How to Rescue a Poached Baby Gorilla

Christian Shamavu’s story of the under-cover operation

Christian Shamavu holds the baby gorilla following the rescue. The gorilla is named Shamavu after his rescuer.

There was a moment during the undercover operation when ranger Christian Shamavu suddenly realized that he was in danger, that one false move could cost him everything. Surprisingly, prior to this, he wasn’t afraid. He was simply moving along with the plan, doing his job.

The plan was 1) to pose as the middleman for a foreigner who wanted to buy a baby gorilla, 2) get the baby gorilla, 3) arrest the poachers. Simple? A lot could go wrong. The most important part to the success required getting everyone – rangers, gorilla, poachers – into the car at the same time.

The whole story began with a phone call from a contact in Goma who told Christian there were two baby gorillas for sale in Lubero territory west of Virunga National Park. The word had passed through several people before reaching the Goma contact and Christian. A plan was made…an 8-hour road-trip in a rented car…a long wait…but the poachers didn’t show up. Christian decided to abort the operation.

Two weeks later, the poachers again got in contact, saying they had one gorilla. No one knows if there were originally two or if it was a misunderstanding, but this one had to be rescued. Once again, a car was rented, four rangers dressed in civilian clothes drove 8 hours to Kayna, and this time the poachers showed up, but without the baby. They were being cautious.

Christian is a calm, even-tempered man with a big warm smile. He finds it easy and fun to act. He’s a natural. This part of the plan was no problem for him. They discussed the deal, talked about the “muzungu” (white foreigner) who wanted to buy the gorilla, and he convinced the poachers he had money. They all got in the car and drove north 10 km to the next town where the baby gorilla was being kept in a house. Two poachers and two rangers went together to the house while the others remained at the car.

When Christian reached the house, that was the moment of fear. Four men were stationed outside and four inside to protect the poachers. He didn’t see guns, but this was clearly a military-like tactical move and he was seriously outnumbered now with no weapon. He couldn’t afford to make a single mistake now.

The men brought out a small backpack and opened it. Inside sat a small baby gorilla, arms tightly wrapped around his body. The poachers then led Christian over to the nearby church to make the deal. They started high, Christian low, and after some haggling, they agreed upon a price and insisted they get paid before turning over the gorilla. Christian refused, arguing that he couldn’t pay for something he didn’t have, and that they should be smart and not make the transaction in the open. It would be safest inside the car.

The poachers hold the small backpack that they kept the baby gorilla in.

Christian and the other rangers knew exactly what they would do once they got everyone in the car, plus the baby gorilla. Once inside the car, the poachers looked inside a bag where Christian had stacks of money – but only the top and bottom of the stacks had real US dollars. Everything in between was Congolese francs, but the poachers were nervous and in a hurry, so they called over their third man holding the bag with the gorilla and motioned him to get in the car.

As soon as he was in the car, the clearly planned operation went into effect. The ranger at the wheel locked the doors, rolled up the windows, cranked the radio music up high, and took off down the road. Two rangers in the back pulled out their guns. Almost immediately, friends of the poachers took chase on motorcycles. The car flew down the bumpy dirt road at 90 kph, very fast for these roads, leaving the motorcycles behind in their dust.

Christian and his three companions brought the poachers and baby gorilla back to Rumangabo park headquarters where the poachers were detained for questioning and then taken to the jail in Goma where they will be tried in court. The punishment can range from one to ten years.

The baby is now living at the Senkwekwe Center with two experienced and loving caretakers. Hopefully he will be sent to live at GRACE sanctuary with other orphaned Grauer’s gorillas of all ages and feel part of a family again.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the financial support of this little baby gorilla. We’re deeply grateful.

Each day, Shamavu seems more comfortable with his surroundings at Senkwekwe Center, and more secure with his caretakers. He’s become quite fond of the milk bottle the caretakers give him.

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