While on gorilla safaris in Democratic Republic of Congo, it should be possible visit the world’s only mountain gorilla orphanage, which is integrated into the grounds of Mikeno Lodge. Virunga National Park’s headquarters at Rumangabo is home to the Senkwekwe Centre, the world’s only facility that cares for mountain gorilla orphans. With expert staff who provide daily care for the orphans, who were separated from their family due to the impacts of poaching or animal traffickers. Thanks to the financial support of individuals around the world, the Senkwekwe Centre is unique sanctuary offering the gorillas the chance to live happy and secure lives in their forested enclosure.
History of the orphanage
In early 2009, Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode and park rangers regained control of Virunga, following the arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Shortly after, park staff began raising awareness about the two young orphan mountain gorillas that were in their care. Orphans Ndeze and Ndakasi had been forced by the circumstances of war to live in tiny compound in the capital city of Goma. Unlike their natural environment, Goma was heavily polluted, noisy, and largely built on a lava flow devoid of vegetation.
With the southern sector once again secure, a team set out to raise money to build a care facility at park headquarters in Rumangabo. The site chosen for the facility was perfect: lush forest, teaming with wildlife, expansive and safe. As 2009 drew to a close, park staff kicked off an intense online campaign, and in a matter of two months, raised $211,000.
The World Heritage Organization matched every dollar donated by caring individuals around the world. The Murry Foundation and Howard G. Buffett Foundation also provided critical funding. The “Senkwekwe Centre” was soon built and the orphans living in Goma were promptly transferred to their new home. The centre is named after the dominant Silver Back of the Rugendo group, who was murdered in 2007, along with three other members of his family.
At the end of 2010, two more orphan mountain gorillas, Maisha and Koboko, were transferred to the Senkwekwe Centre. They came from Rwanda where they had been living in a small facility. The four gorillas settled in nicely and soon became a tightly knit family. Tragically, Koboko died during the latest conflict. Although the official cause of death was attributed to a gastrological infection, the sounds of mortar fire and machine guns severely stressed Koboko, and likely led to the collapse of his immune system.
The latest addition to the Senkwekwe Centre is Matabishi, a young male that was found alone and outside the park boundary near Bikenge. Poachers who feared they would be arrested by Virunga rangers likely released Matabishi. After 6-month quarantine, Matabishi has joined Ndeze, Ndakasi, and Maisha.
The Senkwekwe Centre also plays a critical role in rehabilitating orphan eastern lowland gorillas confiscated from animal traffickers. Once rehabilitated, these gorilla orphans are transferred to the GRACE facility for eastern lowland gorillas.