Gorillas: still wild at heart

A pioneering project to reintroduce traumatised gorillas to their natural habitat is bringing extraordinary success. Chris Green reports on how British conservationists are achieving what few thought was possible

A A A

The two terrified baby gorillas, both female, were brought to the Lesio-Louna reserve in the Congo Basin shortly after witnessing the brutal slaughter of the rest of their family group at the hands of some poachers. They were so traumatised by what they had seen that they clung to each other in fear and bared their teeth at anything or anyone who ventured close.

At the time, few thought it possible that the two sisters, named Likendze and Matoko, would ever be successfully reintroduced into the wild. But seven years later they have been, and something even more extraordinary has happened: the two have given birth within three weeks of each other, producing the ninth and tenth babies born to "rewilded" gorillas.

The births are viewed as a milestone for the Aspinall Foundation, a British charity which for more than 20 years has managed two gorilla rescue and rehabilitation projects, one in Congo-Brazzaville and another in the neighbouring state of Gabon, where wild populations were almost hunted to extinction in the 1950s. "We are delighted by the news of the birth of Matoko's infant, and indeed Likendze's before that," said James Osborne, chairman of the Aspinall Foundation.

"A mere seven years ago, the infants were so traumatised that they refused to move. Now they have both given birth. Each birth reinforces the success of the reintroduction, and we now have three viable groups of gorillas within the Lesio-Louna reserve."

The success of the foundation has gone some way towards reversing the slide of the Western Lowland gorilla towards extinction, an assault which has seen their numbers dwindle from millions to as few as 150,000. If the decline continues at its present rate, it is likely that the animal will be extinct by 2020, zoologists say.

The fall in numbers has been fuelled by deforestation, the deadly Ebola virus and the bush meat trade, with gorillas being captured by poachers before being slaughtered and their meat sold at markets in the capital, Brazzaville – a fate which befell Likendze and Matoko's family. The sisters were rescued by local ministry officials and handed to the Aspinall Foundation's reserve.

When the project's director, Amos Courage, saw the condition of the two young gorillas, his first thought was that they would never reach the stage of being able to go back to the wild, because they were too traumatised by what they had experienced.

The two were immediately assigned a dedicated human carer each, to look after them 24 hours a day with the aim of teaching them how to trust again – a process Mr Courage describes as having been "invaluable" to their survival. "They really do respond to devoted surrogate love," he said.

"Without it, they would just die, because they go into a spiral of depression and illness. And when they get into the forest, and see other orphans who have been in a similar situation to them, they join a sort of nursery group – which forces them to interact and gets them to stop thinking about the horror of their capture."

In 2006, The Independent reported the story of Massabi and Koto after those two apes became only the second and third gorillas to produce offspring after being carefully restored to their natural habitat. Three years down the line, the charity has successfully reintroduced to the wild more than 50 gorillas, 43 of which were orphans whose parents had been killed for bush meat. The latest birth is the third in 2009.

The project initially focused on providing shelter and care to young orphans, but over the years it has grown to include rehabilitation, ecosystem management, tourism and local community development.

The Lesio-Louna Gorilla Reserve is 170,000 hectares in size and enclosed by three rivers, which are natural barriers that prevent the animals escaping the reserve and coming into contact with nearby villages. Outside the main site is a nursery area where the young orphans learn the basics of foraging. Each night they are placed in an enclosed dormitory until they start trying to break down the door – a sure sign they are ready to be reintroduced to the wild. "Inevitably they'll meet up with other reintroduced gorillas in the reserve, and there'll be a lot of swapping of females. It's a very fluid situation between the groups, and although we've been doing this for more than 20 years we're still amazed at what happens – it's like a constant soap opera every day, said Mr Courage.

"The fact that the mothers are now raising these babies is fascinating because they're all orphans – we don't know how much experience of mothering they would have remembered from their early memories."

In 2005, an international treaty outlining a strategy to save the world's great apes was signed by the 23 states that have primate populations within their borders, as well as donor countries led by Britain.

The deal, which was billed as the last chance to save humanity's nearest relatives, set the target of significantly slowing the loss of great apes and their habitat by 2010, and securing the future in the wild of all this endangered species by 2015. The birth of Likendzé and Matoko's babies has, in one small way, helped towards this goal.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Year 3 Teacher - Winsford

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 3 Teachers needed in Winsford We ...

Behaviour support worker

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Behavioural support worker Pupil r...

Year 5/6 Teacher - Winsford

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 5/6 Teachers needed in WinsfordWe...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits