The poachers—illegal hunters—had finally found a buyer for their stolen goods. A meeting was arranged, and when the buyer asked to see the merchandise, they brought out a small duffel bag and unzipped it. Inside was a terrified one-year-old baby gorilla. The poachers had likely killed the little female’s parents and captured her in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa. Then they took her across the border into Rwanda, intending to sell her as a pet.
But the buyer didn’t bring money; he brought the cops. Busted! The poachers had been set up in a sting operation. They were arrested, but the Rwandan authorities knew the orphan was still in danger. They had rescued baby gorillas before and understood that they needed to act quickly. The authorities rushed the young gorilla to the nearby headquarters of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. The vets there realized that she had not been given enough food or water, but they were much more worried about something else she hadn’t been getting: touch.
Fragile: Handle With Care
“Baby gorillas simply don’t survive without their mother’s constant body contact,” says veterinarian Chris Whittier. “They give up the will to live. She surely would have died within a week if the poachers hadn’t been caught.” Surprisingly, gorillas, animals well known for their great size and strength, are extremely fragile creatures. The project’s staff immediately began holding and cuddling the little female—a kind of touch first aid. If they didn’t quickly establish a physical relationship with the baby eastern lowland gorilla, which her caretakers named Dunia, she would not survive.
Dunia resisted attention at first, shying away from people who reached for her. “Dunia needed contact, but there was no reason that she should trust people after what she’d been through,” Whittier says. “Humans had killed her family. “ The massive logging and mining industries in some central African countries bring many people deep into the forests. Hunters supply their need for food by killing almost any animal they find, including primates. Along with the massive habitat destruction caused by industry, illegal hunting threatens to drive the 20,000 to 30,000 remaining eastern lowland gorillas to extinction.
Winning Dunia’s Trust
Although the project’s primary mission is to care for the region’s 700 or so wild mountain gorillas, it had already taken in four other eastern lowland gorillas like Dunia. Three caretakers were assigned to her so she would be with a foster parent 24/7. They worked in shifts, taking turns holding her, carrying her around on their backs, and cradling her while she slept. “She didn’t trust humans right away,” says Whittier, “but she would rather be with somebody than be alone.”
Gorillas are vegetarians. Fortunately Dunia had a healthy appetite for the diet she was given—which included green beans, pineapples, bananas, and milk formulas. Although she became stronger, a month after she was rescued her appearance revealed the psychological stress she carried inside—much of her hair fell out. That was a delayed reaction to the combined traumatic experiences of losing her parents and being kept—with a poor diet—by the poachers.
After six months of loving care that included around-the-clock attention, a good diet, and a comfortable home at the project’s headquarters, Dunia was looking and acting like a healthy, happy young gorilla should. “Dunia is sort of a shy show-off,” says Whittier. “Her confidence is growing and she’s becoming more independent, but when she is startled, the first thing she does is run back to her caretakers, just like she would to her mother.”
Nevertheless, Dunia now ventures farther from her caregivers for longer periods of time. She enjoys carefree moments of exploration out in the grassy areas of her enclosure. Eventually, the vets at the project hope to place Dunia and the other orphaned gorillas in a sanctuary, and may be able to release them into the wild as a group. No matter where she ends up, Dunia will never be alone again.
Text by Scott Elder