The similarities between a cat and a 450-pound gorilla are few. Still, the animals' physiologies are such that clinical lessons learned from treating the former can help with the latter. So goes the thinking behind a program training African veterinarians in the United States so they can better help endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The training is part of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project Inc., inspired by the famed gorilla researcher Dian Fossey and instituted shortly after her death 20 years ago. The project had been overseen by the Morris Animal Foundation until the nonprofit gorilla project became affiliated with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore more than a year ago.
When Fossey first began studying the gorillas in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, the gorilla population in the region was estimated at around 240. Today, that number has climbed to approximately 340, with about the same number of gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.
The project itself has also grown. Five African and two U.S. veterinarians currently staff the project fulltime, along with a number of researchers studying the health impacts of human and animal interactions. The center's regional headquarters are located in Rwanda and at the Wildlife and Animal Resource Management Department of the veterinary school in Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.
"A measure of the MGVP's success is the population of mountain gorillas has gone up 17 percent in the last 10 years," said project manager, Dr. Michael Cranfield, also director of Animal Health, Research, and Conservation at the Maryland Zoo. Mountain gorillas, Dr. Cranfield observed, are one of only two populations of primates making a comeback in the wild. (Golden lion tamarins of South America are also rebounding.)
Dr. Cranfield succeeded Dr. James Foster as MGVP director shortly after Dr. Foster died of a heart attack while in Rwanda in 1997. Dr. Cranfield described the project as working in three broad areas—capacity building by enhancing regional wildlife facilities and staff knowledge, researching animal health, and providing veterinary care to the gorillas. Each aspect of the MGVP mission is for the overall purpose of preserving and expanding Africa's mountain gorilla population. The project is, according to Dr. Cranfield, considered a model for other conservation endeavors, and many of the tools developed by the project are being used by other conservation groups.
One of the project's latest undertakings has been bringing African veterinarians to the United States for an intensive, six-week training course. So far, four veterinarians—one each from Rwanda and Uganda and two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—have completed the course, which started in March of this year. The next pair of veterinarians is expected to arrive in January.
The course offers hands-on training in a variety of settings that the veterinarians can't get back home. They treat primates at the Maryland Zoo, assist with necropsies at Johns Hopkins Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology, and learn from Safe Capture International Inc., how to subdue animals.
The visiting veterinarians also serve a stint at Falls Road Animal Hospital, a small animal clinic in Baltimore, where they get plenty of clinical exposure by doing everything from taking vital signs and working on clinical plans with the attending veterinary staff. In addition, they participate in advanced educational courses on the computer.
"They work here tirelessly. We work with them pretty much seven days a week, 12 hours a day," said hospital owner, Dr. Kim Hammond, who personally finances the veterinarians' learning experience in America.
"By educating these veterinarians to certain disease processes, when a gorilla gets an upper-respiratory tract infection or comes down with a parasitic infection that could be devastating to the population as a whole, these guys can now take care of it," Dr. Hammond noted.
According to Dr. Cranfield, local veterinarians working with the MGVP have limited clinical training because of the depressed economics of the region and lack of educational facilities. (The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to two veterinary schools, Uganda has one supported by the MGVP, but Rwanda has no veterinary school.)
"The veterinarians have the theory down, but they need to get into a busy practice where they see veterinarians making clinical plans and giving a diagnosis and a prognosis," Dr. Cranfield said. "They need to set catheters and do the minor work they don't get to do over there. As is the case with any veterinarian, the procedure has to be very repetitive until it becomes second nature.
"All in all, it's a pretty well-rounded program, and it's a matter of a concentrated effort. They wouldn't get the number of cases in two years (in Africa) that they would get here in six weeks."
Considering the precariousness of the mountain gorillas' situation, top-notch veterinary care is essential to the species' survival. As a matter of policy, the MGVP will intervene in the gorillas' existence with veterinary care only when the problem is human-induced, such as an injury from a poacher's snare, or when a condition threatens the animal's life.
During its early years, the project's efforts were small in scope, limited to up to four medical interventions a year and the occasional necropsy to determine how a gorilla died. Nowadays, the project is more aggressive, opting for an approach that Dr. Cranfield says takes into account the gorillas' entire ecosystem. The thinking is that, since the gorillas are influenced by the environment, people, and other animals, a realistic conservation strategy must address all these factors.
Dr. Lucy Spellman, a former director of the National Zoologic Park in Washington, D.C., who left for Rwanda in October as one of the project's new U.S. field veterinarians, described the MGVP mission as being driven by a one-health concept.
"Our health is connected to the animals and the places we live," Dr. Spellman said. "The project is directly involved in trying to improve the health of not just the mountain gorillas but also the place they live and their interface with the people who live on the borders of the parks."
Dr. Cranfield added, "The mountain gorillas are still our absolute focus, but we've taken a much broader approach." He explained how the area surrounding the gorillas' habitat is densely populated. With approximately 500 people per square kilometer, the pressure to encroach on the gorilla's habitat via agriculture is great.
Then there are the ecotourists, a booming source of revenue for the impoverished region yet one that exposes most of the gorillas to as many as 3,000 people a year. Mountain gorillas are susceptible to naturally occurring pathogens such as Ebola virus, but tuberculosis and other human and livestock diseases also pose serious threats.
"Bush meat and logging are probably the two leading causes to decreasing gorilla numbers in general, with disease being third. Because the mountain gorillas are in protected areas, the first two factors take a backseat to disease," Dr. Cranfield said. He referred to an MGVP study illustrating the biologic interplay between human and animal populations. Researchers found that people, cattle, and gorillas living in or around the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda share three identical intestinal parasites.
For these reasons, the MGVP has instituted a number of public and animal health initiatives. For instance, anyone potentially interacting with the gorillas, from trackers to veterinarians, is part of an MGVP employee health care program designed to screen and treat ill people while also keeping people with contagious diseases away from the animals. Around 600 people in Rwanda and the DRC are enrolled in the program, started in 2000 and believed to be the first of its kind for a wildlife conservation program, according to Dr. Cranfield.
Additionally, MGVP staff recently helped a local veterinarian establish a vaccination program during a rabies outbreak among feral dogs roaming the community and mountain jungle.
Although the MGVP was initially founded for the purpose of bringing back the dwindling population of mountain gorillas from the edge of extinction, over the years, its work has had far-reaching effects. "The project saves the gorillas, it saves the environment, and it provides good health support for the people there," Dr. Kim Hammond said. "It's undoubtedly a great project."