Too young to survive alone...Ndeze and Ndakasi, the rare mountain gorilla orphans whose family was massacred, explore their new home with their carers.

Too young to survive alone...Ndeze and Ndakasi, the rare mountain gorilla orphans whose family was massacred, explore their new home with their carers. Photo: Paola Totaro

When their parents were slain, two infant silverbacks were raised by Congolese villagers, writes Paola Totaro.

They are toddlers like any other, in need of cuddles, food, sleep and plenty of room to explore, chase and play pat-a-cake. But Ndeze and Ndakasi are also unique: rare mountain gorilla babies who survived their family's massacre two years ago in a scandal that shocked international conservationists and remains a mystery to this day.

A photograph of Ndeze's father, the male silverback Senkwekwe, drew world attention when his enormous, lifeless body tethered to a makeshift bamboo stretcher was hauled tenderly out of the forest by villagers. At the time, the killings were described as ''executions'' because the gorillas' bodies - valuable both for meat and as hunting trophies - had been untouched at the crime scene.

The two tiny orphans, found clinging to the backs of a dead mother and brother, have become the only mountain gorillas reared in captivity. Just 700 of the species remain in the wild, spread over the dark forests that link Uganda to Congo and Rwanda.

Too young to survive alone, they were whisked to the back garden of a compound in Goma, one of eastern Congo's poorest, war-ravaged refugee towns. There, a passionate group of rangers, primatologists and carers from Virunga park embarked on the marathon needed to feed and nurture them, and to provide the constant bodily contact and interaction they need to thrive.

The new year, however, has brought a change in fortune for the baby gorillas and their dedicated human family: funds raised by donors, have allowed the creation of a safe 2.5-hectare forest hideaway for the babies, away from the smoke and noise of Goma. Named after the dead Senkwekwe, the first stage of the project, including a 1300 square metre covered enclosure, is under way and Ndezi and Ndakasi were moved there in an exercise conducted with military precision.

"They behaved just like normal babies in a car," Samantha Newport, a park official, said. "One fell asleep and the other vomited … but they were happy and exploring and playing in no time." Protected by electric fences, carers and rangers, the babies' realm is natural forest providing a gentle stepping stone towards their move back to the wild - a feat yet to be achieved successfully with the mountain gorilla. Next year, with funds provided by private donors including the American philanthropist Warren Buffett - and matched by the United Nations - the project will expand to include new veterinary facilities and a centre to educate locals on the mysterious creatures they rarely see but are asked to protect.

Like their primate charges, the Virunga park rangers themselves survived an unimaginably violent and turbulent 14 months. Their domain - 77,000 square kilometres of forest - is home to thousands of species from elephants to leopards, but has also been a theatre of civil war, conflict and human rights abuses perpetrated by various groups, from the notorious Hutu power group, the FDLR, to the undisciplined and often unpaid Congolese army.

Up to 600,000 displaced Congolese people recently camped in and around the park. Late in 2008, a bout of particularly fierce fighting between the warlord and renegade general Laurent Nkunda and the Congo Army erupted around Goma.

In one pre-dawn attack, the park headquarters was hit by helicopter gunfire, shells and artillery, forcing the 50 or so rangers left behind to flee and hide in the forest. Forced into hard, volcanic terrain without food or water for nearly a fortnight, three rangers died while scores of others were captured, beaten and released severely injured.

Several hundred other rangers, with their families, were later forced to flee their homes, creating a makeshift refugee camp which at its peak swelled close to 30,000 people.

With minimal shelter, and lacking food and clean water for months, they endured cholera outbreaks and relentless rain. Because rangers are classified as paramilitary, they were denied international aid. In just 10 years, 110 rangers were killed in the line of duty.

Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian anthropologist and environmental activist, had been in charge of the park - Africa's oldest - just a couple of months when the crisis struck. In command of 680 armed rangers, he found himself managing a security and humanitarian crisis, and a conservation disaster.

"It put everybody under enormous strain because we are a law enforcement agency and are part of national security arrangements, we are not entitled to humanitarian assistance in the way civilians are," Dr de Merode told the Herald. "We had to create a refugee camp almost overnight, without shelter, food, no clean water. The children were at constant risk of being malnourished and we had outbreaks of cholera."

De Merode, 39, was educated in Kenya and completed his PhD at University College in London where he met his wife, the paleontologist, Louise Leakey. A granddaughter of Louis Leakey, who with Dian Fossey brought the world's attention to the plight of the giant primates, Louise is now the mother of two young children - a fourth generation of passionate conservationists.

Quietly spoken and boyish, de Merode has an iron will and the calm of a born leader. His dedication and courage resolved the violent siege after he secured the Congo Government's support to negotiate directly with Nkunda and his men and then crossed borders to visit the warlord face-to-face. Nkunda agreed that the park be placed above politics and he sanctioned the return of its rangers.

De Merode says his government minister took a considerable political risk. Once he was given approval to negotiate directly with the rebels, ''we put out feelers to say we were coming. … we didn't want to surprise anyone. I explained that I would arrive in uniform, as a representative of the Government. We crossed the border, explained what we were doing and I was able to arrange a meeting with Laurent Nkunda.''

De Merode explains that one of the bigger threats to the park and gorilla habitat is the charcoal trade which results in enormous tracts of forest being burned to extract fuel used for cooking. Finding alternative fuels and livelihoods for the people who live around the park is imperative, he argues.

Already, an ambitious program to create a network of mini-businesses making combustible briquettes from woodchip, leaf litter and scrap paper employs 3000. His aim is to employ 34,000 people by the end of next year.

The goal is to substitute 15 per cent of charcoal fuel with the briquettes, helping smash the link between the illicit industry, estimated to be worth $33 million a year, and rebel militia who exploit the gangs and siphon money to buy arms and fund continuing conflicts. The big hurdle now, says de Merode, is to coax local people to accept the fuel which is much cheaper but remains less efficient and more smoky than charcoal.

The charcoal trade, after all, motivated the killing of the gorilla family in 2007. Investigations led to the arrest of Honore Mshagiro, de Merode's predecessor as Virunga park director.

To help Virunga, read the rangers' blogs and sponsor programs at

Paola Totaro is the Herald's Europe correspondent.