The complexities of great ape reintroduction (abridged)

The second half of my term at GRACE has ended, and I now write from Kindu, Maniema province. As you might expect, my last week was somewhat hectic wrapping up everything I’d hoped to complete (which of course I did not), and there was not much extra time to compose an update. For now, however, I rewind to mid-March and recall some particular points about the gorilla sanctuary in Kasugho, North Kivu.

Overlooking the village of Kasugho from the GRACE compound, with the eastern-most stretches of the Congo Basin visible beyond the hills.

Overlooking the village of Kasugho from the GRACE compound, with the eastern-most stretches of the Congo Basin visible beyond the hills.

For the majority of my 1.5 months there, GRACE was home to three wazungus (i.e. white people): myself, Luitzen, the DRC Director, and Caitlin, a graduate student conducting behavioral research. Mid-March, however, saw an influx of three more: Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE executive director, and Katie and Rachel, two research/animal husbandry consultants from Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The Congolese staff were ecstatic to have so many visitors. A most special moment was our visit to the local primary school, where the several hundred students gave us a joyous welcome reception unlike any I had received before.

Walking through a sea of singing, smiling students!

Walking through a sea of singing, smiling students!

Unfortunately their visit was cut short to three days, after the airline which provides service from Butembo to Goma decided to cancel their Tuesday flight, necessitating a Saturday departure from GRACE (such airline cancellations are common here…indeed, one never knows if and when a flight will actually go until the plane actually lands on the runway). Sonya, Katie, Rachel, and Luitzen all traveled to Goma for a Conservation Action Planning (CAP) meeting, hosted by the Jane Goodall Institute. The focus was great ape conservation in eastern DRC, and of course, reintroduction of Grauer’s gorillas was an important topic of the agenda.

As I alluded to before, reintroduction of great apes is a tricky business, and there is no rule book to follow. One requires a comprehensive knowledge of their complex social structure and behavioral dynamics, and there are several levels of these dynamics that are relevant: 1) general knowledge of Grauer’s gorilla wild behavior; 2) knowledge of the specific group into which individuals will be released; and 3) knowledge of the individuals to be released themselves.

Even within these three categories there are sublevels: within specific individual group/individual dynamics there are both behavioral and genetic considerations. What are the personality traits of the gorillas you hope to reintroduce, and how will they interact with specific individuals in the proposed wild group? Will the wild group welcome new individuals, leave them behind, or even kill them? Do the candidates for release have the necessary skills to survive in the wild, or are they too accustomed to life in captivity and proximity to humans? These are questions we ask of each gorilla at GRACE, and why it is necessary to closely evaluate their individual and group behavior before deciding which ones are most likely to survive in the wild. For genetics, the most important consideration is heterogeneity, or variance. This is especially a pertinent consideration for captive animal populations, where breeding is a commercial business. When a population is limited (e.g. a captive breeding population, or if there are very few individuals left in the wild), it is important to determine which individuals can provide the most new genes to a wild group, and therefore allow for a higher chance of survival and proclivity of future generations.

And, I should mention, on top of these three categories that deal with the gorillas themselves, especially pertinent in a place like DRC are people: politics, security, and social stability. For all the great recommendations scientists and conservation practitioners can make, what matters most in the end is whether or not the recommendations are actually feasible. This touches on the huge issue of relating academics and theory to practical conservation. I will not spend much time commenting on this personally, but just want to note that it is a relevant topic of discussion and one that is all too often taken for granted. Many conservation initiatives fail because all allocated effort and money is spent on the ecological systems without regard for the local people, whose cooperation is essential to any project and who are indeed part of the system itself. It is pointless to pursue conservation of a system without an approach that integrates the people who are themselves part of the system. In this respect, I am extremely fortunate to have worked at GRACE for many reasons, but a primary one is the exemplary Congolese staff the sanctuary employs.

The wonderful staff of the GRACE project.

The wonderful staff of the GRACE project.

I will end my reintroduction overview by reporting a case study of a reintroduction attempt in the early 2000s; this serves as a reminder that something unexpected will always happen, and regardless of the meticulous preparation involved you can never account for everything. As some of you who have studied Biology might be aware, fruit flies (Drosophila spp.) are a popular model organism to use for genetic studies at universities. Their demand at universities was so great, in fact, that in the mid-1990s the two sole researchers worldwide concerned with declining urban Drosophila populations were worried. They resolved to bolster two important wild populations in the northeastern US, known colloquially as the Capulet and Montague groups. These two populations were somewhat proximate to each other within Boston’s Red Line, yet completely geographically isolated on either side of a hot dog stand. There was no recorded transmittance of genes between the groups. The researchers chose two individuals—Romeo and Juliet—for release after a rigorous genetic selection process, both of them specifically identified for their ability to contribute genetic variability to their respective groups. Romeo, of course, was most closely related to the Montagues, and therefore would be released with the Capulets to provide the most effective genetic variation (and vice versa for Juliet). Completely coincidental was Romeo and Juliet’s tendency to eat off the same rotting banana inside the laboratory, and scientific objectivity forced the researchers to write off any anthropomorphically-influenced hesitations about what effect separating Romeo and Juliet might have. When the day of the release came, the researchers arrived at the Red Line site and were shocked to find the hot dog stand was gone, and the Montagues and Capulets had completely decimated each other, an event previously prevented by the hot dog barrier. Further, as the researchers had forgotten to label their vials, they had no idea which fly was Romeo and which was Juliet. They resigned to the unfortunate realization that Drosophila reintroduction was a fruitless endeavor, packed up their laboratory and matriculated into a local university as English majors.

I have left the altitude of the Albertine Rift and entered the vast Congo Basin, currently on the banks of the river itself. Here, the humidity is high and the mosquitoes are vigorous. Yet, I am looking forward to the next few months of work, which I will devote to the conservation and management of African Grey Parrots…here’s hoping their tenure in the wild outlasts their current bleak potential.

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2 Responses to The complexities of great ape reintroduction (abridged)

  1. Sherron Laurrell says:

    Hi Andrew, Very interesting post on your latest adventure! I love the photos…especially the photo of the valley! That is gorgeous. I also got a true flavor of the words in your post by looking at the smiling faces of all those wonderful young people in your group photo. I am so glad you are having a productive, safe, fun time!


  2. Steve Shaffer says:

    Thank you for a sharing the information and photos. I wish you the best in all of your adventures!
    God bless you,


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