Two-year-old Umoja hiding in the vegetation, unable to move after sustaining multiple injuries during a fight between his family, Kwitonda Group, and Nyakagezi Group.
Jean Felix got the first call about Umoja. The two-year-old mountain gorilla infant had been badly injured during a fight between his family, Kwitonda Group, and Nyakagezi Group. Sometimes these two groups interact peacefully, but not this time. Umoja’s intestines were hanging out, and he couldn’t walk. Jean Felix relayed the information to me, adding that trackers felt there was nothing we could do at this time. The situation was unstable and likely to remain so for several days.
Silverback mountain gorilla, Kwitonda.
We intervene with medical treatment when a problem is life-threatening or human-induced—and only then if we can act without undue disruption to healthy gorillas. It sounded as if Umoja needed surgery, which meant we’d have to dart him, and probably his mother as well, with anesthetic. Kwitonda and his family were already nervous and would be especially protective of the injured infant. We’d need to drive them away with loud noises, adding to the tension and raising the risk of another aggressive encounter with the Nyakagezi gorillas.
With a broken leg, cut wrist, and herniated intestines, Umoja was able to crawl, but very slowly.
I knew we could do nothing until the gorillas went their separate ways, unless Umoja lagged behind. But I’d treated a similar case once before and knew the infant had a chance if he survived his initial injuries. I asked for more history. What was happening right now—was the infant alert, moving, vocalizing? The answers all came back Yes. He was calling for his mother, Nyiramurema, to carry him. She’d picked him up a few times but hadn’t held him for long. This female had lost a foot years ago, probably from a snare, and had all but stopped carrying Umoja in recent months. He’d grown too big. His older sister, Chiri, carried him instead.
Umoja clinging his mother, Nyiramurema, surrounded by other gorillas.
As we later confirmed, Umoja had two puncture wounds in his lower abdomen, a broken right lower leg (tibia and fibula), and torn flexor tendons in his left wrist. Even so, he was able to hold onto his mother, nurse, and crawl short distances. I thought back to a Sunday-morning emergency at the National Zoo in Washington DC. The lowland gorillas had a fight and the youngest member of the group, an infant male, got caught in the middle. Though several loops of bowel hung from a hole just below his ribcage, his intestines had not been damaged. We closed the wound surgically, and he lived.
Umoja’s mother, Nyiramurema, in Kwitonda Group.
I suggested we check Umoja if possible and at least document his injuries. Jean Felix called Elisabeth, the park’s vet tech. She agreed but warned we might not be able to get all the way into the group. I added surgical packs to our field kit just in case. My mind flipped through the options as we drove to the park. Maybe the interaction between the gorillas would be over by the time we reached Umoja, and we’d be able to intervene. We might be lucky and find him alone with Nyiramurema. She’s blind in one eye, the result of another recent fight, which might enable me to get off a dart off without her seeing it.
We hiked about forty minutes into the park and met the trackers. Instead of welcoming us with smiles, they looked serious. We found Umoja and Nyiramurema easily—but in the midst of other gorillas. The infant lay uncomfortably at his mother’s side while she nibbled on a vine. When she got up to move, he whimpered and reached out toward her. She picked him up once, but not a second time. He tried to follow, dragging his right leg. A bundle of red tissue bulged from his abdomen on the right side. Through our binoculars, Jean Felix, Elisabeth, and I were unable to determine if the intestines were damaged or simply exposed.
Kwitonda and Nyakagezi Groups often interact, especially during bamboo shoot season.
Light rain began falling. The mist rolled in. The Kwitonda Group gorillas formed a big circle, huddling together with females and infants in the middle to protect them from their would-be aggressors. We could hear the Nyakagezi gorillas in the bamboo nearby. We looked at each other in silent agreement: there was no way to intervene. I tried to convey my apologies to the trackers. Umoja could live on for three, maybe five days. Watching him die would be hard and sad, but nature is not always gentle. We left for the day with plans to return if and when the trackers thought intervention possible.
Injured infant mountain gorilla, Umoja, nursing.
I spent the next morning reorganizing the field kits and lab supplies while I waited for an update, too distracted to sit down at my desk. The report came in mid-morning: the Kwitonda gorillas were still very nervous and had charged the trackers. The Nyakagezi gorillas remained nearby. Umoja could no longer drag himself along the ground and was being carried by his mother and several other gorillas, including Chiri. The good news: the infant was nursing.
Umoja, two days after the fight with his mother, Nyrimurema, in Kwitonda Group.
On the third day, Elisabeth called from the forest. It was safe to intervene—the gorilla groups had gone their separate ways. Umoja appeared weak, she said, but continued to nurse. Magda and I hurried to the site (Jean Felix was off for the weekend.) I made two darts, one for Nyiramurema and one for the infant. We began patiently following the group, waiting for the right time and place to fire the darts. It would do no good to anesthetize Umoja and his mother in a situation where another gorilla—mostly likely Chiri—might carry him off. And if I missed and the gorillas noticed, we’d only upset them again.
To be continued…