DRC Director , Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center
Growing up in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) near Virunga National Park, Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke always felt drawn to conservation. From an early age, Jackson saw how conservation can benefit people and the planet.
“Gorilla conservation was my vision since I was a child,” said Mbeke. “Growing up in my village, which is called Kayna, I saw these rangers from Virunga National Park. They had good uniforms, good cars, and a good life. They were proud of their work. It really inspired me to become one of them some day."
Jackson shared his dreams with his father, who promised to send him to a conservation college when he was old enough. In the meantime, a strong sense of compassion led Jackson to care for sick and injured livestock in his village. Using the wages he earned from nursing animals back to health, Jackson studied at a local veterinary school.
Eventually, his passion for animals led Jackson to study at the Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB) in 2003. The college was a first of its kind in DRC, created to train Congolese conservationists, with the nearby community-managed Tayna Nature Reserve serving as an incredible field research site and living classroom. At TCCB, Jackson helped to conduct scientific research in Tayna to better understand its unique biodiversity. Tayna is home to many different species, including an estimated 150+ of the remaining population of Eastern Lowland Gorillas (also known as Grauer’s Gorillas). As one of the last strongholds for this Critically Endangered primate, this work in Tayna was vital for their conservation. These awe-inspiring experiences strengthened Jackson’s desire to continue protecting gorillas from poaching and habitat destruction.
Jackson is a natural leader, and now serves as the DRC Director of Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE Gorillas), the world’s only sanctuary for rescued Eastern Lowland Gorillas.
[Read more: Gracefully Saving Eastern Lowland Gorillas]
More than a sanctuary, GRACE Gorillas also works with local communities on conservation education, forest protection, and sustainable livelihoods to help foster a peaceful coexistence between humans and gorillas. Jackson rose to his current role as director after first joining GRACE in 2008, where he began as a logistics coordinator and construction manager for the development of the GRACE campus. Now, Jackson manages an entirely Congolese team of over 55 staff, who are devoted to supporting GRACE Gorillas’ core mission, including caring for 14 rescued gorillas.
“Many people from the community work at GRACE, and we are very proud of that,” said Mbeke. “From kitchen staff to maintenance to education to animal care, every role is required to make GRACE a success. By employing community members, they encourage their family members to protect gorillas, too.”
In 2014, Jackson was named a Disney Conservation Hero by the Disney Conservation Fund. This annual competitive award is given to a handful of conservationists from around the world who were recognized for their dedication to wildlife and wild places. Jackson was also named winner of Born Free’s Virginia McKenna Award for Compassionate Conservation in 2018. This award honors outstanding individual conservationists and carers who place a high priority on animal welfare, while undertaking environmental education around the world, conservation policy, or the protection of species under threat.
Jackson, his wife Denise and their entire family serve as ambassadors for a peaceful life between humans and gorillas. Jackson continues to connect with local community members to empower them to help protect gorillas. At home and at work Jackson is committed to integrating GRACE Gorillas’ conservation mission into all aspects of his life.
“We have to keep people central to conservation,” said Mbeke. “Meeting their needs and listening to their concerns, challenges, and also incorporating their wisdom, allows us to go farther and be more successful together.”