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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.