Ndakasi, an orphaned female mountain gorilla infant, chews on wild celery.
For the past several weeks, the Goma (DRC) orphans have been our only active cases—and I’m glad to say they’re both in good health at the moment. But everything changed a few days ago. I’ve been called to the forest in Rwanda urgently nearly every day this week. So far, we haven’t had to provide medical treatment . . . but the week isn’t over yet. We heard late yesterday that a lone silverback had been injured badly during an interaction. If the trackers can find him, we’ll be back up the mountain.
Silverback Guhonda in Sabinyo Group (RW) eats a huge root; his left hand was injured by a snare years ago.
The string of unexpected calls began on Monday, the day I was supposed to have an interview with correspondent Anderson Cooper for a CBS “60 Minutes” story. I’d met with his production team over the weekend to provide background information and film the orphan gorillas at the Kinigi facility. Our Rwandan field vet, Dr. Jean Felix Kinani, and I were scheduled to talk to Anderson on Sunday afternoon about the role of veterinarians in gorilla conservation, and we were looking forward it. At the last minute, our interviews were rescheduled for the next day. When this happened, I had a premonition that something would undo this plan. I was right.
Silverback Bwenge observed in excellent health during a recent routine health check to Bwenge Group (RW).
Monday began quietly. Jean Felix left for Kigali to be with his family; he’d spent the weekend away from them for the interview that didn’t happen. David departed for the U.K. over the weekend, finishing his contract. Our new regional veterinarian arrives in December. That left me as the only field vet in town. Walking up Sabinyo Mountain to do a routine health check, I continued to have the feeling that the lull in field cases was about to end. It’s the wet season now, weather that imposes a certain degree of stress on the gorillas, especially the very young.
Isheja Keza nurses from his mother, Guhonda, showing the bald spot on the top of his head (Sabinyo Group, RW).
All was well in the Sabinyo Group except for a two-and-a-half year old with a persistent bald spot on his head. Isheja Keza, or “Big Ben,” had suffered numerous scratches and scrapes on his scalp a few weeks ago, when the trackers had seen him racing through a stand of bamboo. I observed him for an hour to be certain the bald area wasn’t itching. A few years ago, the Bwindi mountain gorillas had an outbreak of mange, one of several communicable diseases that we worry about. Unlike the big worry infections like measles and TB, this one (caused by a parasitic mite) is treatable and stoppable.
In October and November, the Virungas tend to be misty and wet at some point during each day, but often with clear and cold nights.
Back at the office, we had a quick staff meeting before my interview. Just as I prepared to leave, Elisabeth, the ORTPN vet tech, rushed in to say that trackers had reported a two-month-old infant in Kuryama Group to be very weak. Our cell phones weren’t working, so she’d come straight to the office. With sick infants, there isn’t much time. Pneumonia is always on our differential list, and it can kill them very quickly. It was already midday, and by the time we reached the group, we’d barely have time to intervene if that proved necessary. I grabbed an extra flashlight, remembering more than one very dark descent after a field emergency.
Segasira, a two-year old in Kuryama Group (RW), had an episode of choke several months ago, that resolved quickly, long before I reached the group to check him.
The trackers and vet team often chat as we hike up the mountain. We mix bits of English and French, and I try to learn a few new Kinyarwanda words. But when we know there’s a potential patient up there, no one says very much. My brain starts to churn and my pace quickens. I’ll run through a mental checklist of questions: What is the most likely outcome based on what I know so far? When is the last time I saw this individual gorilla? Do we have everything we need with us? Should we have brought a thermos of hot water to warm the patient, even though it adds to the weight of our heavy bags? Will radios and cell phones work where we are going?
Umusatsi with her two-month old infant in Kuryama Group (RW) settles down for the night.
After a brisk and anxious hike up to 3000 meters, Elisabeth and I had less than a quarter of an hour to observe the patient. The skies had begun to darken, and Umusatsi, the infant’s mother, had settled into a hole at the base of a tree—probably for the night. I’d asked one of the Karisoke Research Center scientists, Winnie Eckardt, to observe the infant while we hiked. Although it had been reported earlier as limp and not nursing, Winnie saw it nursing twice in one hour. This news dialed our worry level way down, as did my first glimpse of the infant: it was wide-eyed, clinging to its mother’s neck. Five minutes later, it fell fast asleep.
Umusatsi’s infant appeared strong and active the next day (Kuryama Group, RW).
I hiked up the mountain again early the next morning with the Kuryama Group trackers for another look at Umusatsi and her infant. It had been a cold night, and if pneumonia was brewing, the baby could be in bad shape. On the other hand, if it had simply suffered a bout of colic the day before, it could be just fine today—and indeed, we found Umusatsi resting in warm sunshine while her infant made soft chirping noises and climbed all over her, nursing hungrily. This was the best news of the day, despite my frustration at having missed the Anderson Cooper interview (Simon Childs, who manages the orphan facility but is not a vet, did it in my place.)
Nzeli in Bwenge Group (RW) carries her dead infant on her back the day after trackers found her with a new but lifeless baby.
Next day, after a morning of catch-up desk work, I learned of a new, sad case. Nzeli, a female in the Bwenge Group, had given birth on Wednesday morning. But the baby was dead when the trackers found her. Theo Ngabo, who collects data for the Karisoke Research Center, had found some of the placental tissue. He rushed to our office with the sample and described what he’d seen in the field: Nzeli was weak, with a bloody vaginal discharge that left a trail of red spots on the ground as she moved. This is normal right after birth, but not if it persists. He didn’t get a close look at the infant and was uncertain if it was full term or premature. From Theo’s description, it was clear we needed to check Nzeli and recover the dead baby if possible.
Nzeli’s newborn infant probably died during or soon after birth (Bwenge Group, RW).
When we reached Nzeli the next morning (after trekking up a different mountain), she was resting, holding a lifeless infant that appeared otherwise normal. This wasn’t the first baby that Nzeli had lost. She and two other females had transferred from Pablo Group to Bwenge’s new group last January after their infants died in the midst of a severe outbreak of respiratory disease. It seemed they’d left their old group for a chance at a new family. That was exactly nine months ago. So this new infant could be Bwenge’s (gestation in gorillas is the same as in humans)—or not.
Nzeli continues to groom her dead infant, and may do so for up to three weeks (Bwenge Group, RW).
Over the next two hours, Nzeli groomed the infant as she would if it were alive, then picked it up and carried it about as she foraged for food. When I returned to the lab, our microbiologist, Jean Paul Lukasa, gave me an update on the bacterial cultures from the placental tissue. He is growing a pure colony of a type of streptococcus; meanwhile we will also preserve the tissue for future analysis (histopathology.) These tests, plus a review of the cause of death of Nzeli’s prior infants, might yield important information. There are also other female gorillas who have lost their infants unexpectedly at an early age. Maybe there is a common factor.
Umusatsi’s infant strong and active (Kuryama Group, RW).
At the end of the day (yesterday), I discussed Nzeli’s case with Jean Felix and Elisabeth and sent an update via email to key partners at ORTPN and Karisoke. While it would be helpful to recover the carcass of the dead infant to do a necropsy, intervention to take it forcibly is not warranted. There’s no evidence that the group is sick with something communicable. And since there are at least two other pregnant females in Bwenge Group, we don’t want to risk causing them undue stress by anesthetizing Nzeli. Sometime in the future, however, we might recommend an examination to evaluate her more fully.