A mountain gorilla treated for snare removal in Uganda from 2004.
When I first read Benard’s e-mail, I didn’t want to believe it. A blackback in Nkuringo Group had a wire snare around his leg. The gorilla had continued to eat, but he’d begun to fall behind the group. One of us needed to cross the border to Uganda before closing time, stay in Kisoro for the evening, and leave for the forest early the next morning to deal with the snare. The drive would take two hours, followed by another hour’s trekking. I wondered why Bernard hadn’t called until I remembered the poor cellphone reception around the parks in Uganda. He must have gotten the message from the park warden and decided the best way to relay it quickly was via the nearest Internet Café. I wrote back asking him to call me as soon as possible to confirm the bad news. This case sounded a lot like the last three snares in Uganda: no chance that it would resolve on its own.
First 2008 Uganda snare in February.
From the bit of information I had, I suspected that this was not a new snare. It takes a few days for lameness to occur, and that could explain why the gorilla was lagging behind his family. Much depends on how tight the snare is and on whether it is indeed made of wire. I think it’s been years since we had a case of a rope snare in Uganda. What was going on? This would be the fourth wire snare in Uganda in six months, the sixth in the past 13 months.
The gorilla’s hand in snare case #1 2008 Uganda after removing the wire.
Various questions collided in my mind. The most obvious and important one was: Where are the snares coming from? As I’ve explained before, the snares are set to catch game for food, especially small antelope, or duiker. Are more being set, or are the gorillas moving through snare-laden areas more often? If there are more snares in the parks in Rwanda and Uganda—we have no idea what’s going on in DR Congo—is it because there are more hungry people these days? Whatever the answer, many illegal hunters are still getting into the park. Is this because of the leaky and insecure border with Congo? Maybe the poaching patrols have simply not been doing their jobs, or maybe they lack the equipment to do them effectively.
I’d raised these questions during a recent community conservation meeting held by the chief park warden of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. I asked them again after little Icyerecyezo’s snare injury. A month earlier, I’d also spoken with the chief park warden in Uganda’s Bwindi and Mgahinga parks and directed Benard to check with the patrols there. Each time the reply has been the same: the wardens have more rangers patrolling more of the parks than ever, and believe they’ve become more proficient at finding snares. That may be so, but given how many snared gorillas we’ve seen recently, there may also be an increased number of snares in the park.
Second 2008 Uganda snare in April.
Another possible explanation is that the gorillas have become lax at watching for snares and traces of human activity. The trackers say the gorillas know where the poachers set snares, along paths used by antelope. What would send them into these potential minefields? Maybe the gorillas’ preference for a particular food is leading them astray. When I was checking on the Kwitonda Group gorillas for respiratory disease, they were intensely focused on Drombere tree flowers for the entire month.
There’s also the fact that many of the gorilla groups routinely leave the park to forage for crops in Uganda; in Rwanda, they leave to eat the bark of eucalyptus trees. It could be that these trips out of the park and closer to the human population around the border is the source of the problem. Or maybe they’re encountering snares because their movements are affected in some way by the war in DR Congo.
Third 2008 Uganda snare in August.
Alternatively, weather might have something to do with it. There are supposed to be both a short and long rainy and dry season, weather patterns that confuse me no end. As I understand it, the short rainy season was late this year, and even shorter than normal. Now it’s almost time for the long wet season.
Unfortunately, if the snare is tight and made of wire, it can do irreparable damage even if we get it off within 24 hours, as in Magayane’s case (Rwanda Aug 2007).
Unfortunately, if the snare is tight and made of wire, it can do irreparable damage even if we get the snare off within 24 hours as in Magayane’s case (Rwanda Aug 2007).
While I waited for Bernard’s reply that morning, I tabled plans to meet with Magda to go over administrative stuff. Oh, well. At least there was enough time for me to pack up and get to the border crossing before it closed. Instead of tackling the pile of paperwork on my desk, I piled it back up into a neat-looking stack and closed down my e-mail. Not only was it my turn to go to Uganda, but Magda had just returned to Africa from a holiday in Poland and was still in quarantine.
Magayane nursed her sore finger after we removed the snare, and she healed fine, minus the end of her middle finger (Rwanda Sep 2007.)
I texted Benard a second message repeating my request to call as soon as he had a signal and saying I’d be on my way once the case was confirmed. It’s a long way to go only to find out the snare is off, something that’s happened before. Usually, we prefer to document the presence of a snare by sending out a field vet to check it one day, then readying a team to remove it the next. These reports are often a series of relayed messages, and they can change from one person to the next, as well as from one language to another.
Benard answered my text immediately: yes, the snare was confirmed. The information came from the most experienced guide for the Nkuringo group. A few minutes later I managed to reach him on the cell phone. He was on the road from Kampala, the capitol city of Uganda. Despite terrible reception, he was able to give me some additional information. The snare must indeed be several days old, as the gorilla’s leg was reportedly swollen and he’d been dragging it. We wouldn’t’ know how bad the damage was until we got there. I started packing.