Going home: orphans of the gorilla massacre that shocked the world

Two baby gorillas who survived a vicious attack in a Congo national park have made their first move back to the wild

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Moving home is often stressful and sometimes positively traumatic. The last time Ndeze and Ndakasi moved it was horrifying. The two mountain gorilla babies had just been orphaned, their parents murdered in a dispute that led to the sacking of the director of Virunga National Park in eastern Congo.

One of the orphan's fathers, Senkwekwe, became internationally famous as pictures of the silverback's immense corpse borne aloft on a bamboo trellis by grieving villagers ran in newspapers and magazines around the world. The massacres of 2007 left seven of the critically endangered mammals dead; they also left Ndeze and Ndakasi without a family. Ndakasi was found, at two-months-old, clinging to his dead mother, who had been shot at close range.

The pair found themselves in the refugee city of Goma, an unstable mustering point for the human disasters that echo from Lake Albert through the volcano valleys of Virunga to the shore of Lake Kivu. It's a place ringed by refugee camps, periodically evacuated by Western aid workers and occasionally burned to the ground by the eruptions of Nyiragongo volcano to its north.

There the youngsters had been living in the back garden of an office compound, looked after in shifts by a team of carers from the staff of the Virunga National Park. Andre Bauma, a 36-year-old ranger, led a team of four carers who have lived with the orphans 24 hours a day, seven days a week since they were rescued. "These animals are amazing creatures and I feel blessed to be able to help them," he said.

The rangers themselves had to evacuate from the park midway through last year when their base was overrun by the army of renegade general Laurent Nkunda. He is now under house arrest in neighbouring Rwanda and the team is back in the Mikeno volcano sector, guarding the great apes. Goma is a bad neighbourhood by anyone's standards but the rudimentary concrete compounds divided by streets hewn from black volcanic rock is no place for a mountain gorilla.

Yesterday the only two of their kind to be reared in captivity woke up back in the forest, well away from Goma in a purpose-built centre next to the park headquarters in Rumangabo.

Wednesday's move was stressful as well, and the orphans had to be tranquilised by a team of vets to get them into a truck which had been parked inside their old home for a week to help them get used to it.

The Senkwekwe Centre is initially a 40-square metre section of walled off forest. When completed it will be a 2.5 acre contained jungle playground where the pair will get reacquainted with their natural habitat.

After an hour and a half drive and a short walk the young gorillas were re-introduced to the forest. They clung to their carers, who wear masks when in contact with the apes to prevent them passing on human diseases, but after five minutes they started to explore.

According to Samantha Newport from the park authority, who travelled with them: "It was also an emotional day."

"For everyone... we were all so desperate for them to return to their natural habitat."

The pair have spent their first nights inside a room at the centre as they readjust. The eventual goal is to reintroduce them into the wild, but as they were orphaned at only two months they don't yet have the forest skills to survive.

The centre was paid for in large part by British businessman, Adam Murray, who donated over $100,000 (60,000) to the project. Part of those funds went to build a school for the local community who will be living next door to the gorillas.

The centre, which it is hoped will become a hub for veterinary medicine in the region, is still short of the fund it needs for completion. Another $150,000 is being urgently sought, and the UN Foundation has offered to match any funds raised by the park authorities by the end of this month through an online campaign (www.gorilla.cd).

Emmanuel de Merode, the park's director, envisages the facility being a place where Congolese children can come to observe the gorillas in their habitat and help to build a bridge between local people and the spectacular mega fauna that live in the mountains above them.

"We are asking these people to help protect the gorillas, but most of them have never seen a gorilla," he said.

The first observation platform is close to completion and there are plans for a raft of education projects. The director says that it would be unjustifiable to spend the money without a strong outreach to local communities who live far below the poverty line.

Ndeze and Ndakasi are two of only 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Their brethren have been hemmed within two small areas, one in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the other on the chain of Virunga volcanoes that stud the border connecting Uganda to Congo and Rwanda.

Since the plight of the gorillas was first brought to international attention by Louis Leakey and Dian Fossey, the surviving apes have been threatened by poachers, a series of wars and the backwash from the genocide in Rwanda. Today, the greatest threat to Congo's gorillas is charcoal. Virunga, Africa's oldest national park, has been losing 15 percent of its forest cover every year to the charcoal kilns. It was control over the lucrative trade, worth $30m a year, that led to the gorilla massacres as a corrupt faction of the park authorities ordered their murders as a warning to rangers who were trying to counter the charcoal gangs.

The scandal led to the arrest of former park director Honore Mashagiro. His departure led to the Belgian anthropologist and long time conservationist, Mr de Merode, being given charge of the extraordinary reserve. Home to the unique Okapi, hundreds of bird species, the Rwindi elephants and hippos of Lake Albert, Virunga is one of the richest areas of biodiversity on the planet. The new park administration has launched an ambitious alternative fuel programme in an attempt to break the link between poverty, deforestation and the charcoal trade. They are distributing kits to local communities to manufacture fuel briquettes from plant waste that can be used instead of charcoal on the stoves people use to boil water and cook food.

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