons, vervet monkeys and Colobuses love visiting the place although the electric fence surrounding the large forest enclosure keeps them away. New gorillas first live in a secluded enclosure before finally being introduced to the others in the orphanage. There is deck were visitors can watch as the caretakers feed and play with the orphans. Each orphan has a special caretaker. The bond between the caretakers and orphans is very strong indeed and this is because gorilla infants show much more affection than young children. New residents who have been recently rescued and still too young are fed on milk foods before being given fruit and other natural vegetation. Their food consists of mainly carrots and cauliflower. The food is bought from Goma town while water fo washing, cleaning and cooking is got from a reservoir in the enclosure.
Whereas it is important for all wild animals to live free among their own in the wild, the Senkwekwe centre has shown that it can deliver the same wild environment but with greater safety for the primates. By the end of the visit, you would have appreciated the great effort put by the staff of the facility towards the survival of the primates. Those who wish to contribute to the success of the facility can make donations while at the centre. To volunteer or get involved with the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage, one needs to contact the management of park.
Apart from visiting the enclosure, there are other alternative activities that can arranged by Mikeno lodge in collaboration with staff of Virunga National Park. Visitors can go and learn about the Congo Hounds programme were special breeds of dogs are being used to track poachers using their acute sense of smell. The other activity is visiting the vegetable gardens and the cooperative society set up for the wives of fallen Park rangers.