By Charles E. Ramirez
Sonya Kahlenberg and Luitzen Santman are trying to help save one of the world's most endangered gorilla species from violence and poaching in central Africa.
Monday, the two wildlife experts will bring their campaign to the Detroit Zoo.
Kahlenberg and Santman with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, or GRACE, will speak about the group's efforts to rescue and care for orphaned Grauer's gorillas. Kahlenberg is GRACE's executive director and Santman is its director.
"We hope people who attend our talk will walk away convinced Grauer's gorillas are incredible animals that deserve our help," Kahlenberg said. "We hope they get a better understanding of the threats and challenges gorillas and human communities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are facing.
"And we hope they're inspired to spread the word about the work GRACE, the Detroit Zoo, and its partners are doing to ensure the survival of Grauer's gorillas."
The presentation, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Detroit Zoo's Ford Education Center. Admission is $20 and 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit GRACE.
The Detroit Zoological Society is hosting the event because it's a partner in a worldwide effort to save the Grauer's gorilla. Ron Kagan, the society's executive director and CEO, sits on GRACE's board of directors. He said the zoo has been working with GRACE for about a year, but this is the first time officials with the group have given a presentation at the zoo. The zoo plans to host similar events in the future, he said.
"This is a story of great hope and we're just so excited to be connected to this project," said Kagan, who's been on the group's board for about a year. "We want to make sure our community is aware of this and the kind of projects we're involved in."
The zoo plans to send veterinary and education staff to the center to help with the orphaned gorillas in the future, he said.
Grauer's gorillas are named after Austrian explorer and zoologist Rudolf Grauer.
Also known as the eastern lowland gorilla, they make up the largest group of the four gorilla subspecies — the other three are the mountain gorilla, the western lowland gorilla and the Cross River gorilla. Grauer's gorillas are distinguished by a stocky body, large hands and short muzzle.
It's estimated as few as 2,000 Grauer's gorillas remain in the wild. More than half of the animal's population has been wiped out in the last two decades and their numbers are expected to continue falling for the next 30-40 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Destruction of their habitat, poaching, the growing human population and civil war in the pose the biggest threats to the gorilla.
GRACE, which is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, provides rescue and rehabilitative care for orphaned Grauer's gorillas. Founded by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in 2009, the group prepares the gorillas to be released into the wild.
The group's facility is on 370 acres in a forested area of central Africa. It is home to 14 orphaned Grauer's gorillas between the ages of 3 and 12.
Tickets for the GRACE presentation are available at www.detroitzoo.org or at the door. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
"We're going to share an amazing story," Kagan said. "We've been involved with many conservation programs around the world, but this one may be the most exciting one ever."