Category Archives: Snares

Juvenile Ngwino Succumbs to Snare Wounds

This month, the Gorilla Doctors clinically managed the complicated case of Ngwino, a juvenile gorilla from Inshuti group in Rwanda who was found caught in a snare in early July. Normally, the Gorilla Doctors intervene to treat a snare-wounded gorilla the very next morning after the wound is first observed, but this time, silverback Inshuti prevented trackers and our veterinarians from approaching the infant, and then engaged another silverback in battle. Somewhere in the melee, Ngwino disappeared. More than a week later, Ngwino finally reunited with her mother and Inshuti, but still had the snare around her ankle. On July 13, Gorilla Doctors and Karisoke Research Center trekked to the group to intervene, but unfortunately found Ngwino suffering from severe injuries that ultimately proved fatal.

Dr. Dawn recounts what happened:

On July 13, a team including myself, Drs. Eddy and Noel, Elisabeth Nyirakaragire from RDB, Karisoke Research Center Director Felix Ndagijimana, and several trackers trekked to find Inshuti group in order to perform an intervention on juvenile female Ngwino. When we found the group, it was difficult to approach Ngwino as the silverback Inshuti was guarding her. However, we were able to visually confirm the presence of the rope snare still around her left ankle and damage to the tissue of the left foot. Based on our visual assessment, it was clear an intervention was needed to remove the snare and hopefully save her foot. Due to Inshuti’s aggressive behaviour and unpredictability, he would need to be immobilized in order to anesthetize Ngwino.

Inshuti was darted at 11:09 a.m., and fully anesthetized 10 minutes later. While Dr. Eddy and I performed a thorough physical exam on Inshuti, Dr. Noel and the trackers looked for Ngwino who was found approximately 30 minutes later, was separated from her mother Shangaza, and was darted intramuscularly at 11:43 a.m..  She was down by 11:48 a.m.

Once we were able to physically examine Ngwino, the devastating scope of her injuries became clear. The rope snare was so tight around her left ankle that it was cutting into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Her entire left foot was necrotic and cold to the touch, gangrenous from losing blood supply and essentially “dead.” We might have considered amputating the foot if it were not for an even more serious shoulder wound.

An open humeral fracture of Ngwino’s right shoulder had become severely infected with exposed necrotic bone and soft tissue, an open joint capsule, and gross purulent infection resulting in a foul smell characteristic of dead tissue. We do not know how Ngwino sustained this injury but the trackers suspected Inshuti may have tried to free Ngwino when she was first caught in the snare, wrenching her body away from the tree where the rope was tied. Due to the stage of tissue death, the infection had likely spread systemically and she had become septic. In addition, Ngwino’s body showed signs of dehydration and mild to moderate muscle wasting, and her lungs crackled under auscultation indicating a possible pneumonia.

The severity of Ngwino’s injuries and the advanced stage of the necrosis and infection put her in a grave situation. We believed that the infected shoulder wound would result in her death if not amputated. However, such a high amputation had never before performed on a wild mountain gorilla; we have previously only amputated to the elbow. In addition, the loss of the right arm and the contralateral foot would mean that Ngwino would likely not be able to keep up with the group, feed efficiently, reproduce successfully, or defend herself in the future. She would have a poor quality of life should she be able to survive.  Therefore, after discussing the options with park authorities, the decision was made to treat Ngwino as best we could without performing any amputations.  Though her prognosis was grave, euthanasia was not opted.

The wounds were flushed copiously with a povidone iodine solution, We were not able to debride much of the infected or necrotic tissue since little could be accomplished without removing the necrotic bone and while still maintaining the limbs. Injectable and topical antibiotics were administered, as were fluids and painkillers.

While Inshuti was waking up, we injected Ngwino with a reversal and placed her near Inshuti to recover. To avoid aggravating Inshuti we quickly moved from the area, but trackers remained nearby and reported just awhile later that Ngwino was reunited with her mother and was able to suckle. However, we were not optimistic about her chances for survival.

The next day, Karisoke Research Center trackers found Ngwino had moved very little from the recovery site and was very weak. Inshuti and Shangaza remained by her side. The next day, trackers found her deceased body. They wrapped her in blankets and brought her down to the Gorilla Doctors’ laboratory for a post mortem exam.

Ngwino is the second gorilla this year to die after being caught in a snare. In February, a Karisoke anti-poaching team found the body of an infant gorilla from an unhabituated group whose deceased body was found still ensnared to a tree.

While the number of snares found by Karisoke’s anti-poaching team has not reportedly increased, we wonder if the gorillas are perhaps frequenting areas more often used by poachers, or areas less often patrolled.  Inshuti’s other infant, Akaruso, was also thought to have been caught in a snare around the same time as Ngwino, as a chewed-through rope snare was found in the group’s area concomitantly to Akaruso not using his arm well.  Subsequent to an interaction with Giraneza group, Akaruso went missing and has not been seen since July 10.

Just days after Ngwino’s death, Karisoke discovered a blackback and two juveniles from Kuryama group dissembling two snares.  Although adult gorillas, mostly silverbacks, have been known to recognize and dissemble snares, this is the first time Karisoke has witnessed juveniles doing so. Such an event is encouraging in light of Ngwino’s death, although we hope for a future when no gorilla has to worry about snares.

You can follow the Gorilla Doctors health monitoring efforts on our Facebook page, where we post photos and notes from our monthly visits.

Please consider supporting MGVP by making a secure online donation. Every dollar you give goes to directly supporting our gorilla health programs and One Health initiative. Thank you for your generosity.

Two Health Scares in Pablo Group in Two Days

After an extremely quiet spring with no veterinary interventions in Uganda, DRC, or Rwanda, June brought the Gorilla Doctors a flush of new veterinary cases. The first full week of June, two female gorillas in Pablo group, Mukecuru and Turimaso, found themselves in need of medical attention. Drs. Dawn and Jean-Felix report on the cases:

From Dr. Dawn: On May 20, Karisoke Research Center requested a health assessment of a 9-day-old infant born to Mukecuru, an elderly female in Pablo group. The infant was reported to be crying and weak. Sadly, the infant was dead when we arrived the next day. Mukecuru continued to carry the body and no visual abnormalities could be appreciated. Because she kept the deceased infant to her breast with her arms folded, it was not possible to observe her mammary glands during our visit. However, trackers reported the subsequent day that her mammary glands appeared to be flat with little to no milk. This is the third infant Mukecuru has lost in four years.

During my visit on May 21, Mukecuru herself appeared to be in good health, moving and eating normally. This is in contrast to the lethargy and weakness observed when she lost her last infant in 2009.

From Dr. Jean-Felix: On June 2, Karisoke Research Center trackers reported that Mukecuru was lethargic, not eating, and lagging behind the rest of the group. The following day Volcanoes National Park Veterinary Warden Elisabeth Nyirakaragire, a team of Karisoke Research Center trackers, and I traveled to Pablo group to perform an intervention on Mukecuru.

We arrived at the group at 9 am and saw all of the group members except Mukecuru. After some searching, trackers found her alone, 50 meters away from the others. Elisabeth and I observed her for 2 hours. She was laying on her stomach and very lethargic. Her respiratory rate was fast and her gums and mouth appeared pale. Her breasts looked entirely empty and her abdomen was flat—she had not eaten in a few days. She also had watery diarrhea.

We decided to dart her with 1 gram of the antibiotic Ceftriaxone and 75 mg of the anti-inflammatory Ketoprofene. She was darted on the right thigh and didn’t cry out. We attempted to herd her back towards the group and she yowled at us, but eventually found her way to Cantsbee, the group’s leading silverback. She looked much more calm once she was back with the group. In the days that followed, Mukecuru gradually recovered her strength and began eating normally and moving with the rest of the group.

On June 4, the day after the Mukecuru intervention, Turimaso, a 9-year-old female gorilla from Pablo group, was caught in a snare attached to a tree. Karisoke Research Center trackers tried to cut the rope snare from the tree but they were charged repeatedly by silverback Gicurasi who was protecting Turimaso. Fortunately, Turimaso chewed off the rope from the tree (but with the snare still around her wrist) and she was able to rejoin the group. Because the gorillas were so aggressive and agitated, we decided to try to remove the snare the following day.

The next morning, Drs. Eddy, Noel, and I along with Elisabeth and a Karisoke team arrived at the group around 9 am. Trackers noticed that the snare was gone from Turimaso’s wrist. It was difficult to get close to her as Gicurasi was shielding her from our view and it was raining. After 1 hour we were able to observe Turimaso well, who was using only her left hand when moving and eating. Her right hand was slightly swollen but she was calm and ate abundantly. We decided to give her some time and see if the right hand could regain normal functioning after a period of rest.

On June 6, Karisoke trackers reported that Turimaso was keeping up with group and eating well, although still not using her right hand. Trackers will continue to monitor her daily.

You can follow the Gorilla Doctors health monitoring efforts on our Facebook page, where we post photos and notes from our monthly visits.

Please consider supporting MGVP by making a secure online donation. Every dollar you give goes to directly supporting our gorilla health programs and One Health initiative. Thank you for your generosity.

Mountain Gorilla Infant Dies in Poacher’s Snare

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.

IMG_2996Approximately 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.

Sekanabo

By Drs. Jan and Magda

Last Friday afternoon Gorilla Doctors learned that Sekanabo, an infant male gorilla in Kabirizi group, was caught in a snare. As always in these situations there were many phone calls to the appropriate authorities within ICCN to get permission to attempt intervention if needed. One of the main ICCN Wardens, Innocent, went to the forest to assess the situation and we learned late in the day that little Sekanabo had also sustained a serious wound to his face, likely from the snare. Innocent was able to cut the snare from the bamboo so that Sekanabo could move with the group, but the loop of the snare was still around his ankle. Kabirizi, the main silverback in the group, was quite upset with the situation. Intervention tomorrow could be tricky.

sekanabo_image_1Sekanabo trying to nurse from sleeping Tumaini.

We scrambled to get everything ready so that Drs. Magda and Eddy, along with ICCN veterinarian Dr. Arthur, could go to the field at dawn the next day. The need for intervention was likely. The team of experienced ICCN trackers and Gorilla Doctors left very early in the morning on that rainy Saturday, and despite looking all day, the snared and wounded infant male of Tumaini, was not found.  This was very discouraging for the team. His wounds were very serious, and we feared for his life. The team decided to camp that night at Bukima, the ICCN station at the edge of the park, so that they could resume their search on Sunday.

Leaving camp at 6am they found Sekanabo sitting under a thick vine with 2 other infants who were investigating the wound on his face. His mother, Tumaini, gathered him up a bit later and Dr. Magda observed him trying to nurse – this was encouraging to see. But his wounds were significant, and he still had a nylon rope snare that was tight around his ankle. Intervention, meaning anesthesia for little Sekanabo to take off the snare and suture his wounds, was absolutely necessary. Tumaini was holding tight to her sick baby, so Drs. Magda and Eddy loaded 2 darts with the medicine that would make them sleep. The situation was complicated; They had to have two sleeping gorillas to monitor, a complicated surgery to perform in the middle of one of the biggest Virunga gorilla groups, lead by the somewhat aggressive silverback Kabirizi, all the in pouring rain…

sekanabo_image_2Kabirizi calm but not friendly.

sekanabo_image_3Sekanabo had serious wounds on his face and the snare was tight around his left ankle.

Fortunately the procedure went as well as could be expected. Dr. Eddy skillfully darted Tumaini and she fell asleep in the middle of a clearing, with Sekanabo, only half conscious of his surroundings, clinging to her. Dr. Magda was able to inject the baby once Tumaini was asleep. Fortunately Kabirizi and his group stayed back, watching curiously, but not aggressively, never trying to break the circle of rangers surrounding the sleeping gorillas and Gorilla Doctors, although some of the group did climb trees nearby to get a better view. Now the fight against time started.

Dr. Magda went to work on Sekanabo, while Dr. Eddy monitored both gorillas. Sekanabo’s wound were even more serious than we thought. The upper lip and nostril skin had been torn off, and the underlying tissue of nearly half of Sekanabo’s was exposed. The tissues were not in good condition. After cleaning the wound thoroughly Dr. Magda did the best she could to repair the laceration. She put two layers of stitches to keep the skin and upper lip in place. Though terribly bruised and swollen, Sekanabo’s face again looked like the one of a gorilla.

sekanabo_image_4The wound was much worse than expected.

sekanabo_image_5Dr. Magda did her best to suture the tissues closed, hoping he could eat.

When Tumaini started waking up the reversal drugs were administered to both mother and son and everyone moved back to observe. The rest of the group approached, surrounding mother and son, and after a while Tumaini walked away, still a bit wobbly from anesthetic. Sekanabo tried to follow, but was he picked up by another female. When she put him down where he rested for about 40 minutes, and finally Tumaini came back and hugged him. The group was excited and were displaying toward the humans and resting Sekanabo. Clearly human presence could only disturb them further. While very, very worried about this little boy, it was time to leave him to the loving care of his group. His snare was removed, his face repaired as much as possible and he had been given a massive dose of antibiotics. There may have been injuries that we could not see externally, but he had been given his best chance to live. Now the difficult time of waiting started.

sekanabo_image_6Tumaini woke first and went straight to her still sleeping little boy.

Sekanabo woke up a few minutes later, and moved toward the protection of his family.

Drs. Magda, Eddy and Arthur headed home. The equipment needed to be cleaned, drugs replaced, and bags repacked in case another intervention was needed, here or elsewhere. We must always be ready for a crisis like this one. Trackers checked on Sekanabo the next day, as is our protocol in such cases. It is generally not good to have veterinarians go back into the group after an intervention – they have good memories and the last thing we want to do is disturb the group further. We learned about mid day that Sekanabo was weak, but trying to eat. We expected him to be weak after such trauma and an anesthesia, but the fact that he was trying to eat was hopeful news. Unfortunately, later that evening, he was found dead. Tumaini continued to carry him, which is heart breaking. We are all grieving the loss of this little gorilla. But we must stay focused and continue to try to learn from the situation. Trackers will stay with the group and try to recover his broken body so that we can do a necropsy, the animal form of autopsy. It is a difficult but very necessary part of our jobs as Gorilla Doctors.

We did receive some good news that day – Kighoma and Amani are feeling much better now that they are taking their antibiotics well in their milk bottles. Our jobs are such emotional roller coaster rides.

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Turimaso

I received an alarming call Thursday morning from Elisabeth, our veterinary technician with RDB (the Rwandan wildlife authority).  There was a 6.5 year old female gorilla in Pablo group with a snare on her left wrist.  Trackers found her trailing a long rope snare in the morning and were able to cut most of the trailing bit away, but the noose was still tight on her wrist.  Trackers were watching her closely – so far there was no wound and she was eating normally, but reports were that she was favoring her left arm when she walked.  The next step was to talk with Felix and Katie from Karisoke, and Prosper from RDB to determine when was the best time to attempt an intervention – to attempt to anesthetize her to remove the snare.  We all agreed that tomorrow Dr. Jean Felix and I, along with the most experienced trackers and Felix, would go to the group ready for an intervention.  This would be my first field anesthesia with a wild gorilla.  I was nervous and excited at the same time, and really wanted it to go well. The longer the snare stayed on her wrist, the greater the probability of complications (loss of blood supply to her hand, wounds at the snare site leading to infection, etc.).

Jean Felix and I went through the field bags, making sure we were ready for anything – all anesthetic drugs and reversers, emergency drugs, suture should there be a wound, fluids, antibiotics, oxygen and ET tubes… We went over the procedure several times out loud.  We felt like we were as ready as we could be.

Pablo group is the largest gorilla group with nearly 50 individuals, including several silverbacks and several more black back males (and 2 new babies this month!).  Cantsbe is the leader, one of the last animals left from the Dian Fosse times.  He is a strong leader, and does not put up with threats to his group, especially snares. He has had years of experience, and knows well that snares are a huge threat to his family.  We knew it might be difficult to isolate Turimaso, and to make matters worse her mother left the group several years ago, and now she tended to stay near Cantsbe.  We had to trust that the trackers would keep us safe.

Dr. Jean Felix and I left MGVP Headquarters and picked up Felix at Karisoke Headquarters at 6am.  We had hired 4 porters for the equipment, and would have 4 of the best trackers with us.  In addition ORTPN had put together a snare patrol to go out with us to search for snares in the area Turimaso had be caught in hers.  It was a large group as we headed up into the forest, and all knew we must be quiet, and communicate well.  All radios were turned to a separate channel used only for situations like this one – where we must be able to hear each other clearly.  We walked through the forest, single file, for about an hour, the tension palpable.  At one point a group of about 6 peeled off to search for snares.

Advance trackers had already found the group. Turimaso still had the snare, and was not using that arm.  She was in a good position for darting, according to those trackers.  Felix, Dr. Jean Felix and I, following the main tracker for the group, moved quietly toward the gorillas to assess the situation before preparing the dart.  Just as we were nearing Turimaso the screams started, and she ran past us with 3-4 females and juveniles after her.  They had seen the snare and were trying desperately to get it off of her, even biting her in their efforts.  The whole group became very excited, and we lost track of Turimaso in the confusion.  She was somewhere in an area of dense foliage on a steep slope.  We looked for over an hour, up and down the slope, all the time surrounded by gorillas, but could not find her.  She was likely frightened, in pain, and hiding.  We called in reinforcements and about 30 minutes later we found her.   She was still in dense foliage, but was relatively isolated, so it was possible for me to take a good shot with the dart gun.  We left 2 trackers with her, and went back to the main group to prepare the dart.  Once again the screaming started and this time it was fierce, and seemed to go on for several minutes.  We waited for the radio call, and finally learned that she was injured, and had isolated herself again.  It was time to get this snare off.

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There are about 15 gorillas in this picture but we can only see one. Very difficult to find Turimaso!

Dr. Jean Felix and 2 trackers accompanied me as I carried the pistol under my jacket and the pole behind my back.  The gorillas know exactly what they are, and it would not be good for them to know what was about to happen.  Turimaso was in a good spot – on flat ground, in a bamboo thicket, with no other gorillas visible.  Dr. Jean Felix and one of the trackers stood between me and Turimaso as I loaded the dart into the barrel.  It should be an easy shot – she was not moving and had her side to us, about 7 meters away. But I have darted enough animals to know that ANYTHING can happen, so my heart was racing.  I crouched behind Dr. Jean Felix and the tracker, and slid the barrel between them.  I lined up her thigh, squeezed the trigger, and suddenly it was done.  The dart went of, she did not scream, and we hunkered down to wait quietly.

image_2.jpg
Turimaso with snare, going to sleep.

Turimaso walked off a ways and lay down.  Within 10 minutes we had her on the tarp and were cleaning her wounds. The snare came off easily, but had cut her wrist deeply.  She had a very deep laceration on her elbow, no doubt obtained just before we anesthetized her during the last bout of screaming.  She also had obvious defensive wounds on the back of her right hand.  We cleaned all the wounds, and sutured the serious wound on her elbow.  We collected blood, various swabs, and were about to weigh and measure her when she sat up.  She was still groggy, but we were clearly done with our procedure.  As she was stumbling off I administered the reversal drug in order to speed her recovery, and Dr. Jean Felix administered antibiotics in an attempt to keep the deep wound from getting infected.

image_3.jpg
Turimaso had a deep laceration on her elbow that needed to be sutured.

The next hurdle was getting her successfully back into the group. They had not moved far, but we needed to be sure she could find them. As she recovered she began making a cooing verbalization that was a contact call.  We heard a chest beat in the distance and she moved in that direction.  At this point only the trackers stayed with her, and in about 30 minutes we heard on the radio that she had found Cantsbe, and was eating with him.  Now we could relax!  Mission accomplished!  Trackers will watch her closely for the next few days, and Dr. Jean Felix or I will do a visual recheck next week.  My only worry at this point is the potential for infection in her arm.  Fingers crossed.

We packed up our equipment and headed down the mountain.  The mood was lighter and people were talking and joking as we went.  Suddenly everyone stopped – I could see Fundi, one of the senior trackers, moving off into the forest.  A snare.  He had found a set snare.  I could barely make it out, it was so well hidden.  Felix sprung that one just as Damaciel, one of the other trackers, found another.   We were right on a gorilla trail – this was bad.  We radioed the ranger patrol to tell them they need to search this area, and learned that they had found 13 more snares in the area where Turimaso got hers yesterday.  They will come up again tomorrow and patrol the area we were in today.  As we walked down the trail I could see the trackers eyes surveying the forest.  I wish I could see what they see.  These guys really, really know the forest.


Here’s the first snare we found. Very well disguised.

image_5.jpg
Felix tripped that snare and removed the rope.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/e6PM7lXBaF4" width="530" height="272" wmode="transparent" /]

Felix explained that around Christmas is one of the heaviest snare times of the year.  People want extra food for their Christmas meal.  I have such mixed feelings – anger after having just treated this innocent little gorilla for a terrible wound directly related to the snare, and compassion for the people who are hungry and going to the forest for that extra bit of food.  People around the forest are very poor.  Community development is a HUGE part of gorilla conservation, but is a difficult job.  We will continue our efforts through development of our farm partners, and little by little we will make a difference.  Buhoro buhoro, in Kinyarwanda. Slowly slowly.

Dr. Jean Felix and I finally got back to MGVP Headquarters at 3:30, and now it was time to process the samples. Noel, our new lab technician and I worked until 6:00 spinning blood, making slides, labeling samples, putting them in liquid nitrogen, and cleaning up.  It was a long but rewarding day.  My first intervention.  So far so good.  Now we wait, and hope her wound heal well.  I really felt like a Gorilla Doctor today.

image_6.jpg
Everyone was relieved as we walked out of the forest!

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Memorable Patients Photo Essay Part 2 of 2

nyakagezi snare removal
Snare removal from the right arm of Nyakagezi Female on April 13, 2008 in Nyakagezi Group, UG

When I joined Benard (Dr. Ssebide) in Uganda for my second snare removal case—a wire wrapped around the arm of a young female gorilla in Nyakagezi Group—he explained that the wealthier poachers often used bicycle brake cable wire to make their snares. It’s virtually impossible for the gorillas to bite through or untwist this metal. Though we often give gorillas with a rope snare a few days to get it off on their own, we intervene right away if it’s a wire one. If only the gorillas could learn how to use wire cutters!

Umoja severly injured
Umoja, severely injured, with his mother, Nyiramurema on April 26 2008 in Kwitonda Group, RW

As a 2-year-old, Umoja was badly injured during a fight between competing gorilla groups. When we saw that his intestines were hanging out, his leg was broken, and his wrist torn open, we didn’t hold out much hope that he would survive—and we couldn’t intervene until the two groups parted ways. That took three days. But little Umoja wasn’t about to die, thanks in large part to the fact that his family members carried him everywhere. We were able to do surgery just in time—the holes in his abdomen were healing and beginning to kill his intestinal tissue. Miraculously, Umoja lived.

Ururabo and infant, Imena
Ururabo and her infant, Imena, recovering from respiratory illness five days after treatment on May 25, 2008, in Susa Group, RW

April through August 2008 was a particularly bad time for respiratory illness in Rwanda—among people as well as gorillas. The outbreak began in May with Susa Group. At one point, more than half the 39 gorillas in the group were showing signs of moderate to severe illness. Several had hacking coughs that reverberated through the forest. The sickest animals were Ururabo and her three-month old infant; both were on the verge of pneumonia. We intervened by anesthetizing the mother and treating both with antibiotics. Fortunately, they were much better the next day. The infant survived and was named Imena.

lucy and benard removig kirungyi’s snare
Lucy and Benard removing snare from Kirungyi on September 12, 2008 in ? Group, UG

After joining Benard for yet another wire snare removal in Uganda—this time it was the blackback, Kirungyi, from ? Group—I decided to put together a summary of recent cases. In less than two years, the gorilla doctors had removed six snares, more than in the prior five years. Despite ongoing protection of the park, it seemed to me the number of snares was increasing. The statistics available from park officials, however, don’t support this conclusion. Thanks to a slow but steady increase in the gorilla population, the relative number of snared gorillas has actually decreased. Hmm.

umigisha dying of cancer
Umugisha dying of cancer on December 6, 2008 in Amahoro Group, RW

Umugisha’s rapid deterioration surprised us all until we learned that she, too, had cancer. As in the case of Puck before her, there was a huge tumor. This one involved the muscle of her abdominal wall and her rib cage. It’s hard to imagine how she could have continued to eat and keep up with the group and appear generally healthy almost to the end. When the trackers called us, they’d found Umugisha near death. We were able to examine her, collect samples, and administer shock treatment without anesthesia. She was found dead the next morning.

mushya and icyizere
Mushya and Icyizere six days after treatment for severe parasites and anemia on December 26, 2008 in Isabukuru Group, RW

We’d put Mushya in the category of “failure-to-thrive,” largely because his mother, Icyizere, didn’t seem to have much milk. Then his gums turned pale and he started to itch like crazy. I worried that the problem might be due to mange mites, a highly contagious infection that gorillas can share with humans, and recommended that we intervene. Rather than mites, we found both mother and infant suffering from anemia as a result of heavy parasitism with intestinal worms. Within a month of being given a single dose of dewormer, Mushya had stopped itching and Icyizere’s mammary glands had doubled in size. Though all wild gorillas have some parasites, we’re still investigating why these two developed such a high load.

Inkumbuza before snare removal
Inkumbuza before snare removal on March 1 2009 in Shinda Group, RW

The good news was that Inkumbuza’s snare was loose. The trackers had found the infant caught by a rope around his arm and had successfully cut him free—a dangerous move, but one they felt was necessary in case the silverback hurt the infant in an attempt to remove it himself. The result was the bad news: Inkumbuza’s snare had a long trailing end. Every time he loosened the loop of rope with his teeth, his family members tightened it again. We went ahead with the intervention, though I think the gorillas might have been able to figure this one out.

Nyandwi before snare removal
Nyandwi before snare removal on May 26, 2009 in Pablo Group, RW

My last intervention was yet another snare removal, this time a rope around the arm of Nyandwi, a young female in Pablo Group. Though my patient cooperated, I had a struggle coordinating the team of people involved in the procedure, which included a film crew. Pablo Group is notoriously difficult to intervene in because it is so large and there are several silverbacks on the lookout for odd behavior by humans. We did our best, and although we got the snare off—on the second attempt—we came away without video proof of our success. So it goes . . .

Help the Gorilla Doctors.

Nyandwi Snare Part 3

I kept looking at the cloud-choked sky as we hiked through the farmland on our way to the forest. It had poured rain overnight, and I could only hope it wouldn’t start again until after I’d had a chance to dart Nyandwi. Pablo Group had moved up to the area known as Bikereri (as high as 3300 meters); it would be cooler there. When it rains at that altitude, my hands turn numb, no matter how many layers of clothing I’m wearing.

nyandwi’s rope snare
Nyandwi’s rope snare

By the time we reached the area where the gorillas were foraging, the skies were brighter, my eyeglasses were fogged, and I was dripping with sweat from the climb. Though the sun looked as though it might win out over the clouds, the air was damp. I quickly exchanged my wet hiking jacket for a dry one, first putting on a wool turtleneck and fleece pullover. I would have added my fleece hat except that Elisabeth thought Nyandwi might recognize it. The trackers smiled as they watched me get ready, wondering, no doubt, how many more articles of clothing I had stashed in my bag.

Nyandwi eating celery
Nyandwi eating celery with the snare still snug around her right arm

Ten minutes later we were with the gorillas. As planned, the darting team (two trackers, Elisabeth, myself, and Jean Felix) entered the group first in order to check on Nyandwi—or rather to check on her reaction to me. She was eating celery, and barely glanced in our direction as we approached. I didn’t think she’d seen my face or the dart gun the other day, as I’d been well hidden behind by the trees. If she remembered anything it more likely to be the fact that something scary had happened while a cluster of people stood nearby. When she finished her meal, Nyandwi flopped down on her back for a rest. Clearly we were not making the patient nervous.

Nyandwi glances at dart team
Nyandwi glancing at the darting team

Next we held our briefing, as planned, for the trackers. There would be two lines of defense this time: six trackers ready to enter the group and make calming gorilla vocalizations (ah-hum, ah-hum) if Nyandwi screamed—as we expected her to do—and six more armed with wooden sticks to follow behind in case it was necessary to scare off the silverbacks. If the gorilla didn’t scream, Elisabeth would call for help only if we needed it. The protection team would stay together, led by Bosco, keeping as close as possible to the darting team without disrupting the gorillas. I’m not sure just how many teams we’d ended up with earlier in the week, but on this day we had just two. Elisabeth and Bosco checked that all radios were set to the same channel, and we were off.

Nyandwi had moved closer to the main group while we were made our final preparations, so much so that we walked right by Cantsbee on our way to find her. He and most of the group had just settled down for a rest. This was fine as long as Nyandwi kept moving, which she did. We followed her as she continued slowly down a steep slope into even thicker vegetation. One other silverback passed by to our right; then a blackback to our left. We needed to wait until she gained some distance from them as well. After almost an hour, Nyandwi crawled into the middle of a dense thicket of thorny bushes and sat down to eat berries and leaves. With branches screening us from her view, knowing we were a reasonable distance from Cantsbee, I was ready to dart. Elisabeth checked with Bosco. His team was ready, too.

Nyandwi taking a rest in front of darting team
Nyandwi taking a rest, right in front of the darting team

I didn’t consciously think, “OK, now Nyandwi is about to scream,” but in the back of my mind I was sure this would happen, given her reaction two days earlier. At least we were ready for it. I pulled the trigger, the dart hit as intended on her left thigh, and she took off running uphill—without a sound!

Nyandwi knew, of course, where Cantsbee and the rest of the family were resting, and that’s where she headed. As we struggled up the hillside after her, I was pretty certain she’d fall asleep before she got all the way back to the group. But I worried that she might meet another gorilla along the way and that our mission would no longer be a secret to the rest of the group. Elisabeth immediately called Bosco and asked him to send the first six trackers quietly to help us look for Nyandwi—as well as protect us in case Cantsbee figured out what was happening. At one point, I climbed up a small ridge, expecting to find vegetation in front of me, and instead found myself looking up at one of the other silverbacks. He was yawning and stretching. He had no clue.

After 10 minutes, we found Nyandwi lying under a clump of bushes. She was heavily sedated but still moving a little. I gave her a supplement of anesthetic, using a syringe, then asked for help to position her on the tarp and move her out into the open. I couldn’t believe we were going to get away with doing the procedure right under Cantsbee’s nose. But we did.

Lucy, Elisabeth, and Jean Felix treat Nyandwi
Lucy, Elisabeth, and Jean Felix treat the anesthetized Nyandwi

Concerned that moving our operation to a flatter, easier place to work (with fewer thorns) would alert the group, I decided to make the best of where we were. It was uncomfortable and awkward working on the hillside, yet the next part was the easy bit. I monitored anesthesia while Elisabeth and Jean Felix removed the snare and collected the usual set of blood samples. It rained lightly for a little while but stopped before we got too wet. Then Nyandwi began to wake up. Unfortunately, we hadn’t weighed or measured her yet. Given the difficult circumstances, I chose not to give her more anesthetic. We were done. The snare was off. Her group wasn’t far away.

Jean Felix taking snare off Nyandwi’s arm
Jean Felix taking the snare off Nyandwi’s arm

I gave Nyandwi the anesthetic reversal that would help her wake up faster and more completely, and watched as she tried to stand up, only to tumble downhill a short distance, right into a thicket. Given the steep slope, the berry bushes were now a blessing; they’d kept her from rolling more than a few feet. She pulled herself to a sitting position, obviously trying to focus on all the people in front of her. Suddenly we were rushing again, to clean up and move our medical bags before she woke up enough to be afraid—and scream.

Nyandwi and vet team with nasal swabs
Elisabeth taking routine nose and throat swab samples from Nyandwi

Now we were at the point in the intervention where it’s easy to become complacent. The patient appeared fine, she was only 70 meters from her group and almost fully awake. But everything could change if she went the wrong way, or hurt herself by falling farther downhill. For the next half hour, we stood quietly in the bushes to one side, waiting for her to become alert enough so that we could encourage her to return to the group.

Nyandwi recovers from snare removal
Nyandwi rejoining Pablo Group after her snare removal procedure

Finally we decided to help her move. She might simply have been waiting for us to leave, but we couldn’t take the chance that she’d go downhill instead of up. Sure enough, when the trackers approached her, she got up, found a recent trail, and followed it downhill. We formed a half-circle below her so that she was forced to stop and think about which way to go. Our strategy worked. Soon we were following her uphill, all the way back to the group. Not a single gorilla seemed to notice that she’d been missing. They were scatted over the hillside in front of us, and in contrast to the other day, seemed indifferent to the fact that there were a dozen people watching them. Whew! Mission accomplished.

Help the Gorilla Doctors.

Nyandwi Snare Part 2

Several film crews have documented the lives of the mountain gorillas since I began working here, and each has asked if they could follow the vets at work in the forest. I’ve always said ‘yes’ for a routine health check, but no for an intervention–at least if I’m the one doing the darting. I know just how much coordination and communication is required to do this well, and as hard as we all try, when we intervene to treat a gorilla the operation is never as smooth as we’d like it to be. This is partly because we intervene as seldom as possible; apart from the vets, many of those involved may be helping for the first time. Our biggest concern is to avoid upsetting the gorillas to the point where we lose our opportunity to treat the patient—and in the process, compromise human safety.

nyandwi pablo group
Nyandwi, a six-year-old female mountain gorilla in Pablo Group

The best way to maximize our chances of success and minimize the risk of injury is to limit the number of people involved, and if possible include only those with whom the gorillas are already familiar. Even then, there will be moments during the procedure where not everyone knows what is happening, particularly right after the darting—while the vets wait for the animal to fall asleep and the trackers keep their distance—and again during recovery, when only some of the trackers know the location of the main group. These are the times when injuries happen.

We’ll never be a perfect team; we’re a mixture of people with different skills, speaking different languages. But if everyone knows the gorilla group and has the same clear objective, which is to treat the patient, we have a good chance of doing an intervention safely. This is not something you can teach a film crew in a day, or even in weeks. And of course their goal is different: they want to get anything and everything that looks like action on film.

Even the friendliest, most well-meaning, and experienced crew can be hugely disruptive. This is a built-in problem: what they need is a clear view of what’s happening and some dialogue to explain it—which isn’t at all what the sick or injured animal needs. When the patient is a wild animal, the cameraman becomes someone else to worry about, another person whose location must be known and whose safety must be ensured. It’s hard enough in a zoo setting. But here, in the so-called wild with the gorillas, it’s especially tricky because of the terrain and the fact that the animals are habituated to only a certain number of people at once.

cantsbee
Cantsbee, the lead silverback in Pablo Group

This is a long way of explaining why I was not pleased with the decision to send a film crew along for Nyandwi’s snare removal. Although I fully understood the rationale—to publicize the harm done by poachers by showing what it takes to treat a wild gorilla caught in a snare—I believed Pablo Group was a poor choice. This particular film crew had been in Rwanda for some time, and planned to return. I suggested they wait. It wasn’t my decision, however, it was up to park officials. They pointed out that this group had already filmed within the group, and promised to stay out of our way. The best I could do was get an agreement that the location of the film crew would be up to me, that the cameraman would be allowed to film Nyandwi with her snare only for five minutes, and that he would leave until she was safely anesthetized. He would leave again during her recovery. I knew we’d need a bit of luck in order for it to all work out.

nyandwi picking at her snare
Nyandwi picking at her snare

The day started off fine. It wasn’t raining, and the gorillas were only an hour into the forest. I’d already prepared my dart, and within minutes of joining the gorillas, had a perfect darting opportunity. The cameraman was with me as planned. I was calm—I don’t feel anxious until after I’ve fired the dart, at which point my heart rate doubles—and so was Nyandwi. She was contentedly eating celery. There was one juvenile near her and another in the vegetation to our left. Cantsbee and the rest of the group were at least 100 meters away, downhill. Figuring it would be more disruptive if the cameraman left, I told him he could stay until I either darted or had to shift my position. Now all we had to do was wait for the protection team to get into position. Their job was to protect us (the darting team) from Cantsbee and the other silverbacks if necessary, after Nyandwi fell asleep.

Nyandwi was amazingly calm even as she heard a bunch of people moving through the forest—I wished they could have been quieter, but we were in very steep terrain. Then my target moved, meaning I’d lost my first precious opportunity to dart. I motioned for the cameraman to leave, and readjusted my position behind Elisabeth and the lead tracker. A few minutes later, I had another good shot. But the protection team still wasn’t ready. Meanwhile, the cameraman had crept up the hillside to hide in the bushes, aiming his camera at Nyandwi and me. Jean Felix appeared as planned. I would have preferred he join us, but my patient was beginning to get nervous, so I asked him to wait out of sight.

nwandi walking normally
Nyandwi walking normally, despite the snare on her right arm

Then Nyandwi craned her neck, looking past me, and I turned to see the red running light on the camera shining through a gap in the bushes. This was too much for her (and for me.) Nyandwi moved away in Cantsbee’s direction. Only the three of us followed—Elisabeth, the lead tracker, and I—leaving everyone else to follow along quietly through the vegetation. Having wasted 30 minutes of darting opportunity, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed. I hoped the cameraman would leave as he’d agreed to do. Yet I also knew that I was responsible, in the end, for what did or didn’t work. It seemed as if we had too many people in too many different places.

An hour later, after struggling along a steep hillside with Elisabeth and the tracker, I had another easy, clear shot. Nyandwi stopped to eat. Though Cantsbee was still far downhill, we could see three gorillas to our left. Soon Nyandwi would be on her way to join them, meaning this would be our last chance for the day. I took aim just as she walked back up the trail, then spun around to sit down again—even closer. I pulled the gun down quickly, just in time. She hadn’t seen it, but we were now only a few feet away and far too close for the pressure in my gun. If the dart hit too hard, it would bounce.

I had two choices. Given that the gauge wasn’t always accurate, I could empty the air chamber and refill it. This takes 30 seconds or so, and makes a long hissing sound. I didn’t think I had time, so I compromised by letting just a little air out until the gauge read what I hoped was the right pressure, then fired. The dart barely popped out of the gun. It hit Nyandwi anyway, just hard enough to stick in her leg but too softly to inject the anesthetic. She jumped; the medicine sprayed, she pulled out the dart and screamed. Then the three gorillas to our left screamed.

nyandwi sitting with another gorilla
Nyandwi (right) with a rope snare around her right wrist sitting next to Musilikale, one of the four silverbacks in Pablo Group

Before we could even begin to follow Nyandwi to make certain she was all right and confirm that she hadn’t received any of the anesthetic, we heard a lot of yelling and crashing. It was the protection team, coming to our rescue because of the screaming. Knowing Pablo Group, the trackers were concerned for our safety. Normally we’d wait for the gorilla to fall asleep before calling the team for help. In response to the racket produced by the humans, the gorillas fled to the opposite hillside. I could see Cantsbee glaring at us from a distance. I noticed that the cameraman was still with us, filming.

I asked the trackers to search the hillside to make sure there wasn’t a sleeping gorilla out there somewhere. They felt this would upset the group too much, so we waited for a while, figuring if Nyandwi wasn’t with the group, at least one gorilla would stay with her and we’d be able to spot them. Finally, Nyandwi, acting normally, was seen with several other gorillas. There was no point in staying any longer. We’d upset Cantsbee enough for one day. The only question remaining was whether Nyandwi would recognize me as the bad guy when we tried again. I didn’t think so, since we’d been well hidden in the trees. If she did remember me, someone else would do the darting. Nevertheless, I was disappointed in myself. I shouldn’t have rushed. I usually don’t.

Elisabeth, the trackers, and I decided to wait at least a day before trying again. Much would depend on Cantsbee’s mood. In the morning, we met with the chief park warden to evaluate the situation and explore new strategies. Although we couldn’t predict the gorillas’ reaction to a darting, there were a number of variables we could control, particularly those that related to communication and coordination.

We concluded that there should never be more than two teams, the darting and the protection team. We decided that, for the most part, only two people should to talk to each other over the radio: Elisabeth for the darting team and Bosco for the protection team. The darting team should include four, if not five, people, including the darting vet, Elisabeth, one other vet, and two trackers. We also agreed that the key people involved should meet in person the day before, rather than conferring by phone, and again in the forest to brief everyone involved before entering the group. Toward the end of the meeting, we got reports that the group was calm again. We agreed to go back up the next day, and put our new protocol to work.

Another Mountain Gorilla Caught in a Snare: Part 1

Last week we dealt with yet another snared gorilla.  The victim was Nyandwi (ne-an-dwee), a six-year-old female in Pablo Group.

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Nyandwi

When the trackers found the gorilla caught in a snare, they were able to cut the rope without fear of being attacked by her family.  The rest of the group was foraging some distance way, unaware that she was in trouble.  Had Nyandwi cried out when the trackers approached, the gorillas would have answered her alarm by running to the scene.  This is dangerous for all involved.  A protective silverback can cover the length of a football field full of nettles and thorns in no time.  Fortunately, the young gorilla was so exhausted that she barely reacted—other than to run away in the direction of the group as soon as she was free.

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Nyandwi’s snare

The group must have figured out about the snare when Nyandwi appeared wearing a new rope bracelet.  Soon they were extremely agitated, so much so that the trackers couldn’t even enter the group to check on her for fear of being charged by the silverbacks.

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Nyandwi eating well, despite the rope snare on her arm

Pablo Group is notoriously difficult when it comes to interventions.  This is mostly because of the group’s large size—42 gorillas—and the fact that there are four silverbacks and several blackbacks.  With so many protectors, it’s almost impossible to intervene without being noticed.   There have been several instances in Pablo Group when the trackers were unable to run the group off after the patient was anesthetized.  In one case, an infant with a snare had been darted and had just fallen asleep when another gorilla picked it up and carried it off before the vets could begin the procedure.  On that day, a tracker trying to recover the infant was severely injured.

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Cantsbee, the lead silverback in Pablo Group

Additionally, the group’s lead silverback, Cantsbee, has a reputation of being intolerant of anything out of the ordinary, including vets with dart guns.   Because his group is so big, there have been more than a few interventions over the years—and more opportunities for Cantsbee to learn that scary things sometimes happen when unfamiliar people do strange things.  I knew it might take us several days to get this particular snare off without upsetting him.  But unless the snare was a tight one, we could take our time.  I decided to join the trackers the next day to get a close look.

As anticipated, the gorillas had travelled a considerable distance in reaction to the snare incident the day before.  It took us nearly three hours to find them, and just as long to return, walking a long way through the fields to get back to where I’d parked the truck.  As usual, I spent much of the hike focused on my feet, trying not to wipe out in the thick mud or trip over slippery stalks of bamboo and celery.

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Nyandwi’s new rope bracelet was easy to spot, even from a distance

And I couldn’t stop fuming about the snare.  The fact is that even when they’re caught red-handed, poachers often get off easy, spending no more than a year in jail.  The trackers know who some of them are, but can’t say anything without firm evidence.  If they do, they put their own lives at risk.  The underlying problem,  though, is that there’s a market for bushmeat—even in Rwanda.

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Cantsbee (center), the lead silverback in Pablo Group, resting near Nyandwi the day after she got caught in a snare.

When we finally reached the group that day, we found Nyandwi resting near Cantsbee.  She picked at the rope around her right wrist a few times, but I couldn’t see any swelling in the hand.  So far so good.  Apart from the shredded length of rope dangling from her arm, she looked no different from any of the other juveniles in the group.  I peered at the snare through my binoculars and snapped a dozen photos, hoping to find a reason to think it might slide off on its own.  But the rope  was so snug, there seemed little chance of that.
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Several other Pablo Group gorillas were interested in Nyandwi’s snare.

After an hour, or so, Cantsbee got up to eat and soon disappeared into the vegetation.  Most of the group left the rest area at the same time, but Nyandwi stayed back with a few other youngsters.  I was glad to see she was independent of the adults and calm in her demeanor.  That would make her easier to dart.  She favored her right arm a little, but ate normally with both hands.  At one point, another gorilla sat down beside her to investigate the snare, sniffing it.  He didn’t seem to have any intention of trying to remove it—or any clue why he should.  I left the group knowing we’d need to intervene.  We made a plan to try the next day.

Working in the Rain: Inkumbuza’s Snare, Part 2

Mother Pasika checks on Inkumbuza’s snare, Shinda group
Mother Pasika (upper right) checks on Inkumbuza’s snare

The tracking team, each armed with a long stick, had gathered in a line on the hillside above us, ready to scare Ugenda and others away. Fundi, followed closely by our team—Magda, Jean Felix, Elisabeth, and I—would try to run Pasika away from her infant. We waited a few minutes for the dart to take effect. Inkumbuza fell soundly asleep next to his mother, but he’d rolled downhill a bit and we couldn’t see much of him. We waited another minute to see if Pasika would move, but she continued eating. Since we couldn’t see the little gorilla well enough to monitor his anesthesia, action was called for. Fundi approached Pasika quickly, waving a stick in front of him. I was right behind him.

Pasika whirled around, glared at Fundi, and tried to pick up her infant. Inkumbuza must have felt like a dead weight and when she found she couldn’t lift him, she dragged the sleeping infant a few feet and then let go. He rolled down the hill a little way. We followed quickly. She looked back at us again, then grabbed the long end of the rope attached to the infant’s left arm. She flicked her arm and threw him a few feet further down the trail. I’m not sure—everything happened so fast—but I think she tossed him forward in this way several times.

Shinda group gorillas pulling on Inkumbuza’s snare
Inkumbuza’s family continued to pull on his snare, cinching it tighter on his arm

Magda said later that she heard Pasika scream repeatedly. I don’t remember hearing a thing. I was stunned by the scene in front of me, worried that the worst would happen. The mother would either carry off the anesthetized Inkumbuza, or the rest of the gorillas would catch up and prevent us from working on him. Even worse, he could already be hurt from what had just happened. But just as I was deciding we might have to back off and make sure Inkumbuza was OK, which would give Pasika and the other gorillas time to huddle around him, she hesitated, pausing with her hand on the rope. I was close enough to put my hand on Inkumbuza’s foot just as Fundi waved his stick one more time and the mother finally ran off. By then, I think there were just too many strange things happening for Pasika. The expression on her face wasn’t of fear. She looked annoyed and a little confused.

Like Pasika, I struggled to pick Inkumbuza up—he was heavier than we’d guessed. Fortunately, Elisabeth was right behind me, and together we carried him up the trail a short distance. Magda and Jean Felix met us there and we got to work. Concerned that we might soon be overtaken by Ugenda, Magda quickly removed the snare. It slid right off! Fortunately, there was no damage. Either Pasika had loosened it by pulling him after her, or the rope was never all that tight—just too tricky for a gorilla to figure out how to remove.

By this time the rain had become a deluge, and we were all a little discombobulated. I couldn’t hold onto anything with my cold hands, and my glasses were fogged and covered with rain drops. Our equipment was soaked, but Inkumbuza was sleeping soundly and his anesthetic parameters were stable, so we went ahead with getting a weight while Magda gathered supplies for sample collection. Jean Felix, Elisabeth, and I wrapped up Inkumbuza in our carrying tarp and hooked the handles together. Using the spring scale, Jean Felix lifted the gorilla and tarp off the ground. Together they weighed 23 kg. (Later we weighed the tarp—1 kg—so the gorilla weighed 22 kg.)

While Magda got to work taking samples, I asked the trackers to stretch a rain tarp over our heads, which helped a little. Unless forced by circumstance, we would never attempt a surgery or a diagnostic exam on a sick animal in such weather. But Inkumbuza was healthy, and we knew he’d need our help for only a few minutes. Magda did most of the work (she never gets cold!)—and finished the procedure in 35 minutes, just as the infant began to awaken. He was up and on his way down the trail a minute later. After another minute, we heard Pasika scream—a sign that the two had been reunited. Fundi and Magda ran ahead to see her reaction. Apparently the mother grabbed the infant, pulled him close to her, and immediately inspected his left arm. I wonder if she has any idea who took the snare off.

shinda group around Inkumbuza
Shinda group around Inkumbuza