A Mountain Gorilla’s Self-Healing Power

Being wildlife veterinarians, the Gorilla Doctors are often challenged to determine the seriousness of an illness or injury in a gorilla by visual observation alone. Clinically, it’s ideal to perform tests and physical examinations on ailing patients to make definitive diagnoses. However, as conservationists of wild gorillas, the Gorilla Doctors must take care to disrupt their patients’ lives as little as possible and only interevene in truly life-threatening cases.

When our veterinary team observes a gorilla with a health problem that doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, they must watch and wait to see if the gorilla is able to recover without treatment. The waiting can be nerve wrecking, but we’re thrilled when a gorilla has the strenght to recover on its own.

Such was the case with Turate, an infant gorilla in Urugamaba group in Volcanoes National Park, who lost the use of his arm for several weeks. On June 12, Karisoke Research Center staff, which monitor Urugamba group, noticed that the two-year-old son of female Pasika was not using his right hand. His right arm appeared swollen and somewhat twisted and Turate showed pain when trying to use the arm to walk. Was his arm wrenched by a snare or did he dislocate his elbow in a fall?  It was impossible to tell without a physical exam or X-Ray. Despite the injury, however, Turate was able to move about and climb trees. He had even adapted his feeding habits and was using his right foot and left hand to feed.

Dr. Jean-Felix followed Turate’s case but the infant did not seem to improve much over the course of several weeks. He suspected that Turate might have a broken humerus or collarbone. Still, Turate seemed to be coping well. Then, in July, trackers began to notice that Turate was regaining the use of arm.

Dr. Dawn visited the group on July 11 and found that Turate had made a full recovery. Given that four weeks passed between the initial injury and recovery, Dr. Dawn suspected Turate may have had a severe soft tissue injury, a minor fracture, or dislocated bone that reduced itself. Whatever the case, we’re happy Turate was able to self heal. We can’t wait to see what kind of silverback this tough little guy will grow up to be.

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