News / Africa

Baby Gorilla Recovering From Jail Time

Year-and-a-half-old orphan gorilla Ihirwe plays with one of her caretakers in Kinigi, Rwanda
Year-and-a-half-old orphan gorilla Ihirwe plays with one of her caretakers in Kinigi, Rwanda


Heather Murdock

Earlier this month Rwandan police rescued what is believed to be a rare baby mountain gorilla, kidnapped from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Veterinarians say she is now successfully recovering trauma, respiratory disease and her brief stay in jail.

It was about 8 p.m. in early August when vets raced to the jailhouse near the Rwanda-Congo border.  They came to pick up Ihirwe, a one-and-half year old gorilla that the Rwandan police had rescued from poachers. Her name means, "luck."

At the jail, vets found the baby gorilla inside the cell with the poachers.

Dr. Jan Ramer, the regional veterinary manager for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project or the "Gorilla Doctors," was at the jail.

"The day we found her in the jail, we walked in and the first we saw was one of the poachers sneezed on her," Ramer recalled.

When vets took in Ihirwe, she was infected with a severe respiratory disease which is life-threatening for gorillas. Like most gorillas infected with the disease, she had caught from a person, either one of the poachers she was jailed with, or someone else.

Believed to be one of less than 800 rare mountain gorillas on earth, Ihirwe was also traumatized and scared.

Mountain gorillas are highly social animals that often live and travel in groups. So, when babies are kidnapped, parents or other relatives are almost always slaughtered in the process.

The three poachers told police she had been snatched from the forest in the Congo, but they didn't kidnap the baby themselves. They purchased her from someone for about $15,000.

And while she now waits at a quarantine center in Rwanda, Ihirwe's DNA is at a lab in Germany. Before they can move her, doctors need to confirm that she is actually a mountain gorilla, as opposed to a lowland gorilla.

Once her identity is certain, she will be brought to a sanctuary to meet other orphan gorillas. Individual mountain gorillas have never been re-introduced to the wild successfully. Ramer says if the orphans form a family, they may one day survive on their own.

"While introduction to the wild is an ideal goal, we are not even close to that endpoint yet," Ramer added.  "It's going to be years before they have the age and the behavior tools.  And there are also some medical issues that we have to consider."

In the meantime, Ihirwe is fully recovered from respiratory disease, and bonding with the three men who care for her day and night.  But when one of the men puts her down to take a walk, she raises her arms earnestly. The doctor says Ihirwe is still scared to be left alone.

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