About this Blog

Gorilla Doctors is dedicated to saving the mountain gorilla species one patient at a time. We are the only group providing wild mountain and Grauer's gorillas with direct, hands-on medicial care. Research has proven that by intervening to save sick and injured gorillas, the Gorilla Doctors have helped the overall mountain gorilla population to increase. Learn more at GorillaDoctors.org.

Your generous donation will directly support gorilla monitoring, life-saving medical interventions, and health studies to save the critically endangered gorillas

 

Thursday
Jan222015

Abaxis Europe Continues Critical Support of Gorilla Doctors Through Donation of Lab Equipment

Every year, our laboratories and field offices in Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda are outfitted with newly donated equipment and supplies, gradually broadening our capabilities and strengthening our capacity building efforts in the region. We rely on the generosity of companies such as Abaxis Europe, who has supplied our veterinarians with critical laboratory equipment like hematology and iStat machines and VS2 chemistry analyzers since 2011. Last week, Abaxis representative and long-time friend of Gorilla Doctors Bärbel Köhler made her annual trip to our Rwanda headquarters, equipped with a new VetScan VS2 and HM5 Hematology System.

Abaxis rep and Gorilla Doctors supporter Bärbel Köhler.
When Bärbel arrived in Rwanda, she made the ~2 hour drive to our Musanze regional headquarters and set up the new HM5 system in the lab with Regional Manager Dr. Jan and Rwanda Field Vet Dr. Noel. "Gorilla Doctors is very grateful to have this machine in our laboratory" said Dr. Jan. "With this system, we can continue to use top level hematology diagnostics to provide the best health care we can to the gorillas."

Dr. Noel and Bärbel Köhler set up the HM5 system in the Musanze laboratory. 
After a day in Musanze, Bärbel and Dr. Jan crossed the Rwanda/DRC border into Goma and arrived at the Gorilla Doctors Goma office / Laboratoire Veterinaire de Goma/Nord-Kivu. Here, Bärbel efficiently set up the VS2 and HM5 machines and conducted a thorough training session with Gorilla Doctors DRC lab manager and Employee Health Program manager Jean Paul (JP) Lukusa, as well as the Gorilla Doctors DRC field veterinarians and the regional veterinarians at the lab. 

Bärbel with Gorilla Doctors DRC staff in Goma.

Bärbel conducts a training session with the Gorilla Doctors staff and regional vets in Goma.

This event and installation of equipment was actually emotional for JP: “Having the ability to do our own labwork for gorilla medical cases has been our dream for years. Finally Congo has a functional laboratory, and the training to use it for endangered gorilla care.  We thank you Bärbel.”  Baerbel was also able to give a presentation on Abaxis projects worldwide including work being done at Jane Goodall sanctuaries, orangutan conservation projects and others, which was very interesting to the team in Goma. 

Gorilla Doctors staff, regional veterinarians and Bärbel gather for a photo outside of the Goma lab.
Wrapping things up in Goma, Bärbel and Dr. Jan made the drive to Rumangabo to visit the Senkwekwe Center where the 4 mountain gorilla orphans (Maisha, Ndakasi, Ndeze, and Matabishi) live so that she could see the animals Abaxis is helping to conserve. Additionally, Abaxis equipment is being used at the GRACE sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas in DRC and a future training session was discussed.

Abaxis is also supporting conservation of other wildlife in the region with a sizable donation of rotors and reagents for special projects, such as the Crowned Crane Conservation project (directed by former Gorilla Doctor Olivier Nsengimana). Bärbel was able to visit the Crowned Crane project in Kigali while she was in Rwanda and made a donation of avian/reptile rotors. 
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The Gorilla Doctors would like to thank Abaxis Europe Managing Director Achim Henkel and Manager of Business Development Bärbel Köhler for their generous support of our work.

About Abaxis:

Abaxis' mission is to supply point of care blood analyzers to the medical market and the veterinarian market. Providing leading edge technology, tools and services that support best medical practices, Abaxis enables physicians and veterinarians to respond to the health needs of their clients while operating economical and profitable practices. Abaxis is headquartered in northern California, USA, and contains operations around the world. www.abaxis.com

Tuesday
Jan202015

Regional Manager Dr. Jan Ramer Says Farewell to Gorilla Doctors

After a year in central Africa overseeing all aspects of Gorilla Doctors activities on the ground, Dr. Jan Ramer will return to the United States on January 22 to reunite with her family and continue her work as a wildlife veterinarian for The Wilds, a private, non-profit conservation center located on 10,000 acres of reclaimed mine land in rural southeastern Ohio. The Gorilla Doctors team is sad to see her go, but grateful for all of her hard work over the last year to keep the programs in all three countries running smoothly. Below, Dr. Jan discusses highlights and special moments from her last year in Africa.

Regional Manager Dr. Jan Ramer at the Gorilla Doctors Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda.

by Dr. Jan Ramer

Saying goodbye to Gorilla Doctors in Africa this week is bittersweet and a bit surreal.  I love this project and team, and of course the gorillas.  And I am so very honored to have been able to be a part of this team twice in the past 5 years.  But when my daughter Sara and her husband Aaron announced that they are expecting our first grandchild, I melted, and made the difficult decision to move back to the US to welcome this baby into our family. So on Thursday my little Rwandan pup Ama and I fly back to chilly Indiana and I’ll start wrapping my head around my new job at the Wilds in Ohio and start planning how to best spoil this grandchild.

My head is filled with memories as I reflect on my time with Gorilla Doctors this year. One event that stands out for me is when we moved Grauer’s gorilla orphan Ihirwe from Kinigi, Rwanda to the GRACE sanctuary in DRC, working with our partners from ICCN, GRACE, RDB and the UN.  I clearly remember her rescue in 2011 – poor little frightened gorilla at a jail in Gisenyi.  Over the course of several years, she grew into a playful juvenile, attached to her caregivers at Kinigi.  I wish we could have explained to her that she was going to a place where she could be with other gorillas when Eddy and I loaded her onto the UN helicopter that flew her from Goma to GRACE – she was brave but frightened during that trip.  But she integrated so well, and I loved seeing her interacting with the rest of her GRACE family when I visited a few months ago. 

Dr. Jan with the Gorilla Doctors Rwanda and DRC Field Veterinarians at the airport in Goma during Ihirwe's transfer.

Drs. Jan and Eddy with UN personnel during Ihirwe's transfer to GRACE.

Drs. Jan and Eddy with GRACE staff.

In Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Fred and I had fun with a film crew for Animal Planet's Biggest and Baddest series early in the year, and we learned to be patient during the retakes!  I also got to visit the Nkuringo mountain gorilla group in Bwindi for the first time.  There is a particularly long, steep hill involved in visiting that group, and I have to admit that the very first time I looked downhill I was a bit afraid, but I made it down and back several times this year!

Drs. Jan and Fred trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

Now that security has returned to eastern DR Congo, I’ve enjoyed working with Drs. Eddy and Martin on cases throughout the Mikeno sector, and of course loved seeing mountain gorilla orphans Maisha, Ndeze, Ndakasi and Matabishi at Senkwekwe, not to mention Andre, Patrick and Richard, their dedicated caregivers.  I’ve always loved the Congohounds, and am glad Eddy, Martin and I were able to help hound puppy Bonus at a critical time. It was my first time to do surgery at midnight by headlamp.

This was a year of change for Gorilla Doctors as the team worked to put in place a new structure and new accounting system – it was wonderful to see the growth of our teams as things fell into place.

Dr. Jan and the Gorilla Doctors team at the Regional Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda.

I also loved working with eager young veterinarians and our team during all staff rounds, seminars with specialists like Veterinary Pathologist Dr. Tanja Zabka and Veterinary Surgeon Dr. Donna Shettko, and assisting with several dog/cat spay and neuter opportunities. It was my great pleasure to conduct a two-day avian medicine seminar for the dedicated young veterinarians involved with the Conserving Endangered Crowned Cranes in Rwanda project led by former Gorilla Doctor and ROLEX Award for Enterprise recipient Dr. Olivier Nsengimana.  It was my privilege to help with this project on several occasions – thank you, Olivier. [Stay tuned for our upcoming blog about this collaboration!]

I have absolutely loved working with Conservation Heritage Turambe and with the Imbabazi Foundation and Family.  It was thrilling to watch my cycling friends at Team Rwanda win the Tour of Rwanda!  The list goes on and on – so many memories of wonderful times with wonderful friends and colleagues. 

I write this as I am looking out over Lake Kivu from Goma and I am filled with gratitude at the gift I’ve been given living and working in this region. I shall miss everyone – the team, the project, our wonderful partners, and of course the gorillas. But I will be back – leaving a piece of my heart and soul here.

Monday
Jan122015

Meet the Newest Gorilla Doctor, Dr. Ricky Okello! 

At the young age of 28, Dr. Okwir Ricky Okello has become the newest Gorilla Doctor, officially joining our Uganda field team where he will work with Dr. Fred to monitor the health of every single habituated mountain gorilla in Bwindi and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. Born in 1986, he shares his birth year with the start of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), which would eventually become Gorilla Doctors. He was only 17 years old when he saw his first gorilla in the wild: “I had only seen chimpanzees in the zoo, and I didn’t expect a gorilla to be that big! I could not believe how big it was.” Following a few more years of study, Dr. Ricky was on to college and veterinary school.

Dr. Okwir Ricky Okello, the newest Gorilla Doctor.

“When I was studying Veterinary Medicine at Makerere University, I heard about Gorilla Doctors in 2006 when I was in my first year of studies. I contacted Dr. John Bosco Nizeyi [Capacity Development Coordinator in Uganda for Gorilla Doctors]. I told him about my interests in wildlife." The two remained in touch and in his 4th year of studies, Dr. Ricky Okwir began his internship with Gorilla Doctors, followed by an internship with the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project, which monitors the outbreak of highly infectious disease in wildlife populations. With PREDICT, Dr. Ricky was able to join Drs. Benard and Rachael as they traveled around Uganda collecting samples from wildlife and gained valuable field experience.

Dr. Ricky holds a bat as the PREDICT vets prepare to collect samples for research.

Upon graduating with his degree in Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Ricky knew exactly where he wanted to be. There was no question about it. “My dream was to work with the Gorilla Doctors. When I applied for the job, I told almost all of my relatives to pray for me. When I got the job as a Gorilla Doctor, they were very grateful.” In his first week, Dr. Ricky was already in the field observing the Bweza mountain gorilla group in Bwindi, where he spent more than 5 hours monitoring a sick gorilla. He went back the next day again and followed him, and continued to monitor him along with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers. “Fortunately, the gorilla was improving without any intervention. It was a great experience.”

The chance to see mountain gorillas in the wild is limited to a select few each day who are granted permits by local governments. So, Dr. Ricky hopes to share his personal field experience and knowledge with school children and others. “They should know how important the mountain gorillas are and know the threats they are facing.” He also stresses the importance that gorillas are not always how they are portrayed in the media. “The media has shown gorillas to be aggressive, dangerous... that they can kill people - which is not the case. In my experiences in the field so far, the gorillas are so peaceful and calm. Especially with the presence of the UWA rangers who know each group so well, I do not feel unsafe.”

Dr. Ricky Okwir, though new to the Gorilla Doctors, has high hopes and aspirations for the mountain gorillas: “My dream is to see that in the future, infectious disease and snare incidents in the mountain gorilla population are drastically reduced. I will work hard to protect the health of Uganda's mountain gorillas and I am honored to join the team of Gorilla Doctors.” 

Monday
Jan052015

Yearly Check Ups for the Senkwekwe Center Mountain Gorilla Orphans 

Every year, the mountain gorilla orphans at the Senkwekwe Center in Virunga National Park receive comprehensive medical exams to ensure they remain in good health and have not developed any underlying medical conditions or are in need of veterinary treatment. Most recently, Drs. Jan, Eddy and Martin examined Ndeze and Matabishi at the Senkwekwe Center. Fortunately, both orphan gorillas are in good health!
Mountain gorilla orphan Ndeze on the exam table at the Senkwekwe Center.

Ndeze

In late November, 7-year-old Ndeze was reportedly squinting her eyes as if in pain with a reduced activity level. During Dr. Jan’s observation, Ndeze held her eyes at least half closed and held her head while laying down. Though there was white discharge in both eyes, there was no nasal discharge or coughing and her respiratory rate was normal. She was treated for suspected conjunctivitis with triple antibiotic ophthalmic ointment and pain medication and within a few days, her condition was much improved.

During her recent annual health check, Ndeze was very mellow and allowed Dr. Eddy to give her an injection of anesthesia while he held her hand as they sat outside in the enclosure. She fell peacefully asleep and the exam was completed within one hour by the Gorilla Doctors team. Oral, nasal, vaginal and rectal swabs were collected for research and testing, as well as blood, fecal, and urine samples.

Dr. Jan examines Ndeze's teeth and gums.

The orphan exams, as well as a routine health check of Bageni group by DRC Head Vet Dr. Eddy, were documented by a French film crew for a show called "Enquête Exclusive”, hosted by anchorman Bernard de la Villardière. (Stay tuned for air dates!)

Dr. Martin is interviewed by French anchorman Bernard de la Villardière.

As well, volunteer veterinarian and Murdoch University PhD candidate Dr. Alisa Kubala joined the Gorilla Doctors team to assist with the exams and collect samples for her research on malaria in eastern gorillas. [To learn more about Alisa and her research, click here.

Gorilla Doctors volunteer veterinarian and PhD student Dr. Alisa Kubala helps Drs. Martin and Eddy with Matabishi's exam.

Dr. Alisa records observations and collects samples during the exams.

Matabishi

Infant Matabishi, the newest addition to the Senkwekwe orphan gorilla group, was not as easy to anesthetize for his exam. He was not happy being separated from his surrogate mother, Maisha, so his caretaker, Andre Bauma, held him while Dr. Martin tried to give him his injection of anesthesia. He was quite upset still, so the vets opted to give Matabishi an oral sedative first and then the anesthetic was administered. This was Matabishi’s second full exam under anesthesia since his rescue in June 2013 and fortunately, the youngster has never suffered any major health problem. During his exam, a range of samples were collected and vaccinations for measles, rabies, and polio were administered. The exam did not reveal any underlying health condition and Matabishi continues to grow and thrive at the Senkwekwe Center.

Dr. Eddy checks Matabishi's pulse during the exam.

Orphan caregiver Andre Bauma carries Matabishi back to his enclosure after the exam is complete.

Maisha

Maisha was exhibiting some weight loss in November, and reportedly regurgitating her food frequently, licking areas inside her enclosure and occasionally ingesting sand. Fortunately, her energy level was good and she was observed playing vigorously with Ndeze and disciplining Ndakasi during Dr. Jan, Eddy and Martin’s assessment on November 21. The regurgitation behavior is something that Maisha has exhibited since her early days after rescue at the orphan care facility in Kinigi, Rwanda when she was an "only gorilla" for some time, and unfortunately the behavior became a bad habit for Maisha. Of primary concern is that the chronic regurgitation could cause secondary gastritis or esophagitis, so she will continue to be monitored closely. The weight loss could also be attributed to internal parasites and Maisha was given a deworming medication during her exam; a subsequent fecal analysis revealed no parasite infestation. Caregivers were also provided iron and B vitamins to give to Maisha to combat anemia and asked to monitor her for one hour after each treatment to allow the medication time to be absorbed without being regurgitated.

Various husbandry changes were implemented according to Gorilla Doctors recommendation: all of the orphan’s day time food will be scattered throughout the outdoor enclosure so that it encourages the gorillas to engage in more normal foraging behavior and provide more enrichment, more diverse forest food will be provided (bamboo shoots, whole bamboo trees, etc.), new enrichment devices (hammocks, tires, swings) will be installed and varied on a weekly basis, and caregivers are encouraged to intervene and gently distract Maisha after feedings or when engaging in licking and sand ingestion to try to break this bad habit. This is a tough issue to solve, but the Senkwekwe caregivers are working hard to make all of the suggested changes.

Andre Bauma, the head ranger in charge of orphan care, reported recently that Maisha is much improved since receiving veterinary treatment and the husbandry changes have been implemented. She has more energy, is eating well and there is a reduced incidence of regurgitation... All good news!

Monday
Dec292014

Veterinary Surgeon Dr. Donna Shettko Gives Seminar on Wound Healing & Life-Saving Surgery

The Gorilla Doctors team would like to extend our gratitude to Dr. Donna Shettko, who recently met with our entire veterinary team at our Musanze, Rwanda headquarters to give a seminar on wound healing, amputation and suture techniques during monthly rounds.

Dr. Donna Shettko speaks with Gorilla Doctors field veterinarians in the Musanze laboratory.

Dr. Donna kindly agreed to write about her experience, and her history with Gorilla Doctors Regional Manager Dr. Jan Ramer here:

"I met my friend and study buddy Jan Ramer the second day of veterinary school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and to my good fortune, we have remained friends since that first meeting. My friendship with Jan and my interest in One Health Medicine is what brought me to Rwanda and the Gorilla Doctors.

My name is Donna Shettko and I am a large animal surgeon and a nurse practitioner/physician assistant. I completed my NP/PA training so that I could better understand human disease and zoonosis in order to provide comprehensive medical and veterinary care. Recently, I have been teaching surgical skills using simulation models in an educational program for validating and maintaining practice competencies. Dr. Dean Hendrickson at Colorado State University developed these simulation models; they have the look, feel, tissue tension and tissue characteristics of real skin... the models also bleed which provides the opportunity to practice hemostatic techniques. With the exciting opportunity to work with Jan in Rwanda and share my surgical skills with the Gorilla Doctors field veterinarians, I made my way to Rwanda.

I gave my surgical skills seminar during the Gorilla Doctors monthly rounds, when all of the field veterinarians from Uganda, DRC and Rwanda convene at the headquarters in Musanze to discuss recent cases, current issues and future plans. My seminar began with a series of talks, the first being a review of sterile procedures such as gloving and draping. This talk prompted an active discussion on what surgical scrub would be best to use in the field. Another topic that was important to cover was amputation techniques: while amputation is usually not necessary, snares can pose a threat to the gorilla’s limbs and reviewing the procedures would be useful for the field vets.

The principles of wound healing, wound assessment and different wound healing therapeutics were also discussed with the focus on what would be useful in the gorilla. In preparation for the surgical skills lab, the different suture patterns, tissue and instrument handling and the different methods of hemostasis were discussed.  In the lab, suture patterns (which included simple interrupted, simple continuous, subcuticular, vertical and horizontal mattress) were practiced using the simulation models. After practicing the suture patterns, an incision was made into the models which caused bleeding and prompted the need to practice ligating the vessels for hemostasis. The models remained behind so that the Gorilla Doctors can continue to practice the surgical techniques as needed.

Gorilla Doctors field veterinarians practice suture techniques with Dr. Donna Shett

The Gorilla Doctors were a great, engaging group of veterinarians and I really enjoyed conducting the seminar. They were eager to exchange ideas and discuss cases where they could implement the skills if given a similar situation. Their dedication to learning was evident in their energetic enthusiasm in practicing the surgical skills with the simulation models.

It was a pleasure and honor to work with veterinary professionals who are dedicated and committed to providing the best medical care to their patients. The work of the Gorilla Doctors is very important in the preservation and conservation of eastern gorillas... they are truly making a difference."