Eastwood grad helps gorillas & humans live in harmony
Written by PETER KUEBECK Sentinel Staff Writer
Monday, 26 August 2013 09:11
Sonya Kahlenberg is passionate about the great apes that roam the hills of central Africa.
|Sonya Kahlenberg, executive director of the GRACE gorilla rehabilitation program, is seeking to help not only orphaned gorillas, but is working with African communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to interact beneficially with the dwindling gorilla population. (Photo provided)
And now the Wood County native is working with an organization to help gorillas and humans live in harmony.
Kahlenberg spoke recently at a meeting of the Bowling Green Rotary Club.
A 1995 Eastwood graduate, Kahlenberg studied at Ohio Wesleyan and Harvard University and is trained as an ape biologist.
She spent 12 years studying ape behavior in the field, largely chimpanzees in Uganda, where she witnessed what is considered the first evidence in non-human animals of "a primitive use of doll-play."
"I've really, really enjoyed my time as a field scientist," she said, but noted that her biggest passion is in conservation - for the past two years, for instance, she was the director of an anti-share patrol in one of Uganda's national parks.
Now, however, Kahlenberg is the Executive Director for GRACE - the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center - in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the largest countries in Africa.
The situation for eastern lowland gorillas in that area is dire - only about 2,000 of the great apes remain, the result of human conflict in Rwanda spilling over into the DRC's borders.
Since the 1990s, the apes have lost 50 percent of their habitat and 75 percent of their population through a combination of hunting and other problems.
GRACE's mission is to serve as a sort of rescue and rehabilitation center for orphaned gorillas - the older apes are frequently killed for meat, and their young are then captured and sold as pets. Both actions are illegal in the DRC.
The group currently has 14 such gorillas, and they are still building their facilities in the eastern portion of the DRC.
"Our hope is not to have any more. We want to put ourselves out of business," said Kahlenberg.
The United Nations is collaborating on the project. Among the efforts being undertaken is the creation of a special tract of forest for the apes at GRACE so that they can be slowly habitualized into their natural environment.
However, the GRACE project is not simply reacting to the issue of the orphaned gorillas - it seeks to be proactive by helping the economy of the area so that reliance on killing and selling gorillas will be made obsolete.
"The economy there's not much" due to the war, she said.
GRACE's Conservation Education Program is currently in is pilot phase, but has already reached more than 16,200 students in 63 schools across the country.
They've even produced a radio drama about the importance of proper hygiene.
"That helps both the communities and the gorillas, because the gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases."
Food security - in other words, ensuring that communities will know where their next meal is coming from - is also a priority, with a program to assist in the raising of rabbits, chickens, and even guinea pigs for food. Such efforts would help reduce the reliance on hunting gorillas.
To further help the economy, the Perrysburg Quilting Eagles are helping GRACE by sewing 50 stuffed gorillas, using African fabric, that widowed women in the DRC can use to help earn an income. The pattern was created by the Walt Disney Corporation, which is also partnering with GRACE. The group hopes to launch a program whereby these woman can make the stuffed toys by themselves and create a steady income.
Currently the program is in need of a community education center where they can have a library and hold programs.
"We're sort of just at the beginning," said Kahlenberg.
For more information, visit GRACE's website at http://gracegorillas.org.