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Gorillas Find Sanctuary in Democratic Republic of Congo

As fighting between rebel and government forces continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo, animal conservation groups are expressing concern for some endangered species in the tropical jungles on Congo's eastern border. But the U.S. government and private donors are still working in Congo to create East Central Africa's first rescue center exclusively for gorillas, a species that has long faced threats to its survival.

There are nearly one thousand gorillas in the world's zoos. Many are like Femelle, a 46-year-old graying female at the zoo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She's a western lowland gorilla, who was born in captivity. Zookeepers describe her as curious, attentive and quiet - a dominant elder who gets along with the other five gorillas in her group.

Femelle enjoys her favorite snack - grapes. Femelle even grunts her thanks to gorilla-keeper Claire Richard, who hands the fruit through the fence.

Richard has been working with Femelle and the other gorillas here for a dozen years. She says there is a lot to admire about the species.

"They're very laid-back. They're mellow. They don't argue except over food and who's got what bed for the night," Richard says.

As far as she's concerned, she says, gorillas are what people should be.

The Milwaukee zoo's gorillas are also popular with visitors.

"They're huge. I mean, look at this guy!" one man laughs, suggesting they could play professional American football.

A woman standing near him considers more than their size.

"Their family groups are so important to them that they'll do anything to protect them…and looking at my family I would do the same thing…that's where the fascination comes in," she says.

But a nearby display points out a sobering fact: in the wilds of Africa, gorillas are in danger of extinction. And it's not just the current fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo that's a concern.

Gorillas pushed to the brink

Doug Cress is executive director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, which coordinates sites in the wild to protect the gorilla.

"It's habitat that's diminishing all the time," he says, "between the deforestation, the logging, the human encroachment …hunting. So many changes are occurring so fast in Africa that it's pushing gorillas really to the brink. "

There are preserves in Africa for endangered species, from cheetahs to gazelles, but Cress explains that something special was needed for gorillas in the eastern part of central Africa, a region that is home to two of the three subspecies of the great ape.

Many of the gorillas confiscated by police or the military are infants whose parents have been killed by poachers, Cress says.

"We'll take the physical animal off the hands of the police officer or the military officer or whoever, and that was always a sticking point in the past. If you're going to confiscate, you suddenly have - physically in your hand - a baby animal that is probably sick and looks sickly, and you might get sick from it.

"When we step in, we say [to the police], 'We'll take that. Now you do you your job. We'll do our job, and let's move forward.'"

A special sanctuary for great apes

To help conservationists move forward, an international coalition is building a center to rescue, rehabilitate and reintroduce these orphaned gorillas back into the wild. It is designed to care for up to 30 eastern lowland and mountain gorillas. The sanctuary will cover 150 hectares near Lubero in the northeastern corner of Congo.

Cress says the location of the center is very important.

"Gorillas are very difficult to rescue. They are not tough animals, not durable animals, and the stress of being hunted, captured and confiscated, they quite often die from the stress," he says. "So to have a rescue center close to where they are, we can get to them quicker and rehabilitate them more easily."

The center will cost about $300,000 to construct and another $100,000 a year - at least - to keep going. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development have put up some money, and so has The Walt Disney Company, which operates a number of animal parks in the United States and promotes conservation.

A nonprofit foundation named after the late gorilla expert Dian Fossey will help operate the new gorilla rescue center. The sanctuary is scheduled to open next year, barring a major worsening of the current conflict between the Democratic Republic of Congo government and rebel forces.

The Fossey organization says for now, the center is hundreds of kilometers from the fighting. But some gorilla experts have postponed traveling to the site until at least January.