Ruhengeri — Noel was born on Christmas Eve in 2003. He was nurtured for the first 4 years of his life by a large mountain gorilla family led by his father, Senkwekwe.
They foraged peacefully on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes above Bukima, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the summer of 2007 his life changed forever.
His mother and father were brutally murdered in front of him, along with several other family members including Ndeze’s mother (Ndeze is now happily living with her friend Ndakasi at Senkwekwe Centre in Rumangabo). Noel was seriously injured with a machete during that massacre.
He and Ndeze were helplessly behind the fleeing group and unable to keep up; he would certainly not survive on his own. But they were rescued by a young black back named Kongomani, who turned back to pick up Ndeze, and carrying her he also helped young, injured Noel to safety.
Gorilla Doctors had to anesthetize Noel to suture his wounds, just a few days after the massacre. Fortunately he recovered well and returned to the small remaining group. Kongomani and Noel have been great friends since.
On New Year’s Eve 2009, trackers found Noel unable to eat because his face was very swollen, and he had a bloody nose. He lived in the remnant group now led by the silverback Bukima. Nobody knew exactly what had happened to Noel.
Dr. Eddy was notified, and went to assess Noel on New Year’s Day. Noel was worse — his eyes were swollen nearly shut, his lips were extremely swollen, and he was in so much pain that when he put food in his mouth, he could not chew at all; the food simply fell out of his mouth.
We spoke with Emmanuel at ICCN (the wildlife authority of DRC), and decided together that this was a potentially life threatening situation for poor Noel. Dr. Eddy, Dr. Jacques and Dr. Arthur (the ICCN veterinarian) and I discussed our options for helping Noel.
First and foremost Noel must be able to eat. Mountain Gorillas rarely drink water — nearly their entire fluid intake comes from the food they eat. If Noel could not eat for another day, he risked becoming very seriously dehydrated. We discussed the pros and cons of fully anesthetizing him versus attempting to deliver powerful anti-inflammatory medicines in a flying dart. We came up with various theories as to what happened to him — a fall, a blow to the face, snake or spider bite — but we would likely never know.
We wondered if he had a broken or dislocated jaw, or lacerated tongue. We discussed the fact that Noel was good friends with Kongomani, who is a large black back, and also with Bukima, the silverback in the group. This meant that we would need to be very careful in our intervention. Basically, we tried to prepare for anything.
I drove to Goma on January 2, so that we could begin our journey in the wee hours of the next morning. That night I went over and over in my head all of the possible scenarios, and how we might deal with them.
Eventually I fell asleep, only to hear my alarm at 5:00 a.m.! Drs. Jacques, Eddy and Arthur picked me up at the hotel, and we drove the one and a half hours to Rumangabo, then another hour over muddy, lava boulder roads to Bukima, a tracker camp near the forest edge. This was our starting point to visit Noel’s group. There we met with the trackers and porters who accompanied us into the forest.
As we walked along the edge of the forest I was haunted by the thought of what had happened here, in this very forest, only three years ago. Poor Noel has endured such horror and pain, and now this. I so hoped we could help him. We only had to walk about thirty minutes before the trackers let us know that the group was just inside the forest. We left the porters at the forest edge, and took one tracker with us to assess the situation. We passed the silverback, who was quietly monitoring the situation closely.
Then we saw Noel through the foliage, sitting with Kongomani. BOTH were eating! Noel was actually pulling leaves and pushing them deep into the right side of his mouth and CHEWING! We were so relieved! His lips were still quite swollen, but so much better!
These animals are so tough. Noel and Kongomani sat together for most of the hour we were there, eating and resting. At one point they laid down, and while Noel slept, Kongomani ever so gently reached over and touched Noel’s swollen lip with his finger, like a father would a child.
Then he settled down to rest a bit, and we quietly moved out of the forest to let them be. No intervention today — Yay!
Adventures in Climate Change