PEOPLE | 04.26.16
Gorillas on the Mend
To bring medical support to mountain gorillas, a group of veterinarians brave one of the world’s most dangerous national parks.
Mountain Gorilla Distribution
Rwanda, Uganda, DRC
The dart lands just below her left shoulder. Gashangi, a 33-year-old mountain gorilla, reacts as though stung by a bee. She swipes a large hand toward her perceived antagonist but is unable to reach the feathered projectile. A few moments later she gets up and begins to move off through the lush montane vegetation towards the rest of her family. The bright red dart falls off when she attempts to squeeze her heavy body through the thick patch ofGalium
vines where she had been feeding. Veterinarian Eddy Kabale picks it up from the ground and nods towards his colleagues. The medicine has been injected; there is nothing more they can do. He collects his gear and readies himself to set off through Virunga’s nearly impenetrable jungle once again. It is already mid-afternoon, high time to return to the park’s well-protected headquarters.
Straddling Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the misty Virunga mountains are home to just over half of the world’s 900 mountain gorillas. Together with Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, they make up the species’ last remaining refuge. But Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest and once its most biodiverse, plays host to regular human conflict and was occupied by the rebel group M23 as recently as 2012. One hundred and forty park rangers have lost their lives in the battle for the park and its nonhuman inhabitants since 1994, and numerous gorillas have fallen victim to bullets, machetes and snares. Park director Emmanuel de Merode was nearly killed in an ambush scant days before the Gashangi intervention, taking four bullets in the stomach and legs.
Kabale had arrived at the Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo two days earlier. Meeting him there were the organization’s regional director, a German volunteer, and Alisa Kubala, a veterinarian and PhD student who is conducting a study of cross-species disease transmission. Gorillas and humans share 98.5% of their genetic makeup, leaving them susceptible to many of the same infections. Yet gorillas, long confined to small, isolated habitats, have had no opportunity to build up immunity against diseases such as influenza. Twenty percent of sudden gorilla deaths are believed to be caused by infectious respiratory disease, second only to trauma; many of these likely originate with human pathogens. Kubala is particularly interested in whether mountain and Grauer’s gorillas are susceptible to contracting malaria, since climate change is bringing mosquitoes to the previously mosquito-free elevations where they spend their lives.
Sedating the older gorillas for their examinations turned out to be more difficult than one might expect. The animals are intelligent and experienced enough to know that they won’t be darted in the head or while standing up—knowledge they exploited without hesitation and sometimes with humorous defiance, lazily swinging back and forth on the room’s rope swing before laying down on the ground, shuffling around to keep their heads facing the veterinarians. It took almost half an hour to get a clean shot at Maisha, a 9-year-old female and the little group’s matriarch, but once that was done—with a dart containing ketamine and xylazine—the work proceeded without further complications. The four doctors, working on the floor around the still gorilla, quickly concluded that all was well and that Maisha appeared to be in good health.
Before the veterinarians were able to begin the next examination on the following morning, there was another job to do. One of the gorillas inside the park had been ill for some time. A tumor was making it difficult for her to swallow, and her lips were torn. She needed urgent medical attention. After a quick meal of rice and beans, the team set off towards Bukima, where the gorilla’s family was last seen.
Alas, the intervention wouldn’t save Gashangi’s life—but there was never much hope of that. She suffered from a malignant skin cancer, and there was nothing Kabale or anyone else could have done to prevent her death. But a number of the trackers suspected her to be pregnant, so Gorilla Doctors was hoping that an experimental treatment—an expensive vaccine that had proven successful in mice, dogs and humans—would reduce pain and delay death long enough for her baby to be born. As it turned out, she wasn’t pregnant, and Gashangi died two days after the last of four vaccinations. But the intervention shows just how far Kabale and his fellow veterinarians are willing to go for even the remotest chance of saving a life.
ABOUT THE Contributor
Marcus Westberg is an acclaimed photographer and writer, focusing primarily on conservation and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. A photojournalism finalist in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Marcus works closely with a number of non-profit organizations and projects across the continent and is a conservation and community development advisor for Luambe Conservation in Zambia.
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