Meet the Wildlife Veterinarians Saving Mountain Gorillas in Central Africa

Deep in the forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a group of wildlife vets—including Canadian Emily Denstedt—is working to bring the great apes back from the brink of extinction.

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save gorillas (gorilla with baby)
Photo: Andrey Gudkov/Alamy Stock Photo

“Be prepared for the unknown.”

On an early January morning in 2018, Emily Denstedt and her fellow Gorilla Doctors trekked single file into the thick fern and vines of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They were searching for Buzinza, the matriarch of the Rushegura mountain-gorilla group, because they feared she had broken her arm.

Mountain gorillas tend to move around a lot, so it’s not always easy to find them, and this was the team’s second day on Buzinza’s trail. The doctors had spent all of the previous morning and afternoon tracking the gorilla’s family, only to have Buzinza scamper into a treetop when they finally spotted her. She stayed there until nightfall—too late and too dark for an intervention.

The team was luckier the next day, however. They had to push through the forest for only a few minutes before coming upon Buzinza and the rest of her family—nearly 20 gorillas in all—gathered in a small clearing. She was on the ground eating leaves while her three-year-old clung to her back.

Denstedt was nervous approaching the gorillas. She always is. “You just have to cross your fingers that it’s going to go well, but be prepared for the unknown,” she says. “I always hope I can do a good job and not let my team down.”

Gorilla Doctors is an international group of about 25 wildlife veterinar­ians, biologists and support staff dedicated to keeping the world’s 1,000 mountain gorillas from going extinct. The NGO serves the health needs of the animals living in this forest, as well as those inhabiting the nearby Virunga Massif: three contiguous national parks spanning the borderlands of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Denstedt, 31, joined the team in 2017, three years after earning a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. In between, she treated animals at an emergency clinic in London, Ont., close to where she grew up—but she felt drawn to more natural environs than the sterile spaces where city vets work. “I’ve always been passionate about wildlife medicine,” she says. “I like working with people’s pets, but it was not the difference I wanted to make for the world.”

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save gorillas team
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Emily Denstedt

“There are only really two scenarios where we’ll do an intervention…”

The animal habitats where Gorilla Doctors work are surrounded by some of the highest rural human-population densities on the planet. And people, as it turns out, make terrible neighbours. Mountain gorillas have always faced habitat destruction and poaching at the hands of the humans in their midst. They die because of civil unrest and military conflict; they get caught in snares hunters set for antelope; and they risk catching human respiratory diseases. As a result of all that, the mountain-gorilla population has languished between 300 and 400 for most of the last 30 years.

When a species is so critically endangered, the survival of every individual matters. Such a serious situation calls for “extreme conservation.”

Conventional wildlife conservation efforts try to limit the negative human effects on an individual species or specific ecosystem—by protecting wildlife habitat against industrial pollution, say, or by enforcing rules against hunting. The extreme version takes a more hands-on approach by increasing our positive influence.

For Gorilla Doctors, that means protecting the species by saving them one at a time. Forty-two groups of habituated gorillas—those families that have grown accustomed to humans—are continually monitored during daylight hours by trackers who follow them through the forest. They also receive monthly health checks by local field veterinarians who examine stool samples and watch for visible signs of injury or disease, such as weight-loss, weakness, laboured breathing or a discoloured coat. When a gorilla shows any of these symptoms, the team discusses whether or not to step in.

“There are only really two scenarios where we’ll do an intervention,” Denstedt explains. “The first is if humans were responsible—such as when a gorilla gets caught in a snare. The second is when we’re pretty sure they are not going to pull through on their own. Otherwise we let nature do its thing.” Besides freeing gorillas from traps and treating the subsequent wounds, Gorilla Doctors have most often intervened to care for serious respiratory infections and injuries caused by conflicts between the animals themselves.

Gorilla Doctors’ African field vets make most of these forest “house calls.” The Rwandan government, in particular, prefers they send local doctors to treat gorillas rather than relying on foreign veterinarians. But for cases that require X-rays or ultrasounds—technology that Rwandans are not usually trained to use—Denstedt gets called in.

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Save gorillas
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Emily Denstedt

“We were worried that she might have a fracture…”

The events leading to the decision to treat Buzinza began a week before the team headed into the forest to find her. The trackers responsible for monitoring the Rushegura gorilla group noticed that Buzinza hadn’t used her right arm for several days. “We were worried that she might have a fracture,” Denstedt said, “because gorillas sometimes fall from trees.”

Normally such an injury wouldn’t warrant an intervention—a human didn’t break Buzinza’s arm, nor was the injury necessarily life-threatening. Still, Buzinza seemed to be getting worse, and the team suspected something else might be wrong. If Buzinza died, chances are her baby would die, too, especially if it was still nursing.

Denstedt and Dr. Mike Cranfield, Gorilla Doctors’ co-director at the time, gathered all the medical supplies they might need to tend to Buzinza’s arm, including orthopaedic equipment for potential surgery. They waited a week for a suitcase-sized portable X-ray machine to be delivered from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then assembled a team that also included two Ugandan field veterinarians, a veterinary student, a park warden and a small group of trackers and porters.

When they found Buzinza and her baby on that second day of searching, the team slowly unpacked their gear. One of the field veterinarians, Dr. Fred Nizeyimana, loaded a pink-tailed anaesthesia dart into an air pistol and carefully crept toward Buzinza using two of the porters as cover. The gorillas of Bwindi have learned to recognize the dart guns, so vets must remain hidden until they are within range. Even gorillas hate to get their shots.

Buzinza flinched when the dart hit her. She clamoured away but went down quickly, slumping onto the forest floor. At first, the team feared she might roll into a nearby stream and dreaded having to rescue her from drowning, but Buzinza grew still. Her baby seemed unperturbed by both its mother’s sudden slumber and the humans who emerged from the trees. The youngster quietly watched the masked-and-gloved doctors for a few minutes before getting bored and wandering off.

This was fortunate, Denstedt says. Baby gorillas often panic and scream when their mothers go under, and this can distress the whole group. Sometimes babies need to be anaesthetized just to keep everyone calm—doctors and gorillas alike.

Suspicious silverbacks can cause even more trouble by deciding to “protect” their sleeping kin and threaten the approaching doctors. They may even charge and bite, so porters and trackers must stand in a perimeter around the working veterinarians.

On this day, though, the entire Rushegura group was just as unimpressed by the doctors as Buzinza’s baby was.

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Baby gorilla
Photo: Skyler Bishop

“There’s just something about looking at the face of a gorilla. It feels human-like.”

In her former role as an ER vet, Denstedt handled intensive cases—dogs run over by cars, for example, or feline cancers. Although she’s trained to focus on her task, she finds it impossible not to form an emotional connection with the animals she treats. “All my patients matter to me,” she says. “Most of them have names, and if you spend enough time with them you feel responsible for their care.”

The similarity between the gorillas and humans brings an even greater sense of connection. “When they look at you, you can almost sense this extra level of understanding and intelligence,” Denstedt explains. “I think dogs are smart, but there’s just something about looking at the face of a gorilla. It feels human-like.”

The gorillas behave like humans, too. Denstedt recalls how juvenile gorillas will often sneak up on a tracker or a guide, touch their leg, then scurry off as if playing a game of tag. Gorillas are not supposed to get that close to humans, and the trackers scold these youngsters with repetitive grunts that indicate—in mock gorilla language—that they should stop messing around. Like naughty children everywhere, though, some of them ignore the rebuke and sneak up to tag again.

Sometimes the gorillas even seem to know the doctors’ intentions. In September 2017, a baby named Mayani of the Rugendo group was caught in a poacher’s snare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Trackers had managed to cut Mayani loose, but Gorilla Doctors were called in to remove a length of nylon cord tightly wound around the baby’s wrist.

When the field team darted Mayani with anaesthetic, the males in the group became agitated and aggressive. But the dominant silverback, Bukima, would not tolerate such machismo. He paced back and forth between the Gorilla Doctors team and the other silverbacks and vocalized at them to calm down until the team had finished removing the snare.

The incident was even more remarkable considering that 10 years earlier, criminals illegally harvesting wood for charcoal had attacked the Rugendo group and killed seven of the family’s 12 gorillas, including a 225-kilogram silverback. Bukima, now in his late teens, would have been present during that event, but he somehow knew the doctors meant no harm.

Denstedt wonders if Bukima remembered one of the doctors’ previous benign visits, but she cannot know for sure. “There’s a level of understanding in animals that we may never be able to decode,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing that gives you goosebumps.”

While the members of Buzinza’s group continued to graze and climb in the surrounding forest, the intervention team hoisted the dozing gorilla onto a tarp and hooked her to a pulse oximeter that monitored her heart rate and her blood’s oxygen levels. Her vitals were stable. Denstedt noticed inflamed, tooth-sized puncture wounds on the gorilla’s injured arm and swelling around her elbow joint. This was not a break; it was a bite. Gorilla families squabble, too, and Denstedt suspects Buzinza had tussled with another member of her group. Cranfield trimmed the hair away from the puncture—a wound matted with pus and serum will attract flies. Then he flushed the area clean.

Afterward, Denstedt lifted Buzinza’s injured arm and gently placed it on an X-ray plate. The image that appeared confirmed there was no fracture. Instead, Buzinza was suffering from osteomyelitis, an aggressive bone lesion brought on by an infection caused by the bite. “That type of condition is incredibly serious,” Denstedt says. “If a human had osteomyel­itis, they would be in the hospital on IV antibiotics. It’s amazing that Buzinza was walking around like that for a number of days.” Without treatment, she would likely die of sepsis.

Denstedt spent about 15 minutes taking X-rays of Buzinza’s arm and shoulder. As she worked, Denstedt soothed her: “You’re all right. You’re fine.” Denstedt whispers these words to all her patients—dogs, cats and gorillas alike.

“It’s hard to know what they are comforted by and how much they really feel when we are touching them. But you still find yourself saying reassuring things,” Denstedt explains. “I don’t know that it calms them in any way. Maybe it just calms us.”

The treatment took about an hour. The Gorilla Doctors gave Buzinza injections of antibiotics, vitamins and anti-inflammatory medication. Then they administered a drug to counteract the anaesthesia and watched as she groggily came to. They observed her until she was able to move steadily, again making sure she didn’t stumble into the stream, then left her alone to join her family.

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Gorilla headquarters
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Emily Denstedt

“I do hope that one day the gorillas won’t need human intervention to survive.”

The Gorilla Doctors’ extreme conservation approach is working. A 2011 study revealed that habituated gorilla groups who received veter­inary treatment showed twice the population-growth rate as those that did not. And overall, the species’ numbers keep rising. The most recent census of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif, conducted in 2016, counted more than 600 members, an increase of 124 since 2010. Combined with the estimated 400 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the mountain-gorilla population has surpassed 1,000 for the first time ever.

In November 2018, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the status of the mountain gorilla from critically endangered to endangered—another sign of success.

As for Buzinza, trackers and field veterinarians monitored her over the next five weeks and continued to dart her with doses of antibiotics. She recovered steadily. “We don’t have any X-rays after treatment, so I don’t know what the bone looks like now, but Buzinza is doing a lot better,” Denstedt says. “She’s climbing again.”

Buzinza’s treatment continues to inspire Denstedt and remind her of the difference she and Gorilla Doctors can make. By documenting a bone infection in the species for the first time, then successfully treating it, the team now has a proven protocol for when they next confront something similar. On top of that, Denstedt is proud to have contributed to another intervention that saved the life of one more gorilla.

As much as she loves the work, though, Denstedt looks forward to a future when it’s no longer required. “I do hope that one day the gorillas, and the many other animal species facing extinction, won’t need human intervention to survive,” she says. “And that gorillas will be around for a long, long time so that others like me can know how it feels to enjoy them—whether it be through the television, in a brilliant photograph or while sitting quietly in the forest watching a group in the distance go about their day.”

Next, check out these photos of the rarest animals on Earth.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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