I smile when people say, “You’re so lucky to be able to work with animals all day.” In fact, vets spend more time working with people than they do with their patients. Obviously, a sick or injured animal cannot speak, so we rely heavily on information that flows to us from those who work in the field as well as on outside experts. But still a good thing! The enthusiasm and compassion park staff and scientists show for the gorillas—the connections that develop between people and animals—are what fuel my batteries for work each day.
When the field staff describes a minor problem among the gorillas, we follow up with questions initially. I heard last week that two females in Rwanda’s Shinda Group had watery diarrhea—and my first question was answered before I asked it: the gorillas weren’t acting sick. I asked if anyone had seen them eating unusual plants or feasting on a particular one, such as bamboo shoots, which can result in watery stool. No, not that anyone saw. Of course, they could have eaten something different before trackers arrived that day.
Fortunately, the Shinda females were perfectly fine the next day. If the problem had persisted, one of us would have made a monitoring visit to observe the animals and collect fecal samples. Our assessment in this case: mild, one-time diarrhea, two individuals affected, probable diet-related intestinal upset. Now we need to follow up and ask the trackers if there were any bamboo shoots around, though it’s not the season for them in the Virungas right now.
Information-gathering is one reason we do routine health checks. We tend to hear more about the gorillas from colleagues and observers when we’re in the field. And we usually find something we didn’t know about, or learn something new that might be important. A small, seemingly minor problem can signal a bigger one; moreover, we’re always on the lookout for communicable diseases—infections that can spread. These visits give us a chance to talk with park staff as well as an opportunity to observe the animals when they’re healthy.
I went on a routine health check visit to Amahoro group the other day, and noted that a blackback, Gahinga, had numerous scrapes on his face. He’d challenged the chief, Ubumwe, and quickly lost. We don’t typically intervene in cases of male-to-male aggression because this is natural behavior. In this case, the silverback was simply asserting his dominance, as long time tracker Jean Baptiste confirmed. But it’s helpful to know that this is a group where similar and potentially more serious encounters may become more frequent.
Unfortunately, the situation in DRC has not yet stabilized. We cannot make any kind of vet check—let alone a routine one—to the habituated mountain gorillas on the Congo side of the gorilla park. Nor can we travel easily to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park to monitor the Grauer’s gorillas there; the road outside Goma is unsafe. We do continue to talk about their situation, hoping to become partners in the effort to establish a home for them in DR Congo, a sanctuary where MGVP would provide the health care. Until the security situation improves, we’re not likely to make much progress.
The effort to save the mountain gorillas involves people who live and work outside the national parks, too. Here again communication is vital. Our partner in art, Julie Ghrist, has printed banners with drawings and paintings created by Rwandans who took her free Art of Conservation classes. Now she’s putting them up in the community—at local hotels as well as in the villages.
Art of Conservation-MGVP banner showing destruction and protection of the environment, courtesy of Julie Ghrist and AoC team.
The artists combine scenes from nature with those that show the struggle of daily life, sending the message that although basic needs must come first, people here do want to feel connected with the landscape and its animals. Unfortunately, this is a place where people suffer preventable disease and illness as well as poverty and war. Is a healthy ecosystem possible in this setting? I don’t know, but I do know that there are many people here determined to achieve it.