Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage in Virunga National Park is one of the great wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. 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 afterward.
Senkwekwe Centre is located at the headquarters of Virunga National Park near Mikeno lodge. The center 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 gorilla orphanage center 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 center to cater to young mountain gorillas that have lost their parents due to poaching, animal trafficking, or fighting between government forces and rebels in the parking area. The Senkwekwe center was opened in 2010 and has become known as the only place in the world where mountain gorillas have lived successfully 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 center 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 Grauer’s gorillas (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 Senkwekwe mountain gorilla sanctuary 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. Some of these organizations have also funded similar organizations like the Okapi Conservation Project in Congo.
There are over 6 orphaned mountain gorillas that have lived at the center since its opening in 2010. The gorillas stay in the orphanage throughout the remainder of their lives and form a new group of their own in the orphanage. 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 the caregivers at the sanctuary. 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 center was opened:
Maisha (meaning “life”) was born in 2001 and was the first orphan to be received at the Senkwekwe Gorilla sanctuary. 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 were 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. Senkwekwe mountain gorilla orphanage 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 center 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 their work in the center. 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 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.
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 center but had problems with his stomach/intestines. The 2012 unrest in the park and heavy gunfire between government forces and rebels are 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.
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 center wasn’t complete by then, Ndakasi and another female Ndezi were first taken to live in a house in Goma town. 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.
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 a Safari and a much-loved member of the Senkwekwe family. She and Ndakasi were later transferred from a house in Goma to their new forest home at the Senkwekwe Center.
Is a younger male who was rescued and joined the orphanage in June 2010. Matabishi was found abandoned in a cornfield 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 Matabishi 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.
The Senkwekwe Centre is located near the luxurious Mikeno lodge (about ten minutes of walking from the lodge). Visitors to the Senkwekwe Gorilla sanctuary 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, bird-watching, and game drives. Visiting the Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage is perfect for those who have completed gorilla tracking and have spare time to go visit the Senkwekwe 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 by those in the wild. One thing to look out for is how they interact with humans compared to those in the wild.
Visiting the Senkwekwe 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 center in advance. The best way to do this is through your tour operator. You may be interested in a 2 days Congo gorilla safari.
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 illnesses.
The area chosen for the gorilla orphanage is scenic with the 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. Visiting the Senkwekwe center New gorillas first live in a secluded enclosure before finally being introduced to the others in the gorilla orphanage. There is a deck where 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 are still too young are fed 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 for 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 mountain gorilla orphanage center 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 center or sponsor a mountain gorilla. To volunteer or get involved with the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage, one needs to contact the management of the park.
Apart from visiting the enclosure, there are other alternative activities that can be arranged by Mikeno lodge in collaboration with the staff of Virunga National Park. Visitors can go and learn about the Congo Hounds program where 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.
To visit the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage center, contact safari vacations and travel services for more information and arrangements, as we can proceed to book the permits and other essentials for your trip to be colorful and memorable.