In Maine, saving the Congo’s gorillas

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From her small rented office in Yarmouth, a Maine woman is leading the charge to save endangered baby gorillas in the Congo.

YARMOUTH — In the video, Lulingu the baby gorilla grunts and snorts with laughter, rolling in the leaves as her human caregiver tickles her belly and her underarms. She twists away, takes a breath and then reaches out for more.

Little is known about her background. She was found living in a village after being taken from the wild, likely after a poacher killed her parents for their meat. A tiny thing not even a year old, Lulingu was probably spared so she could be put on the black market as an expensive pet. Soon after her rescue, she became very ill.

Months later, however, Lulingu plays and giggles in a two-and-a-half-minute video that’s been viewed more than 1.8 million times in the past three weeks.

“Faith in humanity restored for a minute,” someone commented on YouTube.

Lulingu’s sanctuary is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The nonprofit group responsible for saving her and giving her a better life — and a possible future back in the wild — is based in Maine.

“People always say, ‘Why is there a gorilla organization in Maine?’ People are puzzled,” said Sonya Kahlenberg, a primatologist and executive director of Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, or GRACE. “I’m like, ‘It’s just because I’m here.'”

For the past five years, Kahlenberg, a former Bates College visiting assistant professor, has run GRACE from a second-floor rented office space in Yarmouth. The 40-year-old travels to a remote region in Africa two or three times a year and stays for a few weeks each trip, but the rest of the time she lives with her husband and two young children in North Yarmouth.

Although she didn’t start the group — which gets support from Disney, the Jane Goodall Institute and other big names in wildlife welfare — Kahlenberg has led GRACE for half of its life, through sanctuary construction projects and community programs, action plans and awards. And through the arrival of five new Grauer’s gorillas, including the sanctuary’s youngest ever — Lulingu.

The baby’s viral video, shot in the months after she arrived at GRACE, is part of a soon-to-be-released GoPro documentary that promises to bring even greater attention to the sanctuary.

It hasn’t been easy to head the world’s only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas, but it’s been worth it.

The laughter of one baby gorilla helps make it so.

“I love gorillas. I really, really do,” Kahlenberg said. “There’s something about their vulnerability. They’re just very unimposing. Just patient, quiet. You just want to protect them.”

POACHING AND ENCROACHMENT PRESSURE GORILLAS

Grauer’s gorillas, also known as eastern lowland gorillas, are the largest primates in the world. Smart, peaceful and sociable, they live in groups of up to 30 or so, foraging for food together and bedding down at night in nests clustered close on the ground or in trees. Like human infants, their babies are fragile, sensitive to trauma and loss. They don’t wean from their mothers until they’re about 3 years old.

“They tend to give up when they don’t have their mother,” Kahlenberg said. “Most of the gorillas that are captured are younger (and) would not be weaned yet. Without your mother and you’re not weaned, makes it hard to survive. So most of the gorillas we never even see being sold or confiscated because they die before that.”

Although closely related to the better-known mountain gorillas, which live in a few countries in Africa, Grauer’s gorillas live only in one place: the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a war-torn central African country known for civil unrest, violence, poverty and displaced people desperate for even basic needs.

Between poaching and human encroachment on their mountain forests, the Grauer’s gorilla population has plummeted almost 80 percent in the past two decades. With only 3,800 left, experts believe the gorillas could go extinct in 10 years. They’re considered critically endangered. It is illegal to capture, kill or possess them.

In 2003, wildlife authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, started seizing illegally captured Grauer’s gorillas. There were a handful rescued then, all babies, all likely taken by poachers who’d killed their parents for meat.

The babies aren’t good to eat, but they are good to sell. Although illegal, a young gorilla can fetch tens of thousands of dollars as a pet — a fortune in a country whose people are among the poorest in the world. It is unclear who buys the babies or where they go, but experts believe some have ended up in the Middle East and Asia.

Those first rescued gorillas were safe, but authorities were stymied. The babies were too young to be released into the wild. The few chimpanzee sanctuaries that existed in Africa couldn’t take Grauer’s gorillas.

Authorities had nowhere to put them.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International was working with mountain gorillas in nearby Rwanda and its leaders agreed to help. The group would provide short-term care for the babies at a temporary facility in Rwanda and in the backyard of its office in Goma, a city on the border between the DRC and Rwanda. It would work on building a permanent sanctuary for all Grauer’s gorillas seized from then on.

“That was important because you’re not going to enforce the laws — intercepting through sting operations these people who are trying to sell gorillas — if there’s nowhere to take care of them,” Kahlenberg said. “So that was an important first step.”

Fossey’s vice president of Africa programs, Alecia Lilly, spearheaded the project, and in 2008 the site work began on 1,200 acres of donated land on the eastern edge of the DRC. But in 2009, Lilly died suddenly. With construction barely started and its champion gone, GRACE’s future — the gorillas’ future — became uncertain.

“Who’s going to be leading this project?” Kahlenberg said. “Disney stepped in and took over.”

One of Lilly’s best friends was a scientist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida and Lilly had previously asked her to help with the gorillas’ care. That friend would take up the cause.

Disney funded the building project and took over administration with the Fossey Gorilla Fund’s assistance. Eventually, dozens of zoos and other conservation and welfare organizations also helped.

GRACE opened in 2010 with the first four seized gorillas — all of them flown to the sanctuary in a U.N. helicopter. It got nine more gorillas over the next few years.

By 2013, it became clear that GRACE was both vitally important and growing. While it would always rely on assistance from Disney and others, it needed to become its own nonprofit with its own executive director.

In Maine, Kahlenberg was looking for a challenge.

PASSION FOR THE WORK

Kahlenberg was in her fifth year as lecturer and visiting assistant professor in biology and anthropology at Bates College in Lewiston, and she loved it. But she’d been doing field work her whole adult life — including groundbreaking research on the way young chimpanzee girls play — as well as orangutan and chimpanzee conservation activities. She missed it.

“There’s an adrenaline piece of it that, for me, is part of my adventurous spirit that I’ve always had,” Kahlenberg said.

Meandering around the internet one midnight, she stumbled on a job posting for GRACE. Applications were due the next day.

“I just quickly did it. I didn’t even tell my husband,” Kahlenberg said with a laugh. “I did it and I thought, ‘Well, there’s no harm in applying for something.'”

She got the job.

“So I had to make the hard decision to leave Bates, which was hard,” Kahlenberg said.

She became GRACE’s only employee on American soil. And while GRACE had a board of directors, she was the only person leading day-to-day operations. Kahlenberg soon hired Greer Chapman, a 2013 Bates biology graduate and one of her former students, to serve as her assistant in the U.S.

At the time, Chapman was working in a University of Southern Maine toxicology lab and starting a master’s degree in environmental and genetic toxicology. The GRACE job began as part time. It quickly replaced both grad school and the toxicology lab.

“I found I had a much stronger passion for gorilla conservation work than I was doing — no offense to the lab,” she said. “The work I get to do here is amazing.”

The pair spend their Maine time handling GRACE’s operational needs and helping its 32 on-site staff members from afar. Chapman has so far traveled to the sanctuary once. Kahlenberg goes regularly.

Trips to GRACE’s remote location are arduous, taking three to four days by plane and cars that bounce along roads that are little more than dirt paths. The sanctuary itself is built on a mountaintop accessible only by a single, hand-built road.

But it’s the beauty of the place that stays with Kahlenberg.

“In the morning, everything is cool and enveloped in clouds,” she said, “a true ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ feel. Even now, I always look forward to that first morning at GRACE. The gorillas are not far from the little house where I stay, and they get up early, too. So while I’m drinking my coffee taking in the gorgeous sunrise, I can hear the ‘pop, pop, pop’ of their chest beats. There is nothing better than that!”

The sanctuary’s mountainous location is perfect for its 14 gorillas, who live in 39 acres of enclosed forest. It’s not so perfect for getting outside help. When one of the animals becomes sick, the staff often relies on veterinary experts in other countries, sending them photos and videos of blood-sample slides and medical problems for diagnosis.

The sanctuary’s day-to-day staff is made up of people from the local community and region. Kahlenberg considers it her job to not only save the gorillas but to support the Congolese in saving them.

Between its daily operation and regular construction projects, GRACE is the largest employer in the area. But its employees wouldn’t mind being put out of business.

“Every time we get a new gorilla, it’s a failure of conservation,” Kahlenberg said. “Every gorilla that comes means their family was killed.”

‘THEY TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER’

After a surge of intakes its first couple of years, GRACE has averaged one new  gorilla every year. In 2017, it received none.

The gorillas are typically airlifted to GRACE, crated, sedated and accompanied by a vet. At the sanctuary, each new baby is paired with two human caregivers who tend them around the clock. It was Lulingu’s interaction with one of her caregivers that was caught on video.

Once stabilized, a new resident is introduced to the gorilla community. GRACE almost always gets babies, who are immediately embraced and adopted by an older female.

A couple of years ago, it received Muyisa, a 4-year-old who’d spent three years of her life alone. Although cared for by humans, the isolation from other gorillas stressed her so much that she pulled out her hair. When she arrived at GRACE, she was psychologically scarred.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, if she was going to attack the group or they were going to attack her,” Kahlenberg said. “It was so amazing. We let her in and the group came and embraced her. You can project your feelings onto what you think was going on there. People are like, ‘Oh, don’t anthropomorphize.’ But you can, practically. They take care of each other. You almost think the gorillas are thinking, ‘I’ve been there. I remember when I got introduced. It’s OK, I got you.'”

Today, Muyisa is happy and healthy in the GRACE gorilla community.

“Those are the stories that make all the hard work completely worth it,” Kahlenberg said. “Even if something happened and the whole project fell apart, for that gorilla, you made a difference and gave them a very good life for the whole time that we were there.”

GRACE makes a difference in the lives of humans, too.

Besides being the area’s largest employer, GRACE also helps villagers garden and raise small animals for food — critical in a region where traditional livestock is stolen by armed groups, forcing some people to resort to gorilla-hunting to feed their families.

GRACE educates local leaders, teachers and children about conservation. It helped equip the local radio station with solar power and a local elementary school with latrines and hand-washing stations. It helped build a public market space so women could buy and sell their goods in clean conditions out of the weather.

GRACE is now working with women’s groups to build efficient home cooking stoves. Local residents typically cook over open wood fires, which both clogs the air they breathe and requires women and girls to spend hours each day hunting for firewood. With more efficient stoves, those girls can instead spend their time going to school.

It’s work Kahlenberg considers helpful to both humans and gorillas.

“When people are vulnerable, wildlife are vulnerable,” she said.

And while GRACE has been working to help people, those people have been working to help GRACE — including a group of children who showed up one day and asked to volunteer on the sanctuary’s farm. They didn’t want money or food. They just wanted to help their gorillas.

“That is what gives me hope,” Kahlenberg said.

‘A GIFT FOR US ALL’

GoPro, the action camera manufacturer, reached out a couple of years ago.

Its charitable arm, GoPro for a Cause, partners with nonprofits to tell their stories using GoPro cameras. It wanted to do that for GRACE.

GRACE wasn’t sure.

“We get a lot of media requests. We turn down most of them because it’s really difficult logistically to get film crews where we’re at,” Kahlenberg said.

Eventually, she agreed. In December 2016, Kahlenberg and a three-member GoPro team traveled to Africa and strapped the little video cameras to GRACE staffers.

“To the people, not the gorillas. People always ask that,” Chapman said. “I don’t think the gorillas would accept it.”

The GoPro team planned to focus on Lulingu, GRACE’s newest and youngest resident. The cameras captured months’ worth of footage.

Within that footage were 30 seconds or so of caregiver Devote Kavira Kiriha tickling baby Lulingu.

GoPro edited the video, adding music and text and wrapping that 30 seconds in additional video clips about the sanctuary. It had planned to release a full 20-minute documentary about GRACE and Lulingu, but that wasn’t ready in time. It decided the two-and-a-half-minute version could serve as a teaser.

GoPro posted it on YouTube on Dec. 21.

The video quickly went viral, racking up more than 1.8 million views, 21,000 thumbs-up and 1,200 comments in three weeks. The day the video was posted, People.com called it “a gift for us all.”

Kahlenberg was amazed at the response.

“I don’t know, there’s a lot of bad stuff in the news nowadays,” she said. “My husband was like, ‘I can’t stop watching it.’ And he’s not one to watch my videos all the time. He’s like, ‘I’ve been showing people at work, because watching a gorilla laugh just makes you happy.'”

Kahlenberg’s hope: Viewers captivated by Lulingu’s laughter will watch the full documentary. And they’ll focus not only on the gorillas, but also on the Congolese people working there to save them.

“I think it’s really important that people know these guys are heroes. They’re my heroes every single day because they are working in a very difficult area,” she said. “There are armed groups. We gave our staff the option: ‘When things get rough, you can leave and you’ll still get paid.’ And they choose to stay. They want to do this. We are so proud of them and want to support them. People don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo.”

She talked of civil unrest, armed militia groups, rape, people driven from their homes, people dying.

“Every one of our staff members has lost people,” she said. “The Congolese, though, everything that’s happened, they don’t want to talk about it. They want to say, ‘What’s happening tomorrow?’ They want to keep going. That’s, to me, one of the things I’ve learned most from our staff: ‘Yep, bad things can happen, but here we go, what’s next and how can we fix it and how can we operate despite all these challenges?’ I’m hoping GoPro will emphasize that.”

GoPro plans to release the longer video at the end of January or the beginning of February.

Donations to GRACE have risen since the video’s release. It’s money the sanctuary uses to pay for the gorilla’s care and prepare for their future.

That future may be outside the sanctuary.

GRACE is working on a plan to return at least some of its gorillas to the forest in as few as two years. If successful, it will be the first time a captured Grauer’s gorilla has been reintroduced to the wild.

It’s a tricky, and potentially dangerous, situation for them. Released gorillas will have to integrate into a new primate community, search for their own food, face the possibility of hunters.

On the other hand, they will be free.

“They know how to be gorillas. We just have to give them a chance to be that,” Kahlenberg said.

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Baby Lubutu is held by a caregiver soon after his arrival at GRACE. All of the sanctuary’s young arrivals get a pair of human caregivers who tend to them around the clock until they can join the gorilla community at the sanctuary. (GRACE photo)

Baby Lulingu hangs out with Itebero, 15, considered the smartest gorilla at the sanctuary. At about 18 months old, Lulingu was GRACE’s youngest inhabitant when she arrived last year. She and her human caregiver are featured in a video that’s gone viral. (GRACE photo)

“There’s a lot of bad stuff in the news nowadays. My husband was like, ‘I can’t stop watching (the video of the baby gorilla).’ And he’s not one to watch my videos all the time. He’s like, ‘I’ve been showing people at work, because watching a gorilla laugh just makes you happy.'”

— GRACE Executive Director Sonya Kahlenberg

VIDEO TEASE: Baby tickles! Watch GRACE’s youngest resident, Lulingu, laugh and play with her human caretaker, at Sunjournal.com

The view from a GRACE cabin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I woke up at sunrise and was greeted by a breathtaking view,” said Executive Director Sonya Kahlenberg about her first visit to the gorilla sanctuary. “GRACE is perched on top of a mountain so you can see lush green mountains and valleys for miles and miles. In the morning, everything is cool and enveloped in clouds. A true ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ feel.” (GRACE photo)

VIDEO TEASE: Watch Congolese authorities execute a sting operation to rescue baby Amani from a poacher, at Sunjournal.com

Muyisa, 4, gets a hug from Isangi on her arrival at GRACE. After three years in isolation, Muyisa arrived at the sanctuary psychologically scarred.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, if she was going to attack the group or they were going to attack her,” said Executive Director Sonya Kahlenberg. “It was so amazing. We let her in and the group came and embraced her. You can project your feelings onto what you think was going on there. People are like, ‘Oh, don’t anthropomorphize.’ But you can, practically. They take care of each other. You almost think the gorillas are thinking, ‘I’ve been there. I remember when I got introduced. It’s OK, I got you.'” (GRACE photo)

Sonya Kahlenberg lives in Maine but has served as executive director for GRACE for the past five years. Because the gorillas are very susceptible to human disease, Kahlenberg wears a mask to avoid transmitting germs to them. (GRACE photo)

An aerial view of GRACE, the only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas in the world. GRACE is located on 1,200 acres on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its 14 gorillas share two enclosures that cover 39 acres. The enclosure seen here, at right, is 24 acres and was completed in 2015. (GRACE photo)

GRACE Center Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, center, and Executive Director Sonya Kahlenberg, right of Mbeke, stand with members of a local women’s group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They hold fuel-efficient cooking stoves promoted by GRACE to help community members. (GRACE photo)

Pinga is the alpha female at GRACE. When 18-month-old Lulingu was introduced to the group, Pinga immediately scooped her up. Pinga has been Lulingu’s adoptive mother since. “You look into a gorilla’s eyes and you can see how much is going on, what they’re thinking,” said Greer Chapman, GRACE’s U.S. assistant. (GRACE photo)

Gorillas roam GRACE in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The sanctuary currently cares for 14 critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas, the largest primates in the world. (GRACE photo)

Sonya Kahlenberg, left, works with area schoolchildren who volunteered to help out at GRACE’s farm. (GRACE photo)

Q&A with GRACE’s Sonya Kahlenberg

What was it like the first time you walked into GRACE?
My first trip to GRACE was in 2013. I traveled with a team of advisers from Disney and Dallas Zoo who were helping design our gorilla forest habitat. We were forced to drive in over land because the M23 rebel group had seized the provincial capital of Goma, which meant we couldn’t access the airport.
So we drove 18 hours from Uganda, most of it on terrible mountain roads. I had lived in Africa before, but I had never experienced roads like that. I remember a large bruise emerging on my back because the luggage in the car kept breaking loose and smashing into me during the drive! It was an adventure, for sure. We saw wild monkeys and even an elephant along the way. GRACE is the only conservation (non-governmental organization) working in our remote area of Congo and has close ties with the local communities, so everyone knows the GRACE vehicle and staff. As we got closer, people in the villages started running out to the road to greet us.
We arrived at GRACE after dark, so I couldn’t get a good look around. The air was thin, so I could tell we were up pretty high (6,000 feet). I woke up at sunrise and was greeted by a breathtaking view. GRACE is perched on top of a mountain so you can see lush green mountains and valleys for miles and miles. In the morning, everything is cool and enveloped in clouds. A true “Gorillas in the Mist” feel. Even now, I always look forward to that first morning at GRACE. The gorillas are not far from the little house where I stay, and they get up early, too. So while I’m drinking my coffee taking in the gorgeous sunrise, I can hear the “pop, pop, pop” of their chest beats. There is nothing better than that!
Do you have a favorite gorilla or one that has touched you?
I don’t have a favorite. Each gorilla is different and special in their own way: Some tend to be tough, some are nervous, some are silly. What is incredible is when you watch them at GRACE, you would never know that they have been through such horrible things — seeing their families killed, being captured and taken from the wild, even being tied up or stuffed into a bag. Now that they are living with gorillas again and in a forest, they pretty much act like wild gorillas. Their resiliency never ceases to amaze me!
I really respect Pinga, a 16-year-old who is the alpha female of the group. In the wild, gorilla groups are typically led by a male silverback (i.e., an adult male with silver hair across the back, a sign of maturity) who protects the group from danger and keeps peace among group members. In 2014, the male who was leading the GRACE group died unexpectedly from encephalitis, so Pinga stepped up and took over leadership for two years until the next-oldest male assumed this position. Not only is she a strong leader, but she also is an amazing surrogate mother.
Gorillas are typically younger than 3 years old when they arrive to GRACE. In the wild, they would not yet be weaned, which means they need intensive care. We provide this with human caregivers until the infants are stabilized, then we try to get them in with other gorillas as soon as possible. Our experience is that they need other gorillas even more than they need emergency veterinary care! I was there when 18-month-old Lulingu was introduced to the group for the first time. Pinga immediately came over and scooped up Lulingu and adopted a protective posture like a wild gorilla mother would. From that moment on, Pinga has been Lulingu’s adoptive mother, carrying her, sharing food and her sleeping space at night.
Most importantly, Pinga protects Lulingu within the group and helps her learn the skills needed to be a gorilla. It is really because of Pinga and the other surrogate mothers in the group that we are able to give these orphans a second chance at a normal gorilla life.

Do you have a favorite GRACE story?

One of my favorite stories is about our farm.

Two years ago we started a farm to help grow food for the 14 gorillas in our care. We grow mainly vegetables but also vegetation found in wild gorilla habitat, like elephant grass and Aframomum, which is in the ginger family. The gorillas get most of their food from foraging in the forest, but this is used to supplement that diet.

A group of local kids learned about the farm when they came to GRACE to participate in one of our education programs that teaches about gorillas and conservation. They then started showing up after school to volunteer on the farm. In our region, soil is fertile and every home has a farm to feed the family. Farming is a skill children learn from an early age, and these kids wanted to use their talents to help gorillas! We were so impressed by them that we formed youth conservation clubs to help kids make a difference for conservation through local actions.

We now have six clubs with 240 members, and they have started great projects, such as growing and planting trees to prevent erosion and deter people from using trees inside gorilla habitat for firewood. The clubs continue to volunteer every week on our farm and adult community members have followed their lead.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m at GRACE is to work on the farm with the kids. I grew up on a farm too, so we share a love of digging in the dirt! Our education program is all about inspiring people to become conservation leaders. With awesome kids like these leading the way, I do feel a great deal of hope for gorillas.

Grauer’s gorilla facts

* Largest primate in the world.

* Males weight 500 pounds or more and are twice as large as females.

* The population has dropped almost 80 percent in 20 years. There are now just 3,800 left, all in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

* They typically live in groups of up to 30 or so.

* One adult male leads the group of adult females and their children.

* Babies aren’t weaned until they’re about 3 years old.

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