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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.

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Blackback Kabukojo's Health Suffers as He Struggles to Lead Rushegura Group

Blackback Kabukojo had been trailing his group for several days, appearing weak, emaciated and dehydrated when the Uganda Wildlife Authority contacted Gorilla Doctors Field Veterinarian Dr. Fred Nizeyimana for a veterinary assessment. The Bwindi gorillas were keeping Dr. Fred on his toes as he responded to and provided treatment for several ailing or injured silverbacks in the park this past week. He trekked to Rusheugra group to check on the blackback leader on Tuesday, July 15 and found the male in need of veterinary treatment.

Blackback Kabukojo, the young leader of Rushegura group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Kabukojo took over leadership of Rushegura group after silverback Mwirima suddenly passed away in early March and has certainly been under some stress to keep this large family together without the experience and wisdom of a seasoned silverback. At only 8-12 years old, it is quite unusual to see a blackback lead a group, but in the case of the Rushegura family, there was not another silverback within the group to take Mwirima's place. Everyone held their breath to see how Kabukojo would handle the leadership role and up until now, he seems to be faring well. As the leader of the group, it is very important that we try to keep Kabukojo in good health, not only for group stability, but protection of the infants within the group as well. 

Here is Dr. Fred's report of his veterinary assessment and treatment:

"I trekked to Rushegura group with three UWA Wardens and a team of UWA ranger-trackers to assess Kabukojo's condition on Tuesday morning. We found the group in the Nyarwunga area of Bwindi and Kabukojo was ranging with the group. The blackback was feeding lightly, but he appeared very weak with copious diarrhea. His body condition indicated he was dehydrated with slight muscle wasting and his vocalising was soft and muffled. It appeared that second ranking blackback Kalembezi was taking over the role of caretaker and sentry for the group. 

I made the decision to administer medications to help Kabukojo fight the illness he was battling. I loaded darts with Ivermectin, Ketoprofen, and Ceftriaxone (anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic medications) and successfully darted Kabukojo at 12:40pm, 1:01pm, and 2:14pm respectively. Fecal samples were collected to test for parasite load. 

The following day, I returned to the group to check on Kabukojo's condition and found the blackback actively feeding and appearing much stronger. He was clearly back in charge of his group, though did not climb the trees to feed like his other group members."

Blackback Kabukojo of Rushegura group.

UWA trackers are continuing to closely monitor Kabukojo and Rushegura group and will report any changes in behavior or body condition to Gorilla Doctors asap. For now, it seems the young leader will continue to remain the dominant male, navigating his group through the forest in search of food and safety! 


Chimanuka Group Feeds on Ripe Fruit of the Myiranthus Tree

The Chimanuka group Grauer’s gorillas were feeding on the ripe fruit of the Myiranthus tree during Dr. Eddy’s visit last week in the Mwandagalo area of Kahuzi Biega National Park. Eighteen night nests were found (13 on the ground, 5 up in the trees) and all 18 individuals were observed.

The group interacted with a wild lone silverback earlier in the week and the outsider succeeded in taking 3 females from dominant silverback Chimanuka. Luckily, there were no signs of injury from the interaction.

Three-year-old infant Marhale has struggled from the loss of his mother Makali (who died in September 2013 after sustaining serious wounds from a fight with a silverback) forcing him to become weened at a very early age. Although the infant’s health is fragile and he was seen crying out, Dr. Eddy observed adult female Mwinja carrying Marhale around with her, held protectively between her forearm and chest. She was observed feeding alongside and grooming the infant during the health check. 

Near the group, Dr. Eddy saw a bat hanging from a tree. Our PREDICT veterinarians are humanely testing bats, which are known vectors for infectious disease, to determine risk levels of disease transmission. 

A bat hanging out near Chimanuka group in Kahuzi Biega National Park.

As the team trekked out of the forest, a wire snare was found and destroyed by the park rangers. 

A Kahuzi Biega National Park tracker destroys a wire snare found on the trail.

A poacher's wire snare found in Kahuzi Biega National Park, DRC.

While in Kahuzi Biega National Park, Dr. Eddy also assessed the health of Pungwe group, the newest Grauer's gorilla family currently being habituated to human presence. Eleven night nests were found in the Kyanderema area. When the field team arrived to the group, they first observed an adult female quietly feeding on vegetation and reported that she did not seem bothered at all by their presence. Dominant silverback Pungwe charged intermittently, as he is known to do, but with less intensity and less frequency than during previous visits. The other members of the group tolerated the field team's close proximity while they fed in a tree. It appears that the group is well on it's way to being habituated to human presence and will eventually be available for tourist visits. 


Docs Treat Infected Wound of Injured Silverback Karibu in Bwindi

Karibu, a young silverback in Nkuringo group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was moving slowly behind the group for several days when the Uganda Wildlife Authority contacted Dr. Fred for a veterinary assessment. Recently, Karibu has taken to leaving the group for extended periods of time, exploring life as a solitary silverback. During a period of time in early April while he was with the group, Karibu was treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications for a respiratory infection. He disappeared once again and when he reappeared in the group in mid-May, he had a small healing wound on the lower left side of his abdomen.

Silverback Karibu of Nkuringo group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Dr. Fred visited the group on July 8 while they were ranging in the buffer zone at the park perimeter and discovered that in addition to the adbominal wound, the silverback had an infected wound on his thigh, but he was still actively feeding. Dominant silverback Rafiki and other group members were very suspicious and agitated, and Karibu was being evasive of the field team, so Dr. Fred was unable to dart the silverback with antibiotics that day. He decided to give the group a few days to calm down and Drs. Fred, Methode, and Jan, along with UWA rangers, trekked to the group again two days later for further assessment and a possible veterinary intervention. Here is Dr. Fred's report:

"We found the group ranging in the Cyangara area of the buffer zone inside the park when we returned to the group to assess Karibu's condition. Karibu was with the group at the time of our arrival in the early afternoon. He was not far from dominant silverback Rafiki, who was busy feeding. Karibu moved a little ways and then sat down. After a brief time, he lied down on his stomach with his head facing the ground. He appeared weak and did not seem to be aware of our presence. Even when trackers began to cut vegetation around the area, he did not bother to turn and watch. Flies were swarming around his infected wound and he was not observed feeding at any time throughout the assessment. 

Karibu's wound was necrotic and in need of veterinary attention.

A juvenile gorilla wandered up to Karibu and began grooming his wound, which was necrotic and had a purulent discharge. We observed some muscle wasting on his back, chest and sagittal crest. Based on these observations, the decision was made to intervene and administer treatment. 

Muscle wasting was evident on Karibu's back, chest and sagittal crest.

He was darted with anesthesia at 1:19pm and fully sedated 6 minutes later. We cleaned and flushed the wounds with saline, conducted a complete physical examination and collected blood, hair, saliva, and fecal samples for future research. He was given an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medications, as well as intravenous (IV) fluids. The intervention lasted a little over one hour. 

Dr. Fred prepares to administer antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.

The vets cleaned Karibu's abdominal wound during the intervention.

The field team remained with Karibu to monitor him as he recovered from the anesthesia. He began to feed and move soon after waking.

I trekked to the group 3 days later, prepared to administer a second round of medications. When the field team and I arrived to Nkuringo group, Karibu was no where to be found. We continued to trek and found him in the Cyangara area, while the group had moved on to the Busharo region. Karibu was out of his night nest at the time of our arrival mid-morning, but had not moved very far. He was actively feeding and moved fast away from the field team once we were within close proximity. He crossed the Kashasha river and we observed him through the thick vegetation. Fortunately, his condition was much improved. He had a full stomach and was moving and behaving like a strong silverback. The UWA trackers will continue to monitor him closely and report any decline in condition to Gorilla Doctors. 

Update on July 21:

Post-intervention, Karibu kept moving in a different direction than his group and was missing for several days before rangers were able to track him down. Unfortunately, they discovered that the silverback had not completely recovered. Dr. Fred trekked up the following morning to assess his condition and found him ranging alone in the Murunaba area of the park, about 2 kilometers from where Nkuringo group was ranging. When Dr. Fred and the field team arrived, Karibu was out of his night nest and was feeding. There were heaps of Mimulopsis arborescens plants along the trail, indicating that he had been feeding earlier. He moved fast when he saw the field team and then once he reached a comfortable distance, settled under some thick vegetation. Once Dr. Fred was able to get a bit closer, he saw that the wound had pink edges and there were no signs of infection. Karibu's stomach was half full, but there were still signs of slight emaciation and muscle wasting and he appeared weak at times. Dr. Fred made the decision to go ahead and administer another round of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications to help Karibu "get over the hump". He will check on the silverback again in 3 days. 


Ontario Animal Hospital Hosts Annual Fundraiser for Gorilla Doctors

Gorilla Doctors would like to thank Peterborough West Animal Hospital in Ontario, Canada, who recently hosted a fundraiser to support our work to conserve eastern gorillas in central Africa. The Peterborough West Animal Hospital has hosted a fundraiser every year since 2008. After taking a brief break in 2013, the hospital staff geared up to host the biggest fundraiser yet this year.

Dr. Scott Sargent, veterinarian and owner of Peterborough West, is a personal friend of Gorilla Doctors Director Dr. Mike Cranfield. The veterinarians met on Dr. Sargent’s family dairy farm southwest of Peterborough and have remained friends through the years. Dr. Sargent and his wife Tish are dedicated supporters of the work of Gorilla Doctors.

Peterborough West Animal Hospital. http://peterboroughvets.ca/

“The fundraiser is always a family fun event where clients, the general public and their furry friends come together in our dog friendly, park-like environment” said Hospital Manager Cheryl Vandal. “The members of the team here at the hospital made donations to the bake sale and assisted in the success of the day.  From the face-painting and bouncy castle for the children, to the live reptile display from the local Peterborough “Riverview Park and Zoo”, to the dog training expert, the varied attractions kept everyone entertained.”

The fundraiser cake, featuring a mountain gorilla!

"Staff, family members, and fundraiser attendees donated homemade baked goodies for the bake sale - this has always been a favorite! We also had a great barbecue and ice cold drinks that could be bought with a small donation. Thanks to many of the veterinary drug representatives and businesses in the community that the hospital works with on a daily basis, many generous gift donations were provided for the fundraiser.  The team put together approximately a dozen baskets with the donated gifts and our guests purchased tickets to win the ones they liked best. A 50/50 draw was also very popular and helped add to our fundraising total."

The bake sale and gift basket silent auction at the fundraiser.

This year, Peterborough West raised just over $1,700 and hosted approximately 100 guests at the event. We would like to extend our thanks to everyone that participated in and attended the annual Gorilla Doctors fundraising event, and we hope to see everyone (and then some) again next year!


Elderly Female Gashangi Loses Battle with Melanoma 

**Warning: Blog Contains Graphic Imagery**

by Dr. Jan Ramer

Brave Gashangi, an adult female mountain gorilla from Nykamawe group in Virunga National Park, lost her battle with melanoma last week. This is the first known case of melanoma in a gorilla.

Gashangi's tumor was first seen on her left upper lip in December 2012 when Humba group was visited for the first time after the M23 takeover of the Mikeno sector of the park.  Unfortunately the group could not be monitored for seven months previous to this, so we really do not know how long the tumor had been there when it was first spotted in December 2012.   Gashangi was monitored very closely over the next months (once it was safe to go to the group) and the tumor on her lip grew slowly, and was reported to be seen bleeding on occasion by rangers.  At the time, Gashangi had an infant and was eating well, staying with the group, and behaving normally, despite the mass on her lip. 

Unfortunately Gashangi disappeared from the group in May 2013.  Rangers reported that Humba group had exited the park, as they sometimes do, but that Gashangi and her ~2 year old infant, Shamukungu, (born 7 March 2011, unknown sex) remained in the forest.  They remained lost from the group for almost 3 months and when Gashangi returned to the group on August 26th, 2013 little Shamukungu was not with her.  Gashangi was still relatively strong, but the mass was growing. 

Elderly female mountain gorilla Gashangi, with a large tumor on her upper lip.

Intermittent insecurity continued in the area but in October 2013, when Gashangi appeared to deteriorate and was reported weak, and with flies buzzing around the infected tumor, Gorilla Doctors intervened. In consultation with ICCN, Gorilla Doctors made the decision to anesthetize Gashangi to surgically remove the mass to make her more comfortable, and to make a diagnosis. 

Drs. Dawn and Eddy intervened to remove the tumor in October 2013.

On October 5th, 2013, Drs. Dawn and Eddy anesthetized Gashangi and attempted to surgically remove the mass.  However, the mass was so large that it could not be completely removed without disfiguring Gashangi to the point of compromising her life as a wild gorilla. They did the best they could and Gashangi recovered well, regaining strength.  A diagnosis of malignant melanoma was made from histopathology sections of the biopsy.  From October 2013 until December 2013, there was no sign of mass re-growth and Gashangi remained strong. 
Post intervention to remove the tumor from Gashangi's lip in October 2013.

Unfortunately on February 18th, 2014, during a routine health check, it was clear the tumor had returned.  Gashangi was doing well and was observed eating well, using the right side of her mouth, moving actively, and was bright and very alert. At that time rangers suspected that Gashangi was pregnant. 

Gorilla Doctors put their heads together – treatment options for a wild gorilla were limited.  Consultations began with oncologists in the USA and ICCN officials about the challenges of cancer treatment in a wild gorilla.  In humans and dogs with melanoma, a very aggressive surgery could be staged, removing the entire tumor and 4 cm margins to be sure no cancer cells were left in the tissue.  This requires intensive follow-up care and subsequent reconstructive surgeries.  This was simply not possible for Gashangi – we never take an animal out of the forest – we needed to find an option that would allow Gashangi to stay wild. 

We decided to use a DNA tyrosinase vaccine that has had some success in mice, dogs and humans with malignant melanoma.  It is an expensive vaccine, but is safe in pregnancy and has few side effects.  The vaccination was delivered by dart in a series of 4 vaccines, spaced ~2 weeks apart starting on May 4th, 2014.  The goal was to attempt to keep Gashangi as healthy and comfortable as possible, especially if she was indeed pregnant.  

Dr. Eddy darts Gashangi with a vaccine. Photo by Marcus Westberg.

Gashangi successfully darted with the vaccine by Dr. Eddy. Photo by Marcus Westberg.

Dr. Eddy recovers the dart after Gashangi discards it in the vegetation. Photo by Marcus Westberg.

Despite our best efforts, no improvement in tumor growth was noted over the course of treatment.  For the first month, Gashangi remained strong but on June 23rd, 2014 when the last vaccine was delivered, rangers reported that she had been deteriorating for the previous 3 days with considerable bleeding from the tumor. She was eating little, moving slowly, and she was found more than 500 meters from that group.  The mass was larger and appeared to be infected.

After delivering the last melanoma vaccine she was also treated with an antibiotic (Ceftriaxone) and ketoprofen (Analgesic-Antiinflamatory-Antipyretic). The next day Gashangi was observed for several hours during which she remained alone and did not eat.  She was weak. Clearly the tumor was getting the best of her. Intervention for assessment and supportive care to relieve pain and discomfort was approved by ICCN authorities, with the knowledge that anesthesia was a great risk in an animal this debilitated.   

Drs. Jan and Eddy intervene to deliver supportive care to relieve pain and discomfort.

Gashangi's tumor had grown in size, despite the vaccine treatment.

On June 25th Gashangi was anesthetized and found to be very thin with her stomach only 1/8 full.  Fortunately she was not pregnant.  The mass was surgically debulked in an attempt to make her more comfortable, but mercifully she did not recover from anesthesia.  During the necropsy, we discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, lungs, and liver.

Gashangi fought her cancer the only way she knew how, with courage and dignity, leaving the group as she weakened in the last few days.  Because this is the first reported case of melanoma in a gorilla, we hope, through further diagnostics on her tissues, that we can learn more about this tumor so that we might be able to help the next great ape fighting this terrible cancer.