I recently spent a memorable day with Dr. George Schaller and Dr. Amy Vedder. Along with Dian Fossey, they helped save the mountain gorilla from extinction. George’s life is the subject of an upcoming National Geographic film in which he returns to the wilderness areas he studied 50 years ago. He was spending a week in Rwanda to do a number of interviews. On this day, I was invited to join him and Amy for a tourist visit to Group 13. My role was to talk about gorilla health.
George was the first scientist to make a serious study of mountain gorillas. From 1959-1960, he and his wife lived at Kabara, near the base of Mount Mikeno (one of the five volcanoes in the Virunga Massif) on the DR Congo side of the gorilla park. On our way into the forest on the Rwandan side, we stopped to take a photo of the area where George had lived. From our vantage point, of course, there was no way we could actually see his field site on the other side. But we got the idea.
While the film crew got their footage, the rest of us—George, Amy, two of their friends, our two guides, and I—stood around in the warm sunshine enjoying the view. Not surprisingly, we were soon surrounded by a group of children asking for various things (money, a pen, a water bottle). George pulled a bright blue balloon out of his pocket, blew it up part way, gave it to the tallest boy, and showed him how to keep filling it with air. Then he helped tie the knot. Seconds later, the kid with the prize was nowhere to be seen. George said he’d been giving out balloons for years. “It’s something small I can do to make friends.” He added, “But, as you can see, it’s already disappeared. That’s the only balloon I’m giving out today.”
Next George asked our guides if they knew whether or not gorillas still lived in Kabara. He explained that there had been several large family groups living there at one time. They didn’t think so because of so much poaching in that area, and it seemed the gorillas had moved away. He also asked if there were any buildings left there. Again, they said no. Later that week, however, we heard some very good news: not only are there mountain gorillas still living near Kabara, the total population on the DR Congo side of the park is increasing, despite the insecurity (see link on gorilla.cd.)
George wrote about his experiences in The Year of the Gorilla (1964), a book I’ve have read several times—along with everyone else who has studied the mountain gorilla. It was his trail-blazing study that motivated Dian Fossey to set up her own long-term research project in 1967. She started off at Kabara, but was forced to leave due to rebel fighting. Ultimately, she set up camp in Rwanda in a place that was actually not that far away, a meadow she called Karisoke. After studying the gorillas with Dian, Amy, and her husband, Bill Webber, helped to establish mountain gorilla eco-tourism. They, too, wrote about their work in, In the Kingdom of the Gorillas (2001.)
During my interview with George and Amy for the film, they asked me about the health problems we see in gorillas that may be related to tourism. Each could remember seeing gorillas with the occasional runny nose and cough, but they knew that we now see cold-like illnesses far more often. They wanted to know if this problem originates in the gorillas—or people. I gave my answer in two parts: what we know about disease transmission, and what we understand about the risks we create by visiting the gorillas.
First, we know from zoos that gorillas can catch our diseases and that they are susceptible to the same human diseases that we’re vaccinated for as children. Because the mountain gorillas are wild, we cannot vaccinate them, nor do we need to as long as only healthy people visit their forest home and keep a safe distance. This is the basis for the gorilla visitation rules. Additionally, we know from chimpanzees that there are two forms of viral respiratory disease, mild and severe. The latter is the one acquired from people. We believe the same situation to be true for the mountain gorillas.
Secondly, with only 750 mountain gorillas, 7 million Rwandans, and almost 7 billion people on earth, the chance that a gorilla will pick up a disease from humans is high. The source of the problem is not only the tourists. The gorillas are also exposed to humans and our diseases in many different ways, via the local people—and their domestic animals—who enter the park illegally, as well as park staff, scientists, and soldiers, patrolling the area, and tourists who spend an hour or more with the gorillas each day. To protect the gorillas, we need to consider the health needs of the entire community of people who have real or potential contact with them.
Nor is it possible to say who poses the greatest risk. Most tourists have been to a doctor in the past year and are in good health, so they’re less likely to introduce a common preventable disease. Most have just been on an airplane, however—a great place to catch a cold, the flu, or a nasty new emerging disease. As for park staff, they may be healthy in themselves, but their families live in poor communities with little access to health care. They represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of conditions in and human health around the park. We know from past studies, for example, that intestinal parasites are readily transmitted from people and cows outside the park to buffaloes and gorillas inside.
I ended my comments by repeating that the single most important thing we can do is follow the rules for visiting the gorillas. If we keep our distance and never enter the park with any type of illness, we can reduce the risks to the animals. Then I decided to ask my own question. How did Amy and George think we could enforce the rules more effectively? For one thing, it’s hard to monitor human health with our current staff and resources—and there’s also the fact that the gorillas themselves don’t know the rules.
I should explain that we were nowhere anywhere near the gorillas during this conversation. We were waiting for them to move out from the bamboo, where it was too dark for filming. The style of our interview was very informal: Amy, George, and I simply kept talking. (I suspect also know very little of this it will be used in the film!) As new questions kept popping into my head, I just asked away.
George reminded me that he alone had watched the gorillas at Kabara from a perch high in a tree, so for him distance and disease exposure hadn’t been a concern. Amy said agreed that keeping a safe distance was something that had worried her from the start. Even before a group was completely habituated, the younger curious younger gorillas would readily approach humans. She said the trackers used to establish more of a physical barrier, even using a stick. Now, after years of seeing people once a day for an hour, this simple technique won’t work. George’s and Amy’s general feeling was that it was up to the trackers and guides to position visitors a safe distance away, which was consistent with the recommendations we’d been making. They also agreed that we should continue our efforts to share the rules and the reasons for them with everyone who visits the park.
Finally, after a cold rain, the sun came out. The gorillas were still in the bamboo, but it was light enough to film, and already late afternoon. We would lose our chance if we waited any longer. For a while, we could hear more gorillas than we could see. Gradually, the infants soon began to congregate in play. They created a little stage in front of us as we watched, breaking down the bamboo as they swung around on its stalks. No way were we seven meters from the gorillas! We backed up, circled around to the right, and repositioned our small group. The infants pounced in our direction. We shuffled to the left, stumbling on the vegetation. I wished for a different place, an easier view, and a way to see these remarkable animals from a safe distance instead of the dense bamboo. The gorillas, as usual, didn’t seem to mind.
But despite infringing the rules we’d just been talking about, George and Amy and their two guests were smiling broadly. It was impossible not to. Some rules are made to be broken … once in a while.
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