Our Rwandan Tracking Experience: Conservation Efforts to Save the Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas
Dawn Lucas, Lynn Lyons, & Andrea Stoddard
Docents, Toledo Zoo
On March 4, 2011, we set out on an amazing and unforgettable journey: trekking to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas on the Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda. Our first of two treks was to spend 1 hour with the Hirwa family of 17 individuals, including 3-week old twins. On the second trek, we spent 1 hour with the 21-member Kwitonda family that had three silverbacks. We quickly found that hiking in Rwanda was physically demanding despite our prior months of exercise training. The air is awfully thin at 7-10,000 ft, especially when you live at sea level. As we ascended, we passed through farmland and into a rich, dense forest. When our noses told us the gorillas were close, we became flooded with emotions. Just watching the gorillas moving toward us, listening to their vocalizations, and having juveniles acknowledge us with smacks on our legs as they ran past, made us truly appreciate how lucky we were to be there in their presence.
The late anthropologist, Dr. Dian Fossey was the first to bring the plight of mountain gorillas to the world. The work that she completed at the Karisoke™ Research Center did much for the preservation of gorillas in the wild, and that research is continuing from facilities relocated to a town outside the national park. The trek to the ruins of Karisoke™ and the gorilla cemetery where she is also buried is not for the
faint at heart. The entire trek through knee-deep mud took approximately five hours. At over 10,000 ft, there was an eerie silence around us in the misty forest where we were brought to tears as a mixture of emotions flooded our minds – relief that we made it, grief for the loss of so many buried at the gravesite, and joy for having fulfilled a dream.
On every trek, we arrived safely due to the invaluable help of many local Rwandans. Porters carried our gear, helping us avoid dangers in our path, such as stinging nettles, fire ants, and forest elephants, cut a path through the dense forest with machetes, and often kept us from falling. Many of these men or their family members were former poachers, and are hired by trekkers for $10/day, which helps to secure the future of the mountain gorillas. The national park guides led the way, teaching us the rules we were required to follow to avoid exposing the gorillas to human-borne
illnesses, and also about the gorillas themselves. Our guide on the Kwitonda trek was a former porter for Dr. Fossey and is clearly dedicated to the gorillas and the education of visitors. Trackers, also employed by the national parks, have a vital role in the treks, as well. They stay with the gorillas from the time the gorillas wake up until they go to sleep each night, not only habituating the gorillas to human presence, but also monitoring the animals for signs of illness or injury on a daily basis.
The Gorilla Doctors of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) are essential to the survival of the subspecies. They respond to alerts from trackers of any illness or injury, and perform monthly visual health checks of every habituated gorilla family, keeping extensive medical histories of each individual, monitoring illnesses and injuries, and treating the gorillas if these are life-threatening or caused by humans.
Established by the Morris Animal Foundation in 1986, the MGVP began as the Volcano Veterinary Center in Rwanda at the request of Dr. Fossey. At that time, there were fewer than 300 mountain gorillas alive, with their population rapidly decreasing. Dr. James Foster, formerly of the Woodland Park Zoo, served as the project’s first veterinarian and director. Even through the 1994 genocide, he continued to advocate for the gorillas. The current executive director, Dr. Mike Cranfield, formerly of the Toronto and Maryland Zoos, broadened the program to also include the healthcare of both mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. We were extremely lucky to meet and have dinner with Dr. Mike, along with his colleague, Dr. Jan Ramer, who was there at that time on sabbatical from the Indianapolis Zoo. With the support of its donors, conservation groups, and the wildlife authorities in the countries in which the gorillas live, the MGVP’s international team of more than a dozen veterinarians and health experts is currently the only group providing the remaining wild mountain gorillas with hands-on care in the Virunga
Volcanoes Massif and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
In the late 1990s, the Gorilla Doctors began developing projects to improve the health of the humans and animals living in the regions near the gorilla habitat. This “One Health” approach recognizes that in order to keep the mountain gorillas healthy, the community that surrounds it must also be healthy. To that end, the MGVP in partnership with UC Davis’ Wildlife Health Center (WHC) established the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program, which provides health care and education to the employees of the national parks, vaccines for pets, necropsies of deceased wildlife, as
well as conducting research into the interrelationship of health between species, training local veterinarians and wildlife conservationists, providing research opportunities for students in the U.S.A. such as UC Davis, and even advising government authorities about maintaining a healthy gorilla population.
In 2009, the Gorilla Doctors also began work on a 5-year grant given to UC Davis’ WHC from the US Agency for International Development’s Emerging Pandemic Threats program with the goal of helping “to detect and combat new zoonotic diseases in wildlife that could spark future human pandemics” through their PREDICT project, which involves sample collection from many species of wildlife in the national parks and the surrounding regions within Rwanda and Uganda, with analysis at local labs.
The longer we were there, the more evident it became that this subspecies faces many challenges which could result in the eventual extinction of this magnificent species, which currently consists of fewer than 800 individuals in Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC. Rwanda is a very small beautiful country, however, it is running out of space for all of its citizens. The beautiful hillsides leading up to Virunga National Park are now deforested to make way for new homes and gardens. The loss of habitat was increasingly clear when we stepped back to view the majesty of the volcanoes. The
“buffalo wall” that separates the farmland from the forest is obviously being pushed up the mountains. This resulting close proximity of the people to the gorillas greatly increases the risk of disease transmission.
Rwanda today is the most densely populated country in Africa with an estimated population of over 7,000,000 people, and the area surrounding the national park is one of the most densely populated on the continent and is rapidly growing due to immigration back into the now peaceful country after years of conflict. There have always been disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, but the
animosity between them had grown substantially since the colonial period leading up to the genocide. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda, a Hutu, and the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down. Violence began to erupt almost immediately after that event. Hutu extremists launched a plan to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Between April and July of 1994 the genocide resulted in the systematic massacre of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In April 2004, the Kigali Genocide Centre opened in honor of the victims of all genocides. We were deeply moved by the tragic stories we learned about during our visit there.
As soon as it became apparent that the genocide was over, an estimated 2,000,000 Hutus fled to the DRC and although the killing in Rwanda was over, the presence of Hutu militias in the DRC led to years of conflict resulting in the deaths of more than 5,000,000 people, and the conflict continues today.
Current unrest in the DRC has escalated; shelling is taking place in areas that are known to contain gorillas. In May of 2012, a reported 1,500 troops loyal to the military chief of staff of the rebel group entered the gorilla sector of the park. Virunga National Park, which employs 275 rangers for the entire park, was forced to withdraw staff from three of the five patrol posts located in the gorilla sector. Fighting between the rebels and the Congolese army broke out, culminating on May 13 with the Congolese shelling rebel positions within the park. At the time this was written, the conflict is preventing the park rangers and MGVP from monitoring the gorillas. The MGVP fears for the health and safety of the critically endangered mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park,which is home to about 200 of the world’s remaining 783 mountain gorillas.
Another ongoing danger to the gorillas in the DRC is that as a consequence of the desire by poachers to make money selling gorilla infants on the black market, adult gorillas are often killed when they try to protect their young. When authorities discover the locations of the orphans, they are confiscated and brought to a care facility for evaluation and treatment by the Gorilla Doctors. Here they have caretakers who help them recover from their traumas by providing care around the clock. Once they are deemed strong enough, the orphans can then move to one of two sanctuaries in the DRC – one located in Virunga National Park for mountain gorillas, the other at GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation And Conservation Education) sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas. So far, they have treated 18 confiscated mountain and Grauer’s gorilla orphans.
On a more positive note, in an effort to help raise awareness about mountain gorilla conservation status, both nationally and internationally, and to give the people of Rwanda a sense of ownership in the preservation of the gorillas and their habitat, the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks initiated the practice of publicly naming the mountain gorilla babies that are born in the habituated families. Kwita Izina is a Rwandan traditional ceremony during which newborn infants are introduced to the community. Kwita Izina for the gorillas is held in Kinigi near the base of the Sabyinyo
Volcano, and is attended by locals, conservationists, and tourists, as well as dignitaries and other special guests who have been given the privilege of choosing the names that year. On June 19, 2012, the people of Rwanda will have celebrated their eighth annual celebration to name the mountain gorillas that had been born during the previous twelve months. This year, not only will 19 babies have been named, but also a previously unknown adult female who has joined one of the groups.
While unrest in Rwanda is no longer a threat to the mountain gorillas, the continued increase in human population is one of the largest threats facing these beautiful animals as their habitat is continually under pressure from human encroachment. As the habitat in Rwanda decreases, it is forcing the mountain gorillas to move into the DRC which could result in more of their deaths due to the unrest in the country. It would be an unforgiveable tragedy to lose such a peaceful and majestic species, and while much of the current political strife is out of our hands, the dedicated people of the MGVP, the national parks, and concerned conservation groups will be continuing to strive to make sure that the mountain gorilla does not go extinct.
“It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolize everything that is aggressive and violent when that is one thing that the gorilla is not and that we are.” -Sir David Attenborough