This Gorilla Was in Serious Trouble but Then …



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Dr. Eddy Kambale and Virunga National Park rangers treat silverback Mukunda after he was sedated in the village of Kibumba, DR Congo; photo by Molly Feltner
Dr. Eddy Kambale and Virunga National Park rangers treat silverback Mukunda after he was sedated in the village of Kibumba, DR Congo; photo by Molly Feltner

… but then Gorilla Doctors helped him out! Officially known as the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), this international veterinary team provides medical care to mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas living in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They intervene inside the national parks to help gorillas who are seriously sick or injured. To get an idea about their fascinating work and properly preset them on the pages of our award-winning Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook, we interviewed Dr. Fred Nizeyimana.

What are the origins of MGVP?

The mountain gorilla project was started as a fulfillment of a wish by Dian Fossey—when she started her conservation work, she encountered many human-induced health problems (snares, spear and gunshot wounds) and she felt there was a need for veterinary care.

But her primary focus was on behaviour and understanding of gorilla society?

Yes. MGVP started after her death in 1986 by the Morris Animal Foundation with only one veterinarian. He worked hard, but mainly with the gorillas in Rwanda. Since then we have become independent and have expanded into all three countries where mountain gorillas occur. There were many others concerned with the conservation and health of the gorillas and started donating funds.

Is there a lot of interest from veterinarians to join you?
There is a lot of interest, but funds are the thing always limiting us. I need to emphasise that gorilla doctors work as a team. I can’t face any problem alone, we use team work. Someone does anaesthesia, one collects samples of blood and so on.

Dr. Fred Nizeyimana prepares an injection of medicine for a sick gorilla; photo by Molly Feltner
Dr. Fred Nizeyimana prepares an injection of medicine for a sick gorilla; photo by Molly Feltner

You also have constant further educational programs. Who are the lecturers there? Who can know more that you?

We prepare the lectures among ourselves and sometimes visiting scientists also present lectures at our monthly rounds meetings.We provide training for rangers and trackers in regards to mountain gorillas’ health interventions.

Like what?

We realised that diseases can move either from the domestic area to the wild or the other way around, which includes gorillas. This means that along with our gorilla program we also support health programs for people and their animals living near the national parks. Our employee health program provides health screenings to conservation workers and their families in Rwanda and DRC. We also support some agricultural projects and vaccinate dogs and cats for rabies.

Drs. Fred Nizeyimana and Jan Ramer remove a snare from the leg of a baby mountain gorilla in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park; photo by Molly Feltner
Drs. Fred Nizeyimana and Jan Ramer remove a snare from the leg of a baby mountain gorilla in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park; photo by Molly Feltner

It almost seems like the healthcare system for gorillas is much more advanced than for humans?

This statement is not exactly true. It is true that these gorillas are monitored for health problems on a regular basis because they are critically endangered. With only about 700 mountain gorillas left in the world today, we believe we must ensure the health and well being of every individual possible.
However, we only intervene to help gorillas suffering from human-induced or life-threatening trauma or illness. If there is hope that a sick or injured gorilla will recover on its own, we let nature do the healing, which is what happens in most cases. Also, we have not intervened when animals appear to be suffering from old-age-related ailments or wounds inflicted by fights with other gorillas.

When new gorilla doctors join you—how do they approach the gorillas?

It is a gradual process. The new doctor comes as a tourist for the first time. Then he goes out with trackers. The gorillas see us from one side to another. It’s a gradual introduction. Then when we go for darting and intervention, we go with lots of the trackers, those who are used to the gorillas. When they see them they feel they came to do their ordinary work. Some of the gorillas recognise some faces and are not afraid.
We go along side and use the opportunity of recognition of the gorillas by the trackers—we used a double wall so we stand behind the trackers and the gorillas are not too surprised to see someone new. The gorilla sees the familiar faces in the front.
That gives us a good opportunity to take a shot. When a gorilla is hit it removes the dart and throws it to the ground but it still sees familiar faces in front and goes down easily. That way we reduce the stress and the drug works faster. The trackers also mimic sounds of gorillas—they use the sign of comfort gorillas use so they calm them down.

Interview: Tjasa Zajc

Read more about: Gorilla Doctors (external link) | Mountain Gorillas | Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook

Drs. Julius Nziza and Olivier Nsengimana and vet student Shannon McCook conduct zoonotic disease research near Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda; photo by Molly Feltner
Drs. Julius Nziza and Olivier Nsengimana and vet student Shannon McCook conduct zoonotic disease research near Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda; photo by Molly Feltner