Hello from Lucy. We hope that all of MGVP’s gorilla doctors will blog on WildlifeDirect in the future. My regular (and sometimes very long) postings will continue here and on Discovery.
Ndakasi/Kabila is weighed daily by her caretakers. This information is critical to monitoring her overall health.
Last week, our tiny patient, the infant mountain gorilla now known as Ndakasi/Kabila (her name is a source of some confusion), recovered steadily from her bout with diarrhea. I was very worried at the outset of her illness: her stools at one point looked like yellow water and she lost nearly 8% of her body weight, dropping from 4.5 kilos to 4-all due to dehydration. Fortunately, she responded quickly to treatment with oral metronidazole and considerable amounts of subcutaneous fluids. We suspect Giardia, but our lab tests have been inconclusive. and the orphan gorilla caretakers are happy not to be poking her with needles any more.
Six-month old orphaned female mountain gorilla, named either Kabila or Ndakasi, recovering from a bout of severe diarrhea and dehydration (10.21.07).
Most of the rangers who work for ICCN in the DRC refer to Ndakasi as Kabila, based on the identification of the mother gorilla shot dead in June, 2007. Kabila’s recorded birth date is November, 2006, however, and there’s no way our patient is almost a year old. Ndakasi was named for a ranger who died of diabetes in February 2007, and the records show that she was born the next month. Perhaps the names were switched? If so, the next time the rangers can safely check on the Kabirizi Group, they should find a one-year old infant named Ndakasi still with her mother. Or it could be that our orphan is a different infant altogether, that Ndakasi is fine, and that Kabila is missing. While we wait for the rangers to sort it out, she has two names.
Ndeze, about two months older, appears to be thriving. Fortunately, she did not come down with diarrhea.. She is amazingly strong for such a small animal, though probably not as tough as a free-living eight-month-old mountain gorilla. At least Ndeze and Ndakasi/Kabila have each other, and they now play regularly. But there are no adults gorillas to test their strength or set the rules; no tall trees to fall out of by mistake. Both orphans need to be encouraged to climb and move about by their caretakers. And we all agree that now is the time to add something natural to their environment on a daily basis when possible-forest food. If the DRC side of the Virungas is not safe for food collection, we will transport it from Rwanda starting this week.
Kwiyongera, 14-months old, chews on the cord of a favorite vine while his mother, Kubaka, eats the leaves, in Shinda Group (9.28.07)
We’ve all seen infant mountain gorillas chewing on bits of plant material and this behavior has been recorded in detail by behavioral researchers. The very young do not actually swallow it. Maybe they are teething-or simply copying their mothers. Possibly they extract tiny amounts of chemicals from the plants they chew on, just enough to settle their digestions or provide a micronutrient. They may also suck in moisture. In addition to artificial milk formula, do Ndakasi-Kabila and Ndeze need something else? Would any fibrous plant, like home-grown green beans, suffice while they are still less than a year-old? Or do they also need tiny amounts of specific plants from the forest? If so, does any one know which ones?
In Shinda Group, 16-month old Iterambere chews on a leafy branch while his mother, Karudi, eats gallium, a common mountain gorilla food (9.28.07).
Even when infant mountain gorillas do begin to eat and swallow (not just chew) plant material, milk is their primary nutrition until they are weaned at the age of three to four. The obvious question is whether the human artificial milk formula combined with small amounts of common forest foods-wild celery, gallium, and bamboo-meets the nutritional needs Ndakasi/Kabila and Ndeze. From years of successful hand-raising of great ape species, including gorillas, we have every reason to believe that the orphans will do fine. The same milk formula worked for the Grauer’s gorillas, Dunia and Tumaini. But no one has hand-raised mountain gorillas on human milk-replacer from such a young age. And there’s no book with the answers. We need to look in the published literature for related studies and talk to other experts.
Andre Bauma feeds Ndakasi/Kabila during her recovery from pneumonia in June 2007 when she weighed just 2 kilograms.
My literature review raised more questions in my mind than it answered. We have much left to learn about endangered species, even the most popular. The few studies that compare the fat, carbohydrate, and protein content of gorilla and human milk show that they are similar. But one recent study done in collaboration with MGVP shows that alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 polyunsaturated fat, is found at higher concentrations in the milk of mountain gorillas and other leaf-eating primates. The levels of arachadonic acid, and omega-6 fatty acid, were also very high. Scientists attribute both these differences to plant lipids in the diet of mountain gorillas. The artificial human milk formula we use is enriched in fatty acids, and both orphans are gaining weight, so it seems all is well. But are we truly meeting their nutritional needs?
Amahoro Group silverback Ubumwe eats a handful of bamboo shoots over the course of a few minutes.
These questions were percolating in the back of my mind during a recent visit to Amahoro group. Since they were once again very close to the DRC border, two dozen soldiers accompanied us. On my last visit to this family, they’d been scattered among waist-high nettles; this time we found them finishing a bamboo-shoot feast. The group was very calm, for a change. Even the mischievous black backs took a break. All four of the breeding-age females and their various offspring gathered around the silverback, Ubumwe, for a group rest.
Six-month old Nezerwa, the youngest infant in the Amahoro Group, chews on a stalk of bamboo.
The smallest infant in the group, six-month old Nezerwa, nursed for several minutes, then began gnawing on a vine. After chewing the stem to bits but not swallowing any of it, the infant turned his attention to a thick, bent stalk of bamboo. As he gnawed on it, I could hear the scraping sound of his teeth. He couldn’t possibly have gotten any nutrition from that encounter with bamboo, certainly not water. But he looked so healthy and well-nourished that I watched intently to see what he would do next.
15-month old Agasake joins 6-month old Nezerwa in Amahoro Group, gnawing on the bamboo and a strand of vine at the same time.
Another infant, 15-month old Agasake, scrambled over from the opposite side of the nest to grab the interesting stalk of bamboo from the smaller gorilla. For a few seconds, both gnawed on it from opposite sides, as if eating corn on the cob; then they began to play with it, pouncing on the stalk and hanging from it, more interested now in the game than in food. I thought of the Goma orphans. The orphans in Kinigi are fed celery, gallium, bamboo shoots in season, and less often the whole bamboo stalk. We’d already decided to deliver a small amount of this carefully collected food to Goma. But watching these Amahoro infants made me think we should send larger stalks, for play, teething, and perhaps a bit of nutrition.
Umugisha’s infant has a small sore on its right foot, not a problem for a healthy animal with a strong immune system.
Nezerwa climbed back to his mother, Umugisha, at the end of the play session. I could see a small puncture wound on the sole of his foot, probably a poke from a sharp stick or piece of bamboo. It appeared to be healing fine. I thought again of our recent discussion at the Maisha Meeting about the future release of the orphans in our care. When poachers captured Maisha three years ago, she was nearly weaned. Kaboko, confiscated earlier this year, was about the same age, between two-and-a-half and three years old. Thus both orphans have had the experience in the wild of growing up on their mother’s milk, eating different plants, exploring their surroundings, suffering minor injuries, and racing to keep up with their families. This background can only improve their chances of surviving back in the forest as young gorillas.
Ndakasi/Kabila as of Oct 22 weighs over 5 kilograms, up from 2 when she was rescued in June 2007.
Sadly, we can’t give the Goma orphans a chance to gain such experience. Their mothers are gone, and we cannot safely house them in the forest. During the six or seven years before they are old enough to be returned to the wild, they need other, older gorillas to learn from, as well as a more challenging environment to explore. And even if we can provide such conditions, their chances of surviving in the forest are much lower than that of Maisha and Kaboko. Some people have said that Ndakasi/Kabila and Ndeze should not have been rescued. They question whether it was wise to take them from the forest, given the time, money, effort, and risk of failure involved in their rehabilitation. Perhaps it would have been better to leave them to die of starvation. With so few mountain gorillas left on earth, MGVP intervenes only when the problem is life-threatening or human-induced, and when asked by our partners. In this case it was all three.