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Gorilla Guardians

Meet the scientists and caretakers who work to protect these endangered apes

Marcus Westberg

This gorilla was rescued when its parents were killed 10 years ago. It now lives in a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

© Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors (Gaspard Nzayisenga)

Veterinarian Gaspard Nzayisenga (zah-yee-SEN-gah) works near a national park in the Central African country of Rwanda. One day in July 2020, a call came over the radio. A baby mountain gorilla was caught in a snare, or animal trap, that someone had set to catch antelope. The baby’s family had tried to pull the baby free, but that only tightened the snare.

Nzayisenga is part of an organization called Gorilla Doctors. It is one of several groups working to protect mountain gorillas and their habitat. Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of eastern gorilla. They are found only in the mountains between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see High-Up Home, below). The gorillas are endangered, so protecting each individual animal is important. 

Gaspard Nzayisenga (zah-yee-SEN-gah) is a veterinarian. He works near a national park in the Central African country of Rwanda. A call came over the radio one day in July 2020. Someone had set a snare to catch an antelope. But the animal trap had caught a baby mountain gorilla instead. The baby’s family had tried to pull it free. But that only tightened the snare.

Nzayisenga is part of a group called Gorilla Doctors. It works to protect mountain gorillas. They’re a subspecies of eastern gorilla. Mountain gorillas’ habitat is between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (see High-Up Home, right). The gorillas are endangered. So protecting each animal is important. 

Gorilla Doctors treat sick or injured gorillas. Then they release the animals back into the wild. They also treat orphaned gorillas at a sanctuary in the region. 

Veterinarians with the Gorilla Doctors treat sick or injured wild gorillas. They also treat gorillas that live at a sanctuary in the region, where caretakers raise orphaned gorillas in captivity. 

When Nzayisenga learned about the trapped baby, he and two other vets packed their gear and drove to the mountains. “We knew we had to get there quickly,” he says.

Nzayisenga heard about the trapped baby gorilla. He and two other vets jumped into action. They packed their gear. They drove to the mountains. “We knew we had to get there quickly,” Nzayisenga says.

© Gorilla Doctors

Workers who interact with wild gorillas wear masks to prevent the spread of disease.

Shrinking Home

Mountain gorillas live about 2,500 to 4,000 meters (8,200 to 13,100 feet) high in the mountaintop forests. Their thick fur protects them from temperatures that drop below freezing. The apes spend their days roaming the forest in troops, or family groups, of 10 to 20 individuals, eating wild fruits, tree bark, and other plant material.

Mountain gorillas live in forests. They sit atop mountains about 2,500 to 4,000 meters (8,200 to 13,100 feet) high. The apes have thick fur. It protects them from the cold. They roam the forests in troops. These family groups contain 10 to 20 gorillas. The troops search for food, like wild fruits, tree bark, and other plant parts.

Marcus Westberg

Adult male gorillas are called silverbacks because of the silver stripe on their backs. Mountain gorillas live in family groups of 10 to 20 individuals called troops.

For more than 100 years, the human population near the gorillas’ habitat has been growing. As people take up more space and cut down trees where mountain gorillas live, the gorillas have had to move farther uphill. Wars in the region have also led to many gorillas being killed.

To protect the gorillas, governments have created national parks where it’s illegal to interfere with wildlife. But people still enter the parks to illegally harvest wood or trap animals for food. Poachers don’t usually target gorillas. But the snares they set for other animals can harm or kill the apes.

Plus, because gorillas are closely related to people, they are vulnerable to human illnesses. Encounters with humans put them at risk of catching diseases such as Ebola or Covid-19.

For more than 100 years, the human population near the gorillas’ habitat has been growing. As people take up more space and cut down trees where mountain gorillas live, the gorillas have had to move farther uphill. Wars in the region have also led to many gorillas being killed.

To protect the gorillas, governments have created national parks where it’s illegal to interfere with wildlife. But people still enter the parks to illegally harvest wood or trap animals for food. Poachers don’t usually target gorillas. But the snares they set for other animals can harm or kill the apes.

Plus, because gorillas are closely related to people, they are vulnerable to human illnesses. Encounters with humans put them at risk of catching diseases such as Ebola or Covid-19.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Researcher Winnie Eckardt searches the forest for clues to track and count gorillas.

Protection From People

The Virunga Mountains, where Nzayisenga works, are home to most of the world’s mountain gorillas. By the 1980s, this population had dwindled to only 242 individuals. Dian Fossey, an American primatologist who had studied gorillas since 1967, set out to protect them. Before she died in 1985, her organization hired the first veterinarian to treat gorillas in Rwanda. That work led to the founding of Gorilla Doctors. 

The Karisoke (kahr-ee-SOH-kee) Research Center in northern Rwanda also continues the work that Fossey started. Its staff checks on groups of mountain gorillas daily. They also help villagers develop new farming techniques so they don’t need to hunt in the forest to survive.

To find out if these efforts are working, scientists count mountain gorillas. They hike through the forest and collect the apes’ droppings. The dung contains DNA that scientists can use to identify each gorilla. In 2016, a research team led by Karisoke scientist Winnie Eckardt (EK-ert) used this method to count 604 gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. That’s the most ever found in the area! “There’s strong evidence that the population is growing,” says Eckardt.

Nzayisenga works in the Virunga Mountains. They’re home to most of the world’s mountain gorillas. There were only 242 of them by the 1980s. Dian Fossey set out to protect them. She was an American primatologist who had studied gorillas since 1967. Before she died in 1985, she hired the first veterinarian to treat the gorillas. That led to the founding of Gorilla Doctors. 

Another group is continuing the work that Fossey started. It’s the Karisoke (kahr-ee-SOH-kee) Research Center. It’s in northern Rwanda. Its staff checks on groups of mountain gorillas daily. They also help villagers develop new farming practices. That way they don’t need to hunt in the forest to survive.

Scientists count mountain gorillas to learn if these efforts are working. They hike through the forest. They collect the apes’ droppings. The dung contains the animals’ DNA. Scientists can use it to identify each gorilla. 

Winnie Eckardt (EK-ert) is a Karisoke scientist. She led a research team in 2016. They used this method to count 604 gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. That’s the most ever found in the area! “There’s strong evidence that the population is growing,” says Eckardt.

Marcus Westberg

A caretaker cradles an injured gorilla before it is treated by Gorilla Doctors vets.

Rescue Mission

Back in July 2020, the Gorilla Doctors vets hiked for hours up the mountain. When they reached the trapped baby gorilla, the rest of the troop was gone. They gave the baby medicine to calm it down. They released it from the snare and cleaned its wounds. 

Finally, the team carried the baby about 500 meters (0.3 miles) to its troop. When they set it down, a male gorilla scooped it up and passed it to its mother. “Being able to see that reunion was spectacular,” says Nzayisenga. 

Mountain gorillas are the only wild apes whose numbers are increasing. But that doesn’t mean the work of the conservation groups is done. “I feel positive about the population’s growth,” says Nzayisenga. “But the threats are still there.” 

The Gorilla Doctors hiked for hours up the mountains back in July 2020. They finally reached the trapped baby gorilla. But the rest of the troop was gone. They gave the baby medicine to calm it down. They freed it from the snare. They cleaned its wounds. 

Finally, the team found the baby’s troop. They set it down. A male gorilla scooped it up. He passed the baby to its mother. “Being able to see that reunion was spectacular,” says Nzayisenga. 

Mountain gorillas are the only wild apes whose numbers are rising. But that doesn’t mean the work of groups like Gorilla Doctors is done. “I feel positive about the population’s growth,” says Nzayisenga. “But the threats are still there.” 

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