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A House Call for Mountain Gorillas

  • A Rwandan mountain gorilla holding a stick and eating

In the 1980s, poaching and disease decimated mountain gorilla populations. They might have gone extinct, were it not for a group of dedicated conservationists, including wildlife veterinarians, who stepped up to help. Gorilla Doctors provide care to this critically endangered species: removing snares, treating ailments, and saving lives. In December 2017, Dr. Dawn Zimmerman, a wildlife veterinarian with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Global Health Program, traveled to Rwanda and worked with Gorilla Doctors for three weeks. The following is a brief highlight from her travels.

Ab’ I Rwanda barabatashya! Greetings from Rwanda! 

It has been four years since I last hiked up the volcanoes of the Virunga Massif to treat one of the 880 remaining mountain gorillas. At that time, a 4-year-old juvenile had been caught in a snare, with the rope so tight around his wrist that he could no longer use his hand. Without intervention, he would have lost his hand from lack of blood supply and possibly his life due to infection. Along with a dedicated group of rangers, the Gorilla Doctors team immobilized the juvenile to remove the snare and provide treatment for pain and infection.

I recognize him—now a healthy and rambunctious 8-year-old blackback, uprooting a giant lobelia in demonstration of his strength. Soon, he will grow into a regal silverback. Perhaps one day he will lead his own family to range across the lush, biodiverse forest surrounding the six volcanoes these gorillas call home.

As Regional Veterinary Manager for University of California, Davis’ Gorilla Doctors program from 2011 to 2013, I had the pleasure of working with the dedicated and talented Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese veterinarians to monitor the health of this critically endangered species. This international veterinary team provides hands-on medical care to ill and injured mountain and Grauer’s gorillas living in the national parks of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Today, as a wildlife veterinarian for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program, I return to Rwanda to work again with this incredible program. My current position focuses on wildlife health at the human-wildlife interface—which is ever-increasing, concomitant with the human population and impact on environmental resources. This interface is readily apparent in eastern gorilla habitat.

Global Health Program hopes to launch a new study that will measure the impact of cumulative stress on the physiology of individual wild animals, like the gorillas. This research will provide new knowledge that could further support the sustainability of eastern gorillas, both the mountain gorilla and the Grauer’s gorilla. 

The Gorilla Doctors began as the realization of a dream of American gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to studying and protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. By the mid-1980s, her research indicated that the mountain gorilla population was rapidly declining, with fewer than 300 known mountain gorillas remaining in the world.

Gorillas were being killed by poachers, suffering from life-threatening injuries caused by snares, and succumbing to illnesses that Fossey suspected were being transmitted by local people. In 1985, Fossey, along with Ruth Morris Keesling of the Morris Animal Foundation, established the Volcanoes Veterinary Clinic in Rwanda.  In 2009, this rapidly growing initiative partnered with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis, and became the Gorilla Doctors program. Gorilla Doctors now employs more than a dozen veterinarians and health experts across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, Gorilla Doctors’ veterinarians visit these troops at least once a month, like a house call, to do visual assessments and detect any subtle changes in their health. Gorillas have unique noseprints, similar to how humans have unique fingerprints, and their facial features can be used to tell them apart. The trackers, who see the animals every day, are a great source of knowledge about individual animals.

Gorilla Doctors asks the trackers in-depth questions based on the history of the individual gorillas and any changes they have noted that could be related to health. The veterinarians monitor the gorillas’ body condition for weight gain and loss, look for any skin abnormalities or masses, and check their eyes for brightness and clarity. In addition, they look for other physical signs that a gorilla may be ill, such as hair loss, lameness or nasal discharge. If an injury or illness is deemed human-induced or life-threatening, Gorilla Doctors intervenes via remote treatment and/or anesthesia for more invasive diagnostics and therapeutics.

In mid-December on a warm but quiet evening, I arrived late in Kigali, Rwanda. I began my trip with a lecture at African Leadership University’s School of Wildlife Conservation. This groundbreaking institution is engaging a new educational approach to create leaders throughout Africa, fostering the knowledge and skills to forge entrepreneurial and multidisciplinary solutions to issues affecting the conservation of wildlife. 

I spoke of the importance of approaching conservation through a One Health lens. The health of the environment, humans, and animals are inextricably linked, and we need to approach conservation through all three of those lenses. It was inspiring to meet so many students with such passion and dedication towards wildlife conservation. 

The following day, I drove to the Gorilla Doctors compound in Musanze. Under the gaze of the Virunga Massif, the significance of this project is palpable. Just a few weeks prior to my arrival, two silverbacks had lost their lives: Kanyonyi of the Mubare group in Uganda and Noel of the Rugendo group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both cases had received multiple interventions in an effort to save them, placing both a physical and emotional toll on the field veterinarians caring for them.

During my three weeks in Rwanda, I was able to personally check on the health of three habituated gorilla groups: Muhoza (the newest gorilla group in Rwanda, named after one of the youngest leading silverbacks); Umubano (a group including a now healthy 6-year-old “Ijabo”, who underwent a life-saving foot amputation by Gorilla Doctors at just 3 days old); and Sabyinyo (named after the volcano and led by the oldest silverback on record, 46- year-old “Guhonda”). 

Beyond my time in-country, I have been working with the Rwandan, Uganda, and Congolese field veterinarians to assist in writing up publications of case reports and research. One investigation looks at respiratory disease, the second most common cause of mortality in the species. 

It has been amazing to be back in this beautiful country, to work with such dedicated conservationists, and to see the gorillas again that I worked so closely with for more than two years. I am once again honored and humbled to be a part of the effort to save the species.

The goal of Gorilla Doctors has always been to be a sustainable project. Apart from the directors and visiting veterinarians, all project veterinarians are Ugandan, Rwandan or Congolese. By passing knowledge to them, Gorilla Doctors is helping to build their capacity to continue this project well into the future. Collectively with other conservation organizations, these efforts are making a difference for this critically endangered species as mountain gorillas are increasing in number!

The health and well-being of each individual gorilla is vital to the species’ survival. It is clear that the Gorilla Doctors program, in collaboration with other mountain gorilla conservation organizations, have done an exceptional job in understanding and addressing the complex relationships between animal, human, and environmental health, and that a One Health approach to the conservation of endangered species could prove to be the thin line between extinction and survival.

This story appears in the April 2018 issue of National Zoo News.