Gorilla Doctors Help to Save Mountain Gorillas


Rwanda, Africa. Veterinarians have all kinds of jobs, aside from helping pets. Some veterinarians work in agriculture, others in academia, for zoos, or in far-flung places in the field. Few are as deep into the field as the veterinarians of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project who trek high into the Virunga Mountains to study and treat mountain gorillas.

When you’re watching nature shows on TV, rarely does a veterinarian jump in to save wild animals. The refrain is, ‘let nature takes its course.’ However, the complex situation with the endangered mountain gorillas is different, and veterinarians are a part of the reason the endangered species is actually experiencing a growth in population.

The estimated 780 mountain gorillas on the planet are found in the rich mountain forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and Rwanda.

“Our job is to improve the sustainability of the mountain gorillas,” explained Dr. Dawn Zimmerman, regional manager of the non-profit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Zimmerman presented a power point to a group of ecotourists traveling with Terra Incognita Ecotours at the Virunga Lodge in Rwanda before their first morning of trekking the gorillas.

There’s little doubt that tourists have helped to save the mountain gorillas from certain extinction, noted Zimmerman.

While, a civil war and lack of infrastructure to welcome Western tourists have kept DRC out of the picture, Uganda and Rwanda have it figured out.

For example, Rwanda’s economy benefits to the tune of about $250 million annually as a result of gorilla-watching tourists. In Rwanda, there are about 250 gorillas, so that makes each gorilla worth a cool million to Rwanda’s needy economy.  In Rwanda those dollars go toward much more than saving gorillas, jobs are provided (for porters, trekkers and guides as well as those who work at the Virunga Lodge and other places where tourists stay); some dollars are invested in Rwanda’s future benefiting a local school not far from where the gorillas live.

Zimmerman added that saving gorillas also means saving several other imperiled species who live in the same forests, including the rare golden monkeys.

What makes this story possible is Dian Fossey, subject of the 1988 biopic movie “Gorillas in the Mist.” She was among the first to study the gentle giants in the 1970’s. When Fossey first arrived, the lingering image of King Kong persisted, until she showed just how peaceful these vegetarian apes are. She also demonstrated that gorilla troops could be habituated to people (though at the time she disdained the idea of tourists).

In fact, some of the gorillas which tourists see today are descendents of those which Fossey first habituated. Being comfortable with people allows for tourists to trek though mountain trails into forests where the gorillas live to observe them close up. The gorillas accept their audience in good stride, seemingly ignoring the constant camera clicks, videotaping and sometimes giddy tourists who may be too excited to whisper.

Still there are threats. While Rwanda and Uganda have pretty much eliminated poaching gorillas, Zimmerman says that traps are sometimes set for small antelope species. Incredibly, some gorillas have learned to dismantle the snares. Other gorillas do sometimes get caught in them. That’s when Zimmerman and her team head out to free gorillas still entrapped, and to treat gorillas from Stresulting wounds.

However, the most significant and surprising threat  may originate from the very ecotourists who provide for their protection. Zimmerman said, “Being such a close relative to people, gorillas are susceptible to many of the same viruses and infectious disease that we are, and often more susceptible since they don’t have any immunity to these things.”

In fact, some ecotourists noted coughing gorillas on a recent trek. The veterinarians will treat the gorillas the best they can. But it’s not an easy job, and the work can be dangerous. While gorillas are peaceful, male silverbacks defend their troop, and mothers protect their baby. Text messages haven’t been sent to the gorillas in advance to explain that the veterinarians are merely there to help, even save lives – which members of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project have done.

Zimmerman said that once a silverback charged her, and she stood her ground – not an easy thing to do with an angry 400 lb. gorilla running right at you. “I could feel his breath on my face,” she said.

On another occasion, a veterinarian treated a gorilla’s hand. Later the veterinarian returned – as a kind of follow up – and the silverback actually extended the once injured hand, as if to show, “It’s okay now.”

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project is a non-profit organization, in part, funded by the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Learn more HERE.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services