After ten days of caring for the two orphaned Grauer’s gorillas in Mutsora, we thought both would live. Vumilia was weak, but he regularly drank plenty of water and ate fairly well, especially fresh fruit. We continued preparations to move him and Mapendo to Goma. Workers rushed to construct a temporary home at the DFGFI office there. The staff of the NGO WildlifeDirect arranged for a plane flight. Soon, we’d have all four orphans in one city.
Thirty-six hours before the planned move, Eddy called me in the middle of the night. Vumilia had suddenly cried out and collapsed. Using CPR, Eddy managed to revive the young gorilla. I called Dr. Magdalena Braum, our new regional field vet, who lives near me in Ruhengeri. We traded phone calls with Eddy, offering ideas and advice, hoping the problem wouldn’t recur. But it did, and Vumilia died. We’d be meeting a plane carrying one live gorilla—and one dead one.
Early on the day of the flight, Magda and I drove to Goma, stopping at the DFGFI office to check that everything was ready. Unfortunately, the walls of the outdoor gorilla enclosure still reeked of fresh paint and the newly-poured cement floor in Mapendo’s night-house needed another day to dry. I decided our part-time office space was the better—indeed, the only—option . Out went the desks and bookshelves, and in went a mattress. When we let Mapendo out of her transport crate, she looked around calmly and walked straight into Andre’s waiting arms.
With Mapendo settled, we began the post mortem on Vumilia. As with any complicated procedure, each of us had an assigned task. Magda and Eddy collected samples, I photographed, and Jacques recorded the findings and helped weigh or measure the various internal organs. The staff of DFGFI-Goma provided us with a makeshift tent, two of its sides open to the fresh air, and a table. The flies found us quickly, however, making for a long afternoon. At least the weather was cloudy.
The little gorilla was emaciated and stunted. Though he’d been eating while under our care, he had no fat stores, and his muscles were severely atrophied. His knees and elbows were abnormally large, the result of bony swellings characteristic of metabolic bone disease. Known as rickets in humans, this problem results when a young, growing animal is fed a diet too low in calcium or too high in phosphorus. Without access to sunlight, it develops more quickly. This condition, along with the scars around his wrists, suggested that Vumilia had been captive for many months.
The gorilla’s internal organs were pale in color, with tiny pin-point hemorrhages in some areas. We did not find any evidence of a communicable infection–good news for Mapendo and all who worked with Vumilia, though these findings are only preliminary. Now we apply for permits, ship the samples to the University of California, Davis, and wait for the tissues to be analyzed by the expert veterinary pathologists. Only then will we be able to determine the cause of death. Sometimes, we never find our for certain what happened.
Clearly, Vumilia suffered from months of malnutrition, rickets, and severe stress, all of which contributed to his death and may have been enough to kill him. We found a small amount of food – partly-digested fruit – lodged in the gorilla’s larynx, right at the opening to the trachea, or windpipe. This could explain what happened at the very end. If the gorilla vomited a mouthful of food and choked on it, he may simply have been too weak to cough it out on his own. Eddy’s CPR cleared the airway, but only temporarily. This is only speculation, but it’s also our best guess until the final report comes in.
Three days after the post mortem, Magda returned to Goma to check on Mapendo, as well as on Ndeze and Ndakasi. Earlier, we’d noticed patchy hair loss on Mapendo; by the time of Magda’s visit, the condition had worsened, and the little gorilla was itchy. The problem looks like ringworm, so Magda started Mapendo on the appropriate medication. She and Jacques hope to confirm the diagnosis with analysis of hair samples. Fortunately, the new orphan is taking her bottle quite well, and shows no overt signs of rickets. Milk, sunlight, and plenty of fresh browse will ensure that Mapendo does not suffer the same fate as Vumilia.
Mapendo has two new caretakers, Jean Paul and Babo. Like Andre and the group caring for the mountain gorilla orphans, both are ICCN staff who have helped care for orphaned gorillas in the past—namely Pinga and Serufuli, two of the eight orphans who live at the Kinigi facility in Rwanda. The rangers are stuck in the city anyway, as they have been since last summer. The situation in the Virungas section of the park is chaotic, and the forest border is being destroyed by illegal charcoal manufacture. We have no news of the gorillas who live in the area.
I’m happy to report, though, that Ndeze and Ndakasi are doing fine, gaining weight slowly, playing most of the time. And the best news of all: both orphans have normal stool, formed and brown in color, rather than runny and white, and neither has had to be treated with antibiotics for several weeks. Acidophilus did the trick. Now that they’re healthy, it was time to give them their vaccines. Magda and Eddy had the honor. Neither gorilla seemed to notice the needle stick. Apparently, Ndeze thought Eddy was just playing a game!
We’ve also started Ndeze and Ndakasi on a new milk formula, one I brought back from the U.S. that is supplemented with both fatty acids and probiotics. It seems crazy to pay extra baggage fees to transport tins of milk powder such a great distance, but the supply and selection of milk formula vary widely here. Thanks to the donations many people have made recently to MGVP, we can afford it. The caretakers are following a schedule, mixing the new with the old powder and gradually increasing the concentration. So far, so good.