In January this year, we received an orphaned baby gorilla in our Park HQ.
Orphaned animals are one of the more tragic byproducts of wildlife crime. Most of them will die deep in the forest and we’ll never know about them, but occasionally we get a chance to try and make a difference. Sometimes those efforts are in vain, like when we tried to care for a baby elephant last year. Sometimes, the endings are happier.
This little chap, that you can see in the video below, is a lowland gorilla. We estimated that he was probably somewhere between 2 and 3 years old. We received him in our camp when one of our ranger teams recused him from a group of villagers who had chased him onto the roof of a building and were throwing stones at him. Magic plays a very important part in local people’s lives and who knows what they thought he had done wrong / what spirits he was carrying etc.
He came to be in a local village because his mother was killed by poachers. She would have been killed either for her meat (gorilla meat is an illegal, black-market delicacy among the elite in Brazzaville), or possibly also for her hands (gorilla hands are used in certain traditional “magic” treatments and still, incredibly, in the production of rather abhorrent ashtrays).
So he would have watched his mother being shot, then hacked up with machetes, then he was left alone to die. Imagine the physiological damage that this would do to a human child of 3 years old. There is very little difference in the effect that it would have had on him.
He was picked up by logging company workers and taken to a local village, where, sadly, as I say, he was pretty tormented. Fortunately, he made his way to us after a few days.
As you would expect, Gorillas are incredibly intelligent and very emotionally sensitive animals. Quite understandably after everything he had been through, he just spent the first 3 days in a deep depression. By day 2 we thought he had given up and he’d just resigned to die. Everytime we walked into the room he was in a different death pose. He wouldn’t make eye contact, he would turn away from us in the most lethargic, despondent way imaginable. Nothing seemed to get through to him.
But kindness and patience are wonderful things. We kept him warm, showed him compassion, held him gently in our arms and gave him water and food. Eventually, after a lot of work, we started getting through to him. He started to look at us and his eyes would follow us around the room as we moved. He started to interact with objects in his environment and with us. One evening he started to eat and I caught it on (very low quality) video.
In this video, he is just starting to turn the corner. He’s becoming more responsive and starting to eat (milky porridge).
I’ve put the subtitles on as I think the words my wife is saying are quite moving. They probably betray that we all get pretty emotionally exhausted when these kinds of things happen, and we certainly get pretty deeply emotionally attached!
As I said, this one has a happy ending.
Once we’d worked out that he wasn’t going to die, we knew we had to find a more permanent solution for him. Permanent solutions are difficult. Keeping a male gorilla around camp was not an option! We don’t have sanctuary facilities near the Park (for any mammal species at least, we do have an aviary) and any thoughts of setting up and running a sanctuary quickly run into problems of funding, plus the level of commitment and the sheer magnitude of the task. For the elephant last year, this was a major stumbling block. Luckily for our little gorilla this year, there is already a Lowland Gorilla sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo, so there was a solution at hand.
So it then became the (relatively) straight-forward task of organising to get him the 800km south to the Lesio-Louna Gorilla Sanctuary. It is run by the Aspinall Foundation, which gave us a lot of confidence.
We hadn’t named him (giving these orphaned animals names is a dangerous game if you’re not certain they are going to survive!), and so when he arrived they gave him the name Bomassa, which the name of the village where our HQ is located.
Last we heard, little Bomassa was doing fine. The sanctuary is on the way between Brazzaville and Ouesso (the small town we use as a logistics hub) and so we’ve promised to stop in and see him at some point in the future.
He will be receiving care, he’ll be with other gorillas and will be in a natural environment. The hope is that one day he might even be released into the wild. If that never happens, at least he gets to live out his life with other gorillas in safety.
If you feel like you might like to support the Aspinall Foundation, you can do so through their website: https://www.aspinallfoundation.org/