People As Part of the Job

1 Damascene taking data Susa RHC 7-4-2007 9-00-50 AM.jpg
Susa Group mountain gorilla tracking and monitoring team, ORTPN, Rwanda

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.

2 Kunama eating thistle Shinda G 9-28-2007 12-24-48 PM.jpg
Kanama, female mountain gorilla in Shinda Group, Rwanda

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.

3 Shinda Group MV Pasika & Shinda 6-14-2007 12-35-04 PM.jpg
Female mountain gorilla Pasika with silverback Shinda, Rwanda

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.

4 Kisoro SB Monitoring Visit Nkuringo Caleb Ranger Guide 11-16-2007 9-34-58 AM.jpg
UWA ranger/guide at Rushegura Group, Bwindi, Uganda.

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.

Blackback mountain gorilla, Gahinga, in Amahoro Group with minor wounds.

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.

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ICCN guide for Grauer’s gorillas at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DR Congo

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.

7 Kwitonda tracker w AoC banners 12-6-2007 9-32-04 AM.jpg
Kwitonda Group tracker with friends near the park boundary—with Art of Conservation banners in the background, Rwanda

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.


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    Posted January 29, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Your methodology on tracking and monitoring the health of these gorillas is very impressive. I love the art work and the fact it is the product of the community participation. We all whole heartedly support the idea of a sanctuary for these gorillas, wonderful idea. Your hard work is making a difference, for the community and the gorillas, thank you!

    Posted January 29, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to ask, but I’m very curious, has VHS or GPS radio collars ever been used to track a silverback and his family?

  3. Posted January 29, 2008 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Dear Theresa, good question, but I think that the use of VHS or GPS collars can present some problems in the case of gorillas, because these creatures have this extraordinary manual ability and physical force. The silverback or the members of his family could get off the collar or even hurt themselves in the attempt, at least I think so, maybe some ranger can give us more information about this issue.

    Posted January 29, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Yes F.J., good point about their dexterity. I attended a Defenders of Wildlife Carnivoires Convention a couple of years ago, one of the exhibits there was of these collars. They are rather heavy and cumbersome.

  5. Posted January 30, 2008 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    I wonder what the issues are surrounding the use of microchips to track wildlife? Y’know, like the ones they use on giant pandas at the breeding reserves in China? Is microchip technology far enough along to provide tracking information?

    Anyway, good post Dr. Lucy. I need to be reminded fairly often that humans can be part of the solutions. Lots of lovely apes in these photos …


  6. Annie/Texas
    Posted January 30, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Great information…and you guys are lucky to work with these beautiful animals each day!

    Posted January 30, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Sheryl, I wondered about micro chips too, although I didn’t know they were used in the awesome pandas.

  8. cathy-california
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    I’m hoping that everyone is okay. We are hearing about the earthquakes…worried about everyone. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Posted February 4, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    3 week anniversary of little Vumilia’s passing…hope our little Mapendo is doing better, that her ringworm infection is clearing up.

  10. Posted February 5, 2008 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Hello All,

    Re the earthquake, we are okay here in Rwanda, as are the orphaned gorillas in Goma. Having lived in California, I was pretty sure that was an earthquake, but had no way to confirm it as my cell phone rang soon after with an urgent call about an injured gorilla in the forest. Then I spent the better part of the next 24 hrs focused on her (will blog soon), forgetting to find out if indeed that was a quake! Sadly virtually none of the structures here can withstand even minor tremors.

    Thanks for checking on us AND thank you for all the generous donations to support our work with the gorillas

    Dr. Lucy

  11. Lucia Cristiana, Brazil
    Posted February 6, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Dr. Lucy for this update. Do you have some news about Mapendo?

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