Up and Down Week

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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19 comments on “Up and Down Week

  1. Wow. great updates, even if you didn’t get to talk to Anderson Cooper.

    maybe you could do a phone interview with him?

    the Kuryama Group and Bwenge Group are in Rwanda? none of you have been into the DRC, correct?

  2. Sheryl, Washington, DC on said:

    Really great update, Dr. Spelman. I hope Anderson mentions you as the gorilla vet with too many patients to sit for an interview! I watched the special last night on Animal Planet with Natalie Portman and it was very good. Nice chance to see the Rwandan gorillas in action.

    s.

  3. Louise L on said:

    You see you and GorillaDoctors have your priorities right…its the animals first and the interviews second. This is highly commendable. You are doing such important work and I feel so honoured to have the opportunity to read about it here

  4. gorilladoctors on said:

    Yes, to clarify, all of this activity was in Rwanda. No chance of monitoring the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo – we share the rangers’ worries about the health and safety of these animals. We’ll blog about cases in Uganda soon.
    Dr. L

  5. Lisa, California on said:

    Wow, what a week. Yes, I am glad that the gorillas are your first priority. Their well being is of utmost importance right now. Thank you for taking such good care of them. I saw Gorilla’s on the Brink last night also. The special did show a mother gorilla carrying around her dead baby. It was heartbreaking to see that. Dr. Spelman, you mention streptococcus. Would that be like the strep virus that human’s get? Also, I was wondering, have you ever heard of any auto immune diseases in any of the Mountain Gorilla’s? Lisa

  6. angelsiren on said:

    Wow, a fantastic blog! Thank you for taking the time to write so in depth. I watched Animal Planet last night, extremely good.

  7. Samantha (WildlifeDirect) on said:

    Lucy you really had a horrendous week. What a roller coaster. I am just sitting here shaking my head. Thank you for the update.

  8. Samantha (WildlifeDirect) on said:

    And Lucy I don’t know about everyone else but I would love to see a picture of you in here some day!

  9. Andie Conners on said:

    Dr. Spelman–I see what you meant about being “very very busy” (not that I thought you wouldn’t be, but to see it for myself gives me more of a perspective of what you’re dealing with). You are doing amazing work out there, and I admire you for it. Best wishes to you and your staff!
    –Andie Conners
    –Andie

  10. cathy-california on said:

    Dr. Spelman, I am wondering what kind of intervention you might take in the future to prevent another stillbirth. Do you ever prophylactically treat with antibiotics to eradicate the Strep?
    While all of this sounds exhausting, it also seems like the kind of work that would be difficult to leave behind. How long do you anticipate your stay will be?
    Thank you for doing what I wish I could be doing.

  11. Christine C. on said:

    Dr. Spelman, thank you so much for your continued and facinating blogs. I do have to say it just about broke my heart watching Nzeli carrying around and grooming her dead baby. I was stunned to hear that this can go on for about three weeks…do you know why so long? What do the gorillas do with the babies after that time? Do any of the other members of the family try to intervene?

  12. F. J. PECHIR on said:

    Thank you for the work all of you are doing there for the gorillas, they need it! So sad of hearing about the dead infant…just when the global population of mountain gorillas need it more!!

  13. gorilladoctors on said:

    Hello Everyone,
    Thank you for your great questions. They’re all ones we do not have definitive answers for…in years prior to my arrival there have been various cases in which MGVP has cultured streptococcus, but we cannot say at this point that it is a problem in the population. In Nzeli’s case, we will await final pathology results – the MGVP pathology is done at Univ Cal Davis by an expert team. And we’ll also review the prior cases…As for why the mother carries the infant, the behavioral experts offer several reasons, which may change over time. Right after birth when the mother’s hormones are still signaling the arrival of a newborn, perhaps the reason is a maternal bond. Later on perhaps the body becomes a prized possession.
    Dr. L

  14. Lisa, California on said:

    Dr. Spellman, it’s interesting to me that a limp in the baby was mentioned at the same time the strep is mentioned. There is a form of arthrities in small children that is triggered by strep. I was just wondering if the same thing could occur in gorillas. Lisa

  15. Lisa, California on said:

    Seeing these pictures again, it breaks my heart to see the little dead baby and the mother with it still so loving and gentle. I hope she will give birth again someday to a strong healthy baby. I bet she would make such a wonderful mother. Lisa

  16. Annie/Texas on said:

    Thank you for all you do…so much to cover and take care of on a daily basis..thanks for helping these special creatures!

  17. Jo - Newcastle upon Tyne on said:

    Its so interesting ready these updates. Is there any news on the lone silverback who was injured?
    Its such a shame Nzeli’s baby died, she looks so caring and would make a loving mother.

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  19. Heorr4565 on said:

    Risky theme. I think you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, but what’s for me – I like it. No matter what they say if your opinion is true.

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