Conservation program looks after mountain gorillas, human neighbors

Published on May 16, 2009
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The University of California-Davis has started the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program in the School of Veterinary Medicine's Wildlife Health Center.

The new program partners with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, established in 1986 by the Morris Animal Foundation at the request of primatologist Dian Fossey. The veterinary school initiative will support gorilla conservation by addressing human health, livestock health, and agricultural issues in the central Africa region where the gorillas live.

Mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas are threatened by war, poaching, decreasing
habitat, and infection from ecotourists.

Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project staff
Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project staff remove a snare from
a sedated gorilla.

The MGVP's longtime director, Dr. Michael Cranfield, has joined the UC-Davis staff and will continue to oversee the work of the project's seven veterinarians and 12 technicians and staff members in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The collaboration with UC-Davis will help improve the health and welfare of the humans and animals living around the gorillas," Dr. Cranfield said. "This in turn acts as a buffer to help prevent disease—the gorillas' leading cause of death—from entering the park and affecting gorilla families."

The Mountain Gorilla One Health Program will investigate disease threats facing mountain gorillas, help expand medical care for the humans working in and around the gorilla parks, and improve the health and well-being of livestock to benefit the families who depend on them for nutrition and income.

It is expected that the program will create expanded research opportunities for UC-Davis veterinary, medical, and graduate students at the university and in the gorillas' habitat. The program will also allow veterinary staff and biologists from Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to obtain advanced clinical and scientific training.

Combined with antipoaching patrols and habitat-protection efforts of the Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese governments and other organizations, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project's medical program has helped increase the number of mountain gorillas by 17 percent during the past decade, making the mountain gorilla the only wild great ape whose numbers are rising.

"Over the years, several faculty members here at UC-Davis have been integral to the conservation of mountain gorillas, so it feels very fitting that UC-Davis form this partnership with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project," said Dr. Bennie I. Osburn, dean of the UC-Davis SVM.

Mountain gorillas remain extremely vulnerable. They live in a fragmented habitat surrounded by the densest human populations in Africa. Their forests are sometimes in war zones and are cut down for production of charcoal. They fall victim to snares set by poachers for gorillas and other "bush meat" animals such as small antelope and monkeys.

Gorilla ecotourism is an important source of revenue for the communities that surround the parks in which the gorillas live, but the gorillas sometimes range outside park boundaries and raid farmers' crops.

And since gorillas and humans are so closely related genetically, gorilla health is strongly influenced by the health of people working and living nearby, and even by ecotourists, who come within 20 feet of gorilla families. Veterinarians are particularly worried that people could transmit common colds, measles, or other illnesses to the gorillas.

"The complexity of the issues surrounding mountain gorilla health and conservation spurred the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to seek new ties with an academic institution that could provide expertise in human medicine, veterinary medicine, and agriculture," said Dr. Kirsten Gilardi, assistant director of the veterinary school's Wildlife Health Center and head of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program. "UC-Davis was the perfect fit."

The Mountain Gorilla One Health Program is made possible by $750,000 in funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.