On February 1, a team of park rangers conducting an anti-poaching patrol in Africa’s Virunga Massif found the dead body of a critically-endangered mountain gorilla caught in a poachers’ snare. Veterinarians from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) performed a post mortem exam on the infant gorilla’s body and found it had an empty stomach and was severely dehydrated, signs suggesting the gorilla may have suffered in the snare for days before dying. Local poachers set snares illegally in the national parks to catch antelope and other forest wildlife for food, but unsuspecting gorillas, especially infants and juveniles, are sometimes caught.
Approximately 480 mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Massif, a transboundary wilderness area encompassing Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. A second, smaller mountain gorilla population lives in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
“The tragic death of this mountain gorilla at the hands of humans is a blow to all of us who work to protect this critically endangered species,” says Dr. Mike Cranfield, executive director of MGVP. “With such a small population, the life of every individual counts.”
MGVP, a U.S.-based nonprofit, provides mountain gorillas with medical care for life-threatening injury and illness. The veterinarians work with national park rangers and trackers from research organizations like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to monitor the health of the gorillas on a daily basis. MGVP and its partners can only monitor habituated gorilla groups—groups that have grown accustomed to the presence of humans. About 73% of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif are habituated. In the last 25 years, MGVP has responded to more than 50 cases of habituated mountain gorillas caught in snares in the Virunga Massif and all but two gorillas survived after being treated by the veterinarians. The infant found dead on February 1 belonged to an unhabituated gorilla group.
A 2010 census of the mountain gorillas living in the Virunga Massif revealed that the number of habituated gorillas has grown by 3.7% annually while the number of unhabituated gorillas has grown at just 0.9% annually. A comprehensive research study published in 2011 in the scientific journal PLoS ONE (PLoS One 6(6): 1-8) attributed the high growth rate in habituated gorilla groups to the fact that these animals are monitored daily by the parks and receive life-saving veterinary care when serious health issues, such as ensnaring, arise.
All gorillas benefit from the national parks’ anti-poaching patrols, which remove snares and arrest poachers found in the parks. On average, anti-poaching patrols remove more than 1,500 snares from the Virunga Massif annually.
Eugene Rutagarama, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a nonprofit organization that supports mountain gorilla monitoring and anti-poaching efforts, has called on the gorilla conservation community to help strengthen law enforcement in the parks and encourage local communities to condemn poaching.
The national park authorities and gorilla conservation NGOs will meet next week in DRC to discuss the recent poaching incident. “We will look at how to address the specific case related to this mountain gorilla and the poachers that are still at large, and also plan how we will collectively address the general issue of there being too many snares in this area shared between the two parks for far too long,” stated Teddy Musabe, Deputy Secretary in charge of policy and planning with the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC). The GVTC is a formal coordination mechanism among the three countries of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda that works to find solutions to transboundary issues like poaching.
About the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, is dedicated to saving mountain gorilla lives. With so few animals left in the world today, the organization believes it is critical to ensure the health and well being of every individual possible. The organization’s international team of veterinarians, the Gorilla Doctors, is the only group providing wild mountain gorillas with direct, hands-on care. The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project partners with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center to advance One Health strategies for mountain gorilla conservation. www.gorilladoctors.org
About the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center
The UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, home of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program and a center of excellence within the School of Veterinary Medicine, is composed of 13 epidemiologists, disease ecologists and ecosystem health clinicians and their staff working at the cutting edge of pathogen emergence and disease tracking in ecosystems. It benefits from the expertise of 50 other participating UC Davis faculty members from many disciplines who are involved in the discovery and synthesis of information about emerging zoonotic diseases (those transmitted between people and animals) and ecosystem health. Its mission is to balance the needs of people, wildlife and the environment through research, education and service. www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/whc.