Infants Need Milk—and What Else?

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.


Eight-month-old orphaned female mountain gorilla Ndeze continues to grow steadily (10.16.07).

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.

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19 comments on “Infants Need Milk—and What Else?

  1. Hello Dr. Spelman. I am so happy to see this blog. I do visit your blog over at Discovery, but I live here at Wildlife Direct. First, I want to give you and the other vets and caretakers my sincere thanks for taking care of these beautiful little orphans. I’ve followed Ndeze’s story from the beginning and am completely heartbroken at the situation she is in and the circumstances by which put her there. I would want nothing more than for her and Kabila to be free, living with their families. That said, I am glad you saved both of them and I am so honored to be able to donate something towards their care. Second, I am very interested in knowing more about Maisha and Kaboko’s possible release back to the wild. Will you be telling us about that here at Wildlife Direct? Again, I am so happy you will be blogging at Wildlife Direct. Lisa, California

  2. Linda, UK on said:

    Brilliant post Lucy – thanks! Photos will enthral people, although so sad that they’re there to be photographed at all.
    Look forward to reading more. Great to hear Ndakasi/Kabila & Ndeze are doing so well, the former must be such a strong little mite!!
    All strength to you & your team in your dedicated work,

  3. Sheryl, Washington, DC on said:

    Welcome to Wildlife Direct! Thanks for such an informative first post. FWIW, I’m glad Ndakasi-Kabila and Ndeze were rescued. I remain hopeful that someday conditions will exist for them to live in the wild and thrive, but until then, we have a chance to learn a lot about mountain gorillas from them, right?

    s.

  4. Robin Andreae on said:

    Thank you for posting here. That’s extremely interesting about the baby gorillas’ nutritional needs. I hope and pray that all goes well and that they will be able to be released. It’s hard to think that someone would say that they would have been better off to starve or to be euthanized. I’m so glad you are there to help these little ones out.

  5. F. J. PECHIR on said:

    Thank you very much for this extremely interesting report! You are doing a great work there, and I´m happy that the two little gorillas are fine and well cared-for. Thank you again for all this efforts to save this magnifficent creatures and I´m looking forward to read much more from you!

  6. Lisa, California on said:

    Hello Dr. Spelman. I am so happy to see that you will be blogging at Wildlife Direct. I have visited your site over at Discovery, but I live here at Wildlife Direct. First, I want to thank you, the other vets, and the caretakers for all that you are doing for these beautiful little orphans. I have followed Ndeze’s story from the beginning and am still completely heartbroken by the situation she is in and the circumstances by which she happened to come to you. That said, I’m glad you saved her and Kabila and am honored that I can contribute something to their care. Thank you for that. Second, I would be so interested in hearing more about Maisha and Kaboko’s pending release back to the wild. Will you be telling us about that when it happens? Again, thank you for everything that you are doing for these beautiful creatures and I look so forward to reading more on your blog. Lisa, California

  7. Christina/San Diego,CA on said:

    Dear Lucky,
    Turning our backs on the orphans, is the same as turning our backs on the survival of the species. No matter which way you look at it, your work is vital to their very existence. The future of the gorilla is already uncertain, therefore rehabilitating the orphans is worth the every risk. We thank you for doing your part to help save these adorable creatures.

  8. Virginia on said:

    Thank you so much Dr. Spelman for all the info, we were desperate to know about the infants, to see those pictures puts a big smile on my face. I look forward to reading your posts!

  9. Lisa, thank you for ‘living’ on wildlifedirect. What a wonderful expression!

  10. Dr. Spelman,
    your group was 100% correct in rescuing the infants whose mothers had been killed; don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, they are all 100% wrong.

    thanks for the updates,

  11. Annie/Texas on said:

    What adorable babies…just want to squeeze and love them! Thank you for helping these angels!

  12. Wanda, Atlanta, GA on said:

    What you do and how you understand the needs within human/gorilla boundaries is rare – you seem to interact and help them as the rangers do but to also realize you are human and they are not and never will be — that seems so important for them to survive now — thank you!

  13. Lisa, California on said:

    Hi Paula, I have to say, I am a bit blown away right now. Just yesterday my son bought the book “Owen & Mzee The Language of Friendship” at his school bookfair….and then I saw your post, that you liked what I said about me living here at Wildlife Direct…..and then I did alittle digging (cause that’s me)…..and I figured out that you are one of the Author’s of that wonderful book. I could not believe the synchronistic feeling that came over me. I feel honored to share this same virtual home with you, and it’s true, I do live here at Wildlife Direct. I check in everyday, all day long, as many of us do. And like many of us, I feel like these Gorillas are part of my extended family. I want them to be safe. Wildlife Direct is a place for me to go, to lend a hand and a voice in keeping them safe, as well as many other species like Lomela and Kata over at Lola Ya Bonobo. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. The smiles and tears that all of these beautiful creatures have brought to me has enriched my life ten fold. : ) Lisa

  14. gorilladoctors on said:

    Hello Everyone from MGVP,
    We are pleased to be a part of WildlifeDirect and we are all enjoying reading your comments. Please understand that I may not be able to post comments as regularly as other bloggers, though I will try. The animals set our schedules. . ..

    Dr. Lucy

  15. Jim G. on said:

    Ndakasi/Kabila’s Don King haircut cracks me up! It is so wondeful that you can be there to save the little ones and here to share with us. Welcome indeed. Hi Paula!

  16. Christine C. on said:

    Is this Jim from Mass????

  17. Gill Turner on said:

    Having heard a few months ago of the gorilla slaughters and I felt utter devastation for the rangers and all involved in the gorillas’ care. I contacted Wildlife Direct and now receive the newsletters. It is a totally heartbreaking situation, but to know you are do everything you can for these little ones is wonderful. You have to do this, and you cannot leave them to suffer needlessly. I am so heartened that you are helping them in this way. As for their future release, I am sure you are doing everything possible for them to ensure this is the case. Well done to all of you and well done Lucy.

  18. Jim G. (from Mass USA) on said:

    TO: Christine C. … Yes Christine … I am Jim from Mass USA … Sabine has promised to update LES this week – 5-9 Nov – yippee !

  19. Liz ( Kuala Lumpur ,Malaysia_ on said:

    What a brilliant job your dedicated team and you are doing for the beautiful gorillas of Congo. Keep Each picture tells a thousand words of your great commitment and the lives you helped put on track again. Keep up the good job!

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