I’d nearly finished my routine health check in Pablo Group when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket, making me jump. It was Jean Felix. We usually text each other in order not to disturb the gorillas, so I knew right away there must be a problem. We did indeed have an emergency. One of the infant gorillas in Sabinyo Group was caught in a snare, and the silverback, Guhonda, had bitten one of the trackers. We made a quick plan: Jean Felix and Elisabeth would try to check on the infant, knowing they might not be able to get very close; I would rush back to the office to grab my kit, and then check on the injured tracker.
Recent snare: wire wrapped around the arm of a young female in Nyakagezi Group, Uganda (April 2008.)
I thought through possible next steps and outcomes as we hiked down out of the forest. Either Guhonda was already in a rage, or the tracker tried to take the snare off and the silverback saw him. There was a good chance no one would even see the Sabinyo gorillas for the rest of the day. Often our first opportunity to remove a snare is not until the next morning, once the group has calmed down. Even then we may decide not to intervene if we think the gorilla or one of its family members can get the snare off. As I’ve mentioned before, the snares are not set for gorillas. They’re for antelope
Dushishoze, an infant in Pablo Group, was the last young gorilla to get caught in a rope snare (July 2007.)
Dushishoze, a three-year old in Pablo Group, was our last infant stuck in a snare, in July 2007. She had a long rope wound around her upper arm; though they tried, the other gorillas could not figure out how to remove it. We’ve had four more snares since then, all metal, all involving juveniles or adults. In Rwanda, we removed a bicycle brake-cable wire snare from the middle finger of an adult female, Magayane, in Kwitonda Group (Sep 2007). She lost the end of the digit (link to blog). The other three cases occurred earlier this year in Uganda (Feb, April, August 2008). Two were wires wrapped around a hand and one around an arm.
The most recent snare in Uganda, in Rusheguro group (August 2008.)
I didn’t see Jean Felix until the very end of the day. He, Elisabeth, and the trackers had made three unsuccessful tries to approach the Sabinyo gorillas. They’d waited a full hour between attempts; but no way would Guhonda let them see his family. He kept charging. Meanwhile, I checked on the injured tracker, Jean Claude, on his way to the hospital for a complete evaluation. Fortunately, he had only a few surprisingly superficial scrapes and bruises on his left shoulder back.
Guhonda, the silverback in Sabinyo Group, has removed snares more than a few times from the arms and legs of his family members.
Jean Claude told what he remembered from that morning. The trackers were doing their morning check when they heard a cry and a scuffle. Jean Claude saw one of the young gorillas with a rope snare around its arm. He wasn’t sure if it was the four-year-old or the three-year old. He approached the infant to check it and was bending down just as Guhonda charged from out of nowhere, flattening Jean Claude to the ground, beating and biting at his back but stopping before he did serious damage. Maybe the silverback initially mistook the tracker for a poacher. Then Guhonda broke the snare with his teeth, sending the bamboo it had been anchored to flying behind the infant gorilla. The whole group went running.
Icyerecyezo in Sabinyo group is recovering from injuries sustained when his father, Guhonda (left) removed a snare from his left arm the day before.
The next morning we found the females in the group resting calmly in a bamboo thicket. Guhonda too was resting nearby, but out of sight. The three-year old in the group, Big Ben, hung from tree limbs looking fine. The youngest infant, only a few months old, crawled in and out of her mother’s lap. Her older brother, four-year old Icyerecyezo (i-cherry-che-zoo), sat huddled next to them, motionless. It took over an hour to get a good luck at him. When he finally sat up, we could see that his face and arms were swollen, but there was no snare. Had there been one, we’d probably missed our opportunity to get a dart off; Guhonda would be up soon. Intervening in this case would have been a huge challenge, given the protective father and mother. Whew.
Despite the trauma of getting caught temporarily in a snare on the prior day, Icyerecyezo is eating well and keeping up with his group.
One of the trackers called headquarters on the radio to say that the snare was gone, and the other called Jean Claude. They were all smiles. Meanwhile, I was focused on Icyerecyezo’s right eye and hand. I could see swelling over the metacarpal bones. He could have a fracture there, but that would heal. He had a scrape over his brow that could have been caused by the bamboo as it snapped free and trailed behind him. Because he kept his right eye closed, I worried that he might have an injury to its surface, or cornea. He’d probably heal without our help, but he could lose his vision. We agreed to leave the group alone and return the next day.
Two days after the snare incident, Icyerecyezo managed to keep up with his family in Sabinyo group, though he favored both arms.
When we returned, Guhonda was leading his group around the edge of a large crater. Maybe he knew that poachers wouldn’t bother to set snares on such a steep slope. Then again, maybe he was just moving through his home range as he normally would. Icyerecyezo looked much brighter. I watched him eating hungrily as he followed Guhonda. He didn’t use either arm fully, but the swelling in his right hand had decreased. When Big Ben tumbled over toward him to play, he backed off, but looked interested. I guessed he’d be back in the game soon, even if he couldn’t yet see very well.
Two days after the snare incident, Icyerecyezo’s face appeared less swollen in some areas and more in others, including his right upper eyelid.
The infant’s right eye remained closed, and on this day I could see a bit of white discharge. That could be a normal reaction to the trauma, or it could signify a bigger problem. The swollen eyelid didn’t worry me. It serves as nature’s best Band-Aid for a corneal scratch. What I couldn’t rule out, however, was the possibility that a foreign body—like a splinter of bamboo—might begin poking through the lid. Of course, the gorilla would let us know. He’d either have more discharge from the eye the next day, or the condition would begin to resolve on its own. For now he was eating well and keeping up with the group.
Kampanga, one of the other adult females in Sabinyo group, carried her 1-yr-old infant, Salcola, high into this tree to eat.
Later that day, the trackers called to say that the infant had opened his eye and the cornea looked okay. Elisabeth visited the next day and reported the same, adding that there was very little discharge. I’d planned to go check him one more time, until the cell phone rang again. This time, it was Benard relaying a report of a snared gorilla in Uganda. We made a quick plan to meet in Kisoro, Uganda, and look for our patient the next day. I’d cross the border to Uganda that night. I had a feeling the next snare scare would not be as easy.