Just two days before this year’s gorilla-naming (Kwita Izina) festivities, a baby gorilla was found in the Volcanoes National Park, severely entangled in a poacher’s snare.
“Elizabeth Nyirakaragire, the Vet technician for Volcanoes National Park, and a group of trackers informed me about the baby gorilla, Icyamamare, whose hand had been caught in a wire snare, unable to free herself,” explains Dr Jean Felix Kinani, head veterinarian at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project/Gorilla Doctors.
Based in Musanze, Northern Province, the organisation delivers life-saving veterinary and medical interventions aimed at conserving the critically endangered mountain gorillas.
As head field veterinarian, Dr Kinani is charged with coordinating the overall health of the mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park.
In particular, field interventions like the one carried out on Sunday, June 29, are a major part of Dr Kinani’s work schedule.
This particular intervention took place in the Kampanga area of the Volcanoes, dense with gorilla populations, and standing at an altitude of 2,618m.
The purpose of the intervention was “snare removal and physical examination of baby gorilla Icyamamare,” says Kinani, who headed the intervention.
“When we arrived at the site, we found Icyamamare in the company of her sister, Agasaro, three other unidentified gorillas, and Munyinya, the silverback, protecting her,” he recollects.
“Agasaro was jumping up and down, and on two separate occasions during our visit, tried to crash the bamboo without success because the wire snare was long. As Icyamamare was trying to free herself, the wire got even more entangled around the bamboo trees, causing her left hand to remain hanging, which in the process made the wire too tight, causing Icyamamare much trauma and pain.”
Just like the vet team was here to rescue baby Icyamamare, so were her next of kin:
“Munyinya, the silverback was a little bit aggressive and trackers were not able to effectively cut the bamboo where the wire was attached. Habitually following our protocol, we were supposed to wait for the silverback to become less aggressive and do the intervention the following day, but according to the situation at hand, a veterinary assessment was needed and we decided to go check the group with Elizabeth on the same day to organise a possible intervention,” Dr Kinani said.
Although the baby gorilla’s body weight stood at approximately 35kg, it was prescribed and administered a dose meant for a 40kg baby, and Dr Kinani explains that this was to “help get a rapid induction as she was stressed and anxious.”
Luckily, Icyamamare’s first sign of induction came after only three minutes. The vet team attempted to free the baby, first by cutting at the bamboo stems with machetes, and the wire snare using a wire cutter.
According to Kinani, “No external lesion was observed on the left wrist where the wire was tied but there was a superficial wound (3cm large) on the left hand palm. We cleaned it with iodine solution and decided not to apply any antibiotics to the wound since it wasn’t infected.”
After taking the young primate’s blood samples, she was injected with ketoprofene on the left triceps muscle.
At the end of the intervention, Icyamamare had received a total 6.8mg of Atipamizole on the left thigh, and was joined first by Munyinya, the silverback, and later by the entire family who went to check on her. Agasaro, her sister, checked her hand which was covered in iodine.
After eleven years with the Gorilla Doctors, Dr Kinani has had his fair share of such veterinary field interventions: “We have a great team of vets and, besides our medical interventions and other extreme conservation practices, the mountain gorilla population has actually grown by 26 per cent.”
He further contends that they are the only surviving species of wild great apes that are still increasing in number.
The total population of the endangered species stands at over 600 in the Virunga Transboundary Parks, which Rwanda shares with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kinani links this impressive growth in the gorilla populations to the concerted efforts of government and partner conservation bodies, including the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
“Through our mandate of providing vet interventions and medical care to the mountain gorillas, and through the One Health programme of supporting the health of the human populations around the protected areas alongside the primates, we feel honoured to be a part of this success story,” he explains. “Through the revenue sharing programme initiated by the government, citizens living around protected areas receive 5 per cent of tourism proceeds, which is an effective way to combat poverty, reduce food insecurity, and improve general healthcare.”
About the Gorilla Doctors
Gorilla Doctors dedicates significant resources to help rescue and provide medical care to orphaned mountain gorillas.
All of the 26 mountain gorilla orphans that have been treated by the Gorilla Doctors over the years were orphaned by human attacks. Because of their perceived value as exotic pets, poachers capture young gorillas hoping to sell them on the black market. In order to take a baby gorilla alive, poachers usually kill the animal’s mother and any other gorilla trying to protect it.
When a gorilla is rescued, the orphan is brought to an interim care facility where it can be evaluated by the Gorilla Doctors. Rescued gorillas are often suffering from dehydration, mental distress, and wounds related to their capture and captivity.
The organisation’s field veterinary teams have successfully treated orphans with trauma, ranging from bullet wounds and rope burns, to gangrenous limbs.
As a result of stress and coming into contact with human germs, primates also develop respiratory diseases which can progress to pneumonia. Depending on the severity, respiratory disease is treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and intravenous fluids.
Dedicated human caretakers look after the orphans 24 hours a day to help them regain their strength and recover from their mental trauma. While the gorillas remain in human care, they receive regular physical exams and treatment for illness and injury.
The Gorilla Doctors are also on standby when orphans move from interim care facilities to sanctuaries. Whether or not these orphans will ever be returned to the wild will be a decision made by the wildlife authorities, and based on careful consideration of their chances of survival.
Currently, Gorilla Doctors is responsible for the health of four mountain gorilla orphans that live at the Senkwekwe sanctuary in Virunga National Park, DRC, where they are looked after by Virunga National Park caretakers.