Grooming session with Umoja, Nyiramurema, Kwitonda, and others.
Six days after Umoja’s surgery, Magda returned from checking on him with a worried expression. Her report sounded exactly like mine from the day before: he was alert, whimpering, crawling, nursing well, and nibbling—but not swallowing—bamboo leaves. Umoja could still develop complications, and we’d both hoped his appetite for solid food would return by now. He could have an abscess brewing in the muscle layer where we’d placed the sutures, or the wound on his wrist could become infected. Or—the worst possibility—his intestinal tract might be damaged. He could have a stricture.
Umoja riding on Nyiramurema’s back favoring his right leg.
Alternatively, Umoja may simply be content for now with the milk and comfort of his mother. Because of his broken leg, he’s unable to wander around, try out new foods, or play with other infants. His behavior resembles that of a very young infant rather than that of a two-year old. Maybe he simply lacks the energy to manipulate bamboo. He burns extra calories every time he crawls after his mother. Moreover, the healing process increases metabolic rate. The pain from his wrist and leg may make him too uncomfortable to eat. Still, we worry about intestinal pain or cramping if he does have some scarring.
Umoja resting with Nyiramurema.
Elisabeth checked Umoja one week after surgery, a time frame we viewed as a mini- milestone. She and the trackers started out expecting to find Kwitonda where he’d been all week, close to the park border. Instead, they found evidence of a fast-moving journey up the mountainside. They could hear hoots and chest beating. Nyakagezi Group was back, and Kwitonda was on the move, following them. Elisabeth and the trackers stayed with the Kwitonda group for several hours. Fortunately, there’d been no fighting. Nyiramurema carried Umoja most of the time. If she put him down, another gorilla immediately picked him up.
Grooming session with Umoja, Nyiramurema, and silverback Kwitonda.
Nine days post-surgery, I made the next recheck. We were early, and found several gorillas still in their night nests. Kwitonda was resting on his elbows. Nyiramurema walked over to him, leaving Umoja sitting quietly about ten meters away. As she started to groom the silverback, the infant got up to join them. Instead of crawling, he walked on both hands and his left foot, favoring the right hand a bit and holding his right leg entirely off the ground. He made no sound. I was relieved that at least he could now limp normally!
Umoja, nine days post-op, riding on his mother’s back.
I decided to continue on and do a routine check of the entire group on this visit. While picking my way through the bamboo with Leóndace, I temporarily lost track of Umoja. By now Kwitonda was sitting in a shady thicket with several juveniles playing around him. I had my binoculars focused on this group when I heard a familiar noise to my left: gorilla crashing through bamboo. Nyiramurema appeared out of nowhere, only a few meters from me. She stopped and stared at me for a few seconds, then moved quickly toward Kwitonda. Umoja crawled from where he’d been sitting, hidden from view, and climbed on her back as she moved away into the thicket.
Umoja climbing up on his mother’s back.
I looked at Leóndace. He didn’t seem concerned. Nyiramurema’s behavior was natural and normal. She’s always been a very protective mother, and we’d unknowingly broken a basic rule–never get between a mother and her infant, let alone an infant you’ve darted. But after silently chastising myself, I realized our blunder had yielded a positive piece of information about Umoja I hadn’t yet picked up on: he’d been where a normal, healthy gorilla infant should be, playing near the silverback while his mother foraged.
Umoja, nine days post-op, with Nyiramurema and Kwitonda.
Unless something happens to Nyiramurema, Umoja will survive his injuries. He may have a visible a wound at the surgery site for some time, and bits of suture may migrate out. He may never walk completely normally, or recover full use of his right hand. But the fact that he managed to survive those first few days before our intervention shows he’s every bit as strong as his tough-as-nails parents. He kept his appetite for milk even with his intestines sticking out, and had enough strength to drag a broken leg behind him while holding onto his mother’s back with one good arm and leg. As Magda remarked, if Umoja lives to be a silverback, he’ll be quite something.