Senkwekwe Center for Gorilla orphans in Congo

Senkwekwe Center for Gorilla orphans in Congo

Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphans in Congo represents one of Africa’s premier wildlife conservation efforts. Mountain gorillas, among the most fascinating creatures in the wild, draw thousands of tourists to Africa annually. These majestic animals can be found in only three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the gorillas are similar across these regions, tracking them in each national park offers a unique experience. In DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, a distinctive advantage is the opportunity to visit the world’s only orphanage for mountain gorillas.

The Origins of the Senkwekwe Centre

The Senkwekwe Centre is located at the Virunga National Park headquarters near Mikeno Lodge. It is named after Senkwekwe, a great silverback who led the Rugendo gorilla group until a tragic massacre by rebel forces in 2007. The idea for the orphanage arose when two orphaned gorillas, Ndakasi and Ndezi, survivors of the massacre, needed a suitable place for care. Consequently, the centre was established to provide for young mountain gorillas orphaned due to poaching, animal trafficking, or conflict within the park. Since its opening in 2010, the Senkwekwe Centre has become the only facility worldwide where mountain gorillas thrive in captivity.

Leadership and Conservation Efforts

Under the leadership of Andre Bauma and the management of Virunga National Park, the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage offers primate enthusiasts a unique chance to contribute to conservation while observing mountain gorillas up close. The Gorilla Doctors, a team of veterinary experts, alongside the centre’s caretakers, work tirelessly to protect and raise these orphans. Gorilla Doctors are involved in several conservation projects across Africa, including treating mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Rehabilitation and Community Outreach

Beyond caring for mountain gorillas, the Senkwekwe Centre rehabilitates young Grauer’s gorillas (Eastern Lowland Gorillas). Rescued from traffickers, these gorillas receive treatment before being transferred to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Centre for further care. The Senkwekwe Centre is also lauded for its community outreach and educational activities, fostering awareness and support for gorilla conservation among local populations.

The Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage stands as a testament to dedicated conservation efforts, offering hope for the future of mountain gorillas and engaging the global community in preserving these incredible creatures.

Maintaining mountain gorillas in captivity is a challenging and costly endeavor. This achievement is particularly remarkable given the sometimes volatile conditions in Virunga National Park due to rebel activity. The success of the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage would not have been possible without substantial funding from well-wishers, individuals, and various gorilla conservation organizations. Key supporters include the Murry Foundation, Gorilla Doctors, Dian Fossey Foundation, Gearing Up 4 Gorillas, The Howard Buffett Foundation, World Heritage Organization, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, among others. These organizations have also supported similar initiatives, such as the Okapi Conservation Project in Congo, further contributing to wildlife conservation efforts in the region.

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The Orphans of Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage

Since its opening in 2010, the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage has provided a home for over six orphaned mountain gorillas. These gorillas remain at the orphanage for the rest of their lives, forming a new group within the sanctuary. Reintegrating them into their old families is impossible as they become accustomed to human care and the comfortable life in the enclosure. They would struggle to find food and cope with the complex group dynamics and hierarchy of wild gorillas. Therefore, they stay with their new group of orphans. Here are some of the notable residents since the centre’s inception:

Maisha

Maisha, meaning “life,” was born in 2001 and was the first orphan received at the Senkwekwe Gorilla Sanctuary. Her birth occurred during a tumultuous time in the park, which was being used as a hideout by rebel groups. Poaching and deforestation were rampant. In 2004, Maisha was captured by poachers and taken to a cave in Rwanda. Rumors of her presence led to her rescue by the Rwandan police and Volcanoes National Park staff. She was found in poor health, but the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda nursed her back to health. In 2010, she was transferred to DR Congo. Maisha, with her natural leadership and motherly instincts, became the matriarch of the growing group of orphans. She maintained order and protected the caretakers. Sadly, Maisha developed a persistent illness and died despite ongoing treatment.

Yalala

Yalala, a female from the Kabirizi family, was found caught in a poacher’s snare, lying on her back. Despite her family’s efforts to free her, they eventually abandoned her. The snare had severely damaged her foot, necessitating its amputation.

Kaboko

Kaboko, a male orphan, was also trapped in a poacher’s snare, which caused a deep wound on his right hand, leading to amputation. Known for his mischievous and playful nature, Kaboko faced additional health issues related to his stomach and intestines. The 2012 unrest in the park, marked by heavy gunfire between government forces and rebels, likely exacerbated his stress, leading to his death at the age of five. The Gorilla Doctors, unable to assist due to the volatile situation, had returned to Rwanda.

Ndakasi

Ndakasi, a ten-year-old female, survived the 2007 massacre of the Rugendo group led by the silverback Senkwekwe. Before the completion of the Senkwekwe Centre, Ndakasi and another orphan, Ndezi, were housed in Goma. The conditions were far from ideal, with limited space and poor hygiene in the noisy and dusty environment of the congested town. Ndakasi struggled with a long-term illness and passed away on September 26, 2021, after experiencing difficulty eating, diarrhea, and weight loss.

Ndeze

Ndeze, also a survivor of the 2007 massacre, was found clinging to her dead mother, Safari, a beloved member of Senkwekwe’s family. Like Ndakasi, she was initially housed in Goma before being transferred to the Senkwekwe Centre, where she adapted to her new environment.

Matabishi

Matabishi, a younger male, joined the orphanage in June 2010. He was found abandoned in a cornfield near the park boundary, likely left by poachers fearing arrest by park rangers. Maisha, the matriarch, took a special interest in Matabishi, caring for him as if he were her own. She would carry him on her back, grooming and protecting him from the other orphans.

The Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage continues to provide a safe haven for these incredible creatures, ensuring their well-being and fostering a supportive community for orphaned gorillas.

Visiting the Senkwekwe Centre and Gorilla Orphanage

The Senkwekwe Centre, located a short ten-minute walk from the luxurious Mikeno Lodge, is a unique destination within Virunga National Park. Visitors to the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage often engage in other park activities such as chimpanzee trekking, Mount Nyiragongo hiking, gorilla trekking, bird-watching, and game drives. For those who have completed their gorilla tracking adventure and have spare time, visiting the Senkwekwe Orphanage offers an extraordinary experience. The orphaned mountain gorillas, accustomed to human interaction, display behaviors that differ from their wild counterparts, providing a fascinating insight into their adaptability.

Accessing the Senkwekwe Centre

Visitors staying at Mikeno Lodge can visit the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage free of charge. Those booked at other accommodations should contact the park in advance, ideally through their tour operator, to arrange a visit. The orphanage is managed by dedicated caretakers, Gorilla Doctors, and Virunga National Park staff. These caretakers live with the orphans full-time, ensuring they are well-fed and monitoring for any signs of illness or mood changes. The Gorilla Doctors visit monthly to provide medical care and address any health issues.

The Orphanage Environment

The Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage is set in a lush, green forest that mimics the natural habitat of wild gorillas. The scenic environment attracts other primates like baboons, vervet monkeys, and colobuses, though an electric fence keeps them from entering the gorilla enclosure. New gorillas initially stay in a secluded area before being introduced to the larger group. Visitors can observe the gorillas from a deck as caretakers feed and interact with them. Each orphan has a dedicated caretaker, fostering strong bonds as gorilla infants are notably affectionate. Young orphans are fed milk before transitioning to fruits and natural vegetation like carrots and cauliflower, sourced from Goma town. Water for washing, cleaning, and cooking comes from a reservoir within the enclosure.

Contributing to Conservation

The Senkwekwe Centre demonstrates that wild animals can thrive in a safe, controlled environment. Visitors leave with a deep appreciation for the staff’s efforts in ensuring the primates’ survival. Donations and sponsorship opportunities are available for those wishing to support the facility. To volunteer or get involved, contact the park management.

Additional Activities

Beyond visiting the gorilla enclosure, Mikeno Lodge, in collaboration with Virunga National Park staff, offers other activities. Guests can learn about the Congo Hounds program, where specially trained dogs track poachers using their acute sense of smell. Another activity is visiting the vegetable gardens and cooperative society established for the wives of fallen park rangers, providing a holistic experience of the park’s conservation and community efforts.

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