by Dr. Jan Ramer
I finally got my DRC visa and last week got to visit Rumangabo, Senkwekwe Center and 2 gorilla groups at Bukima – it was soooo great to be back! And I was lucky to share this visit with Niall McCann, his fiancé Rachael and volunteer Kacie Miller. During our fun week filming with Niall in Uganda (for Biggest
and Baddest - Gryphon/Wild Planet Productions for Animal Planet and ITV networks) I mentioned that I would be visiting Rumangabo and Senkwekwe Center soon – Niall was very interested in this adventure so all the necessary arrangements were made, and away we went!
We met Drs. Jacques, Eddy and Martin at the border and once the formalities were completed and when we crossed, Goma was just as I remembered it - crazy noisy and crowded, and above all alive with people, bicycles, cars, motos, cooking smells, honking horns and people going about their business. So nice to see, after all of the insecurity the past 2 years. We didn’t waste any time in Goma though, because we wanted to reach Rumangabo before noon so as soon as we crossed the border we headed north. The road to Rumangabo goes right past Nyiragongo, the active volcano that erupted and covered Goma in lava in 2002, but it was so hazy we could barely see the ever-present steam plume at the top. We traveled past villages that only months ago were a war zone, but were now once again carrying on with normal village life.
When we arrived in Rumangabo, location of the Virunga National Park Headquarters, I was happy to see a number of old friends including Emmanuel De Merode, the Chief Park Warden, and Christian Shamavu, the ranger who is in charge of the working dogs. So nice to see everyone again, even the dogs (which include 4 bloodhounds and 2 sniffer spaniels). The dog pack had been recently increased by the importation of the spaniels and another bloodhound, and by a surprise puppy born to the new bloodhound – his name is Bonus! Of course all dogs and especially Bonus needed a small visit from the veterinarians.
Next was a quick but fun visit to Senkwekwe center – I was shocked at how big Ndeze and Ndakasi grew in the two years since I’d seen them last! But they were just as mischeivious and funny as ever during our visit. They tried to lure Niall into giving them his hand, but he was way to savvy for that! Maisha is such a good mother to Matabishi, and he was a confident little guy strutting his stuff for our benefit. They are thriving, and I was so very happy to see them again (and of course meet little Matabishi)!
That evening we headed to Bukima so that we could get up early to trek to Humba group for a routine health check, specifically to check on Gashangi, the older female who had a cancerous mass surgically removed from her lip by Drs. Dawn and Eddy last October. We found Humba after a nice 3-hour hike in the forest and they were busy eating and resting when we found them. All looked well, but shy Gashangi was difficult to find. After about an hour and a half she was finally located, so Eddy, Martin and I crawled through a short vegetation tunnel and got a good look at her lip. Bad news – the mass has come back and is quite large. Fortunately she is not yet bothered by the mass and is in very good body condition. She is eating well, moving well, and rangers tell us she may be pregnant! We Gorilla Doctors, along with Emmanuel and the rangers, have some difficult decisions to make regarding Gashangi. Malignant melanoma is a difficult cancer and because it has come back so aggressively and quickly the prognosis is not good. We are consulting with our pathologist Dr. Linda Lowenstine, and an oncologist from UC Davis, and will be making recommendations for her medical care soon. She will be monitored very closely by rangers in the meantime.
The next morning we visited Munyaga group. This is a very calm group with 2 infants who played the whole time we were there! We saw Kadogo, the bald silverback too, who is not at all bothered by his shiny head. It was a great way to end our trip with such a content and healthy group. It was wonderful to be back in Congo and extra nice knowing that things are now stable and safe. Mikeno Lodge at Rumangabo is open and tourists are coming back to Virunga National Park. We are all hopeful that this stability will finally last.
Multiple snares were found and dismantled during Dr. Jan's recent health checks of the Virunga National Park gorilla groups. Here's a video of TV host/biologist Niall McCann and his fiance, Rachael, destroying a poacher's snare during one of the routine health checks with the Gorilla Doctors: