The gorillas were fairly unsuspecting the day they were put into their crates. They were called into their night house a little early on Friday afternoon. They came in, but Ntabwoba, the sub-adult male, was a bit suspicious! He’s the character who has been known to punch holes in the tin roof of the night house to escape when he was not ready for bed and disable the facility’s electric fence with a stick. It was definitely time for them to head to the better facilities of GRACE, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education center managed by DFGFI and Disney in Kasugho, DR Congo. The gorillas were trained to accept a bit of honey from a syringe – this is how Dr. Noel and the caregivers gave them a bit of sedative that afternoon before the rest of us Gorilla Doctors descended on the scene.
Once all the gorillas were sedate, Pinga, Serafuli and Tumaini were darted with anesthetic drugs to make them go to sleep. These three were pulled out of the night house and given complete physical examinations. Each gorilla had her own private doctor for the weekend! These three stayed the night in large crates filled with elephant grass while the others stayed in the night house as usual, and at 4am the next morning a convoy of trucks set out for the Goma airport. It was pitch black, and we had to use the headlights of the trucks to see what we were doing. As we snaked our way from Musanze to Gisenyi, day broke and we reached the border at full morning. The border crossing had been pre-arranged by RDB and ICCN, and so went very smoothly.
The convoy, once across the border, proceeded immediately to the Goma airport, where we were given a small warehouse in which to anesthetize each gorilla, one at a time, to load onto the waiting helicopter. Ben, the pilot of the Tropic Air helicopter, was great, and each gorilla was placed in a cage specially built in the helicopter for this transport. One by one, they landed at GRACE and were transferred to the waiting enclosures bedded with lots of elephant grass. Pinga first, followed by Serafuli, and finally little Tumiani.
A team of Gorilla Doctors stayed in Kinigi to sedate, dart, examine and crate the remaining 3 gorillas that afternoon. Ntabwoba, Dunia, and Itebero were ready to go. That afternoon we got a call from Emmanuel, the Chief Park Warden of Virunga National Park, telling us that an adult male leopard had come out of the park and was in a village about four hours north of Goma. Villagers were not happy, and wanted to kill the leopard, but ICCN rangers had surrounded it and were protecting it. They were hopeful that he would go back into the forest that night, but if he didn’t Gorilla Doctors would need to become Leopard Doctors, and go to dart the big cat to return it to the forest. When it rains it pours some days! Fortunately he did return to the forest that night.
We repeated the whole procedure the next day: another 4am start, another convoy to the border, and three more helicopter flights. Finally all six gorillas were at GRACE, joining the 7 that were already there – Mapendo, Kighoma, Amani, Ndjingala, Kyasa, Lubutu and Ihome. Within a week all gorillas were together, one big happy family. The hard work of all partners paid off.
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