I have a new answer to the question, “How often do gorillas get caught in snares?” Two years ago, I would’ve said very rarely. Now my reply is too often. Today we removed another snare, the seventh in less than two years. Our patient was Inkumbuza, a three-and-a-half-year-old mountain gorilla from Shinda Group.
Inkumbuza first got into trouble two days ago. Veronica, the research coordinator for the Karisoke Research Center, called me with the bad news. The trackers had arrived to find the young gorilla in a rope snare. I could imagine the scene: Inkumbuza screaming and pulling madly on his arm, causing the bamboo tied to the other end of the rope to sway wildly, while his agitated family yelled at each other over access to him. Shinda Group is a particularly vocal one, and apparently their reaction to this incident was no exception.
Fundi (foon dee), the group’s lead tracker and long-time member of the research staff, sprang into action. He grabbed a machete and cut the rope, freeing Inkumbuza. This was a dangerous move. When habituated gorillas are really upset, they often show aggression even toward people they know. But when a snare is involved, most trackers will take the risk if they can get close enough. Many have seen snared gorillas—especially infants—incur additional injury if the group gets involved in the fray.
For the next several hours, no one could approach the group. The gorillas were too upset. But Fundi knew the snare was still on the infant’s arm, so we made a plan for Jean Felix to go up with the trackers first thing the next day and take a look. We’d be ready to join him with our medical kits if necessary. At least it was a rope snare, rather than a wire one. Maybe the gorillas themselves would manage to get it off.
Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the next morning, which meant that the gorillas were sheltering in the trees, and Jean Felix had a tough time getting a good look at Inkumbuza. Also the bad weather was interfering with our cell phone and radio reception. It was close to noon before we had a complete update: the infant still had the snare and he wasn’t using his left arm. Jean Felix couldn’t see any swelling in the hand, so he thought Inkumbuza might have dislocated his shoulder or elbow in the struggle to get free. The good news was that the small gorilla was keeping up with the group, even climbing and eating a little. Because photography was impossible in the rain, we didn’t have as much information as we would have liked. A good photo can show whether or not the snare is dangerously tight. As it was, we couldn’t be certain about the extent of the damage. The group was still nervous, however, so we made a plan to return the next day—today—with the whole team.
I wondered if Shinda himself would have known what to do; maybe he would have avoided the snares in the first place. Since his death, the group has split into two, each led by a younger, less experienced silverback. Yet the trackers found three more snares in the same area—not a good sign. In Rwanda, where the protection of the mountain gorillas is better than in Uganda or DR Congo, the number of snares found in the park continues to increase. As I’ve written before, park staff has said the explanation for the increase is more thorough patrolling. I keep reminding everyone, though, that in fact we’ve also been treating more snared gorillas.
We left the office for the forest this morning at 5:30 a.m., even earlier than usual, hoping to beat the rain. The group wasn’t far away, and we were pleased to find the family in a peaceful mood. Inkumbuza and his snare were the center of attention. He seemed unfazed by the rope wound around his left forearm, and though he was favoring the arm, we could see no sign of damage to the tissues. The snare looked snug until Inkumbuza nibbled at it. Then it looked as though it might be loosening. Through my binoculars, I could see he’d made some progress just where the rope made a loop. Unfortunately, every time he pulled on the loop, one of the other gorillas pulled on the free end of the rope, cinching it tight again. We agreed that while the infant might eventually be able to bite through the snare, this was the third day he’d worn it, so we chose to go ahead with the intervention—though getting off a shot was going to be difficult, given the way the family was huddled around Inkumbuza.
The rain began to fall just as we finished preparing the dart. The gorillas had just moved away from their night nest and begun foraging. This would be great for the darting, as long as it didn’t turn into a buckets-of-rain-pouring down storm, which interferes with the flight of the plastic syringe. I didn’t want to believe it was going to rain hard, even though I’ve experienced plenty of downpours. I should have worn an extra fleece under my two rain jackets—and two hats. I’d also forgotten to put dry towels in my pockets. Instead, I filled them with two rain tarps, a flashlight, and extra gloves. I have a circulation problem in my hands, one that’s common in women, called Reynaud’s disease. My fingers go numb and turn white as soon as I get wet and just a little cold. My sister has it, too. She and I figured out long ago while taking care of our horses in winter that gloves don’t help. In fact they make things worse. Mittens are useless since they offer no dexterity, and they don’t work all that well, either, especially once they’re wet.
The key is keeping my hands dry and my core body temperature up—and I missed the target this time in a big way. It didn’t help that we had only a short distance to walk back to the group. If we’d had to hike a little farther, I might have warmed up. Instead, I lost all feeling in my fingers within minutes. Luckily, we work as a team and we’d already agreed that Magda would do the darting and take samples, Jean Felix would remove the snare and take measurements, Elisabeth would take notes and help me monitor the patient, and I would do anesthesia and photography. Given the rain and my useless hands, I quickly dropped the idea of taking photos. We’d also planned to weigh the gorilla using our hand-held hanging scale, which works well for smaller gorillas. In order to calculate the amount of anesthetic and other drugs, we estimate the animal’s weight before the procedure. We never know how accurate we were with our guess, however, unless we get an actual weight. Our estimate for Inkubmuza’s weight was 18 kg.
The wet weather was actually very helpful in getting the dart off. Ugenda had moved up the hill a considerable distance to sit in a relatively dry spot under a tree. The rest of the gorillas were spread out in thick vegetation, eating slowly. We followed our patient as he followed his mother, Pasika. When she sat down to eat, he sat down to wait, holding his snared arm in his lap. Fundi and I were able to sidle up quite close to him. Magda hid behind us, aimed at the side of Inkbumuza’s left thigh, and fired the dart—a perfect shot. He didn’t make a sound, which meant none of the other gorillas, including Ugenda, had any idea what was happening. The exciting part came next.