The Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage/ Center of Gorilla Orphanage situated in Virunga National Park, stands as a remarkable wildlife conservation initiative in Africa. It serves as a testament to the captivating allure of mountain gorillas, drawing in thousands of tourists annually. While these gorillas may appear similar across Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the experience of tracking them varies in each national park. Tracking these creatures in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park offers the unique opportunity to visit the world’s only orphanage for mountain gorillas.
Named after the renowned silverback gorilla “Senkwekwe,” who led the Rugendo gorilla group during a tragic event in 2007, this center was established following a rebel force-led massacre. The initiative was born out of the necessity to provide proper care for two orphaned gorillas, Ndakasi and Ndezi, who survived the ordeal. The Senkwekwe Center inaugurated in 2010, has gained recognition as the sole place globally where mountain gorillas have thrived in captivity.
In addition to mountain gorillas, the Senkwekwe Center plays a pivotal role in the rehabilitation of young Grauer’s gorillas (Eastern lowland gorillas). It involves rescuing them from traffickers, providing essential care, and subsequently relocating them to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) center, dedicated to orphaned lowland gorillas.
Maintaining mountain gorillas in captivity presents significant challenges and costs. This achievement is particularly noteworthy considering the at times volatile circumstances in the park due to rebel activities. It’s imperative to acknowledge that the success of this mountain gorilla orphanage is indebted to substantial funding from various sources, including well-wishers, individuals, and, notably, 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 supported similar initiatives 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 the gorillas can’t rejoin their old families is that they become too accustomed to being with humans, enjoying privileges, and living a 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.
Maisha, meaning “life,” came into the world in 2001 during a challenging period for Virunga National Park. The park served as a refuge for one of the rebel groups in Eastern DR Congo, and activities such as poaching and forest clearance for agriculture were rampant. In 2004, Maisha fell into the hands of poachers and was transported to a cave in neighboring Rwanda. Fortunately, authorities in Rwanda, along with the staff of Volcanoes National Park, received intelligence about her whereabouts and successfully rescued her from the poachers. At the time of her rescue, Maisha was in a fragile state of health, but thanks to the attentive care provided by the Gorilla Doctors at their center in Rwanda, she swiftly recovered.
Displaying natural leadership and maternal instincts, Maisha took on the role of matriarch as the number of orphans in the sanctuary grew. Being the eldest and with no dominant male, she played a crucial role in maintaining order among the group members and safeguarding the caretakers as they went about their tasks in the center. Sadly, Maisha’s health began to decline, marked by a reduced appetite and persistent diarrhea, which persisted despite medical intervention. After a prolonged illness, the exact cause of which remained unknown, Maisha passed away. Her legacy as a protector and leader among the orphaned gorillas endures. Center of Gorilla Orphanage
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.
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 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. Center of Gorilla Orphanage
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-old female is also a survivor of the infamous 2007 massacre of group members from the Rugendo family under Senkwekwe. She clung to the breast of her dead mother when they found her. Her mother, known as a Safari and a much-loved member of the Senkwekwe family, had passed away. Later, they transferred her and Ndakasi from a house in Goma to their new forest home at the Senkwekwe Center.
Matabishi, a younger male who was rescued and joined the orphanage in June 2010, had been found abandoned in a cornfield near the park boundary. It is believed that poachers left him near the boundary out of fear that the park rangers would arrest them sooner or later. Maisha the Matriarch had a soft spot for Matabishi and took great care of him as if he were her offspring. She would carry him on her back while also grooming and protecting him from the other stubborn youngsters.
The Senkwekwe Centre, situated near the luxurious Mikeno Lodge, is a significant attraction for visitors to Virunga National Park. This sanctuary for gorilla orphans is particularly popular among those engaged in various activities within the park, including chimpanzee trekking, Mount Nyiragongo hiking, gorilla trekking, bird-watching, and game drives. It provides a unique opportunity to observe mountain gorillas in an enclosed environment, offering insights into their interactions with humans compared to those in the wild.
Residents of Mikeno Lodge have complimentary access to the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage, while guests staying in other accommodations should arrange their visit in advance, typically through their tour operator. Dedicated caretakers, gorilla doctors, and personnel from Virunga National Park staff the center. They provide round-the-clock care, ensuring the orphans are well-fed and monitoring their health and well-being. Additionally, the Gorilla Doctors conduct regular check-ups and treatments for injuries or illnesses.
New arrivals, often very young and recently rescued, initially receive a milk-based diet before transitioning to fruits and other natural vegetation, with a focus on items like carrots and cauliflower.
While wild animals must thrive in their natural habitats, the Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage Center demonstrates that it can recreate a similar environment with enhanced safety measures for the primates. The visit offers a deep appreciation for the tireless efforts of the facility’s staff to ensure the survival and well-being of these gorillas. Those interested in contributing to the center’s success can donate on-site or sponsor a mountain gorilla.
Beyond visiting the enclosure, Mikeno Lodge, in partnership with Virunga National Park, offers additional activities. Guests can learn about the Congo Hounds program, which employs specially trained dogs to track poachers using their keen sense of smell. Another option is to visit the vegetable gardens and cooperative society established for the benefit of the wives of fallen Park rangers.
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