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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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Coming Together For the Survival of an Endangered Species

Kryan Young, the "Gorilla Walker."

By Michael Morales

It takes a special kind of animal for complete strangers to come together and work to fight for the survival of a species. That animal, the mountain gorilla, was front and center last weekend as the film “Virunga” was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

The film documents the mountain gorillas who live in Virunga National Park, as well as the people who risk their lives daily to protect them. Despite not winning the Oscar, the film has touched countless people and brought awareness to the many others who work day after day to keep gorillas safe and healthy.

Gorilla Doctors’ sixteen veterinary doctors and support staff in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo have dedicated their lives to just that cause, protecting mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas. That work includes clinical interventions in the field, helping rescue orphans from poachers, and routine health monitoring of every habituated gorilla. But the workers in the park aren’t the only people who make a difference for this amazing species. 

People like Drew Nichol of Seattle, Washington – a mortgage advisor by day, gorilla activist by night – are doing their part as well. Nichol has hosted local fundraisers, produced his own music CD with the proceeds being donated to Gorilla Doctors, and organized a “One Walk for One Health” community event, raising more than $60,000 to benefit the endangered gorillas. 

Nichol even went so far to walk alone 228 miles from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon in 2008 to raise awareness of the gorillas’ declining population. Two years later, a community walk in Seattle helped fund the purchase of a new truck for the Gorilla Doctors team in DRC. Drew says we have to do everything we can to ensure the future for gorillas. 

“They are an emissary of our connection to the natural world,” he said. “They’re one of our closest allies on the planet. If the mountain gorillas are gone, where does it end?”

Kyran Young had a similar idea, even though he lives thousands of miles from Nichol and had not heard his story. Nicknamed “The Gorilla Walker,” Young will embark on a 4-month journey from Mexico to Canada beginning this May. He has been in training for months and has already completed a 500-mile walk through the Pyrenees Mountains along the borders of Spain and France. 

“Waking up everyday for 4 months, knowing you have to put in 25 miles, it can be quite daunting to think about,” said Young, who was born in Zimbabwe. He credits his upbringing for his love of wildlife. “I was constantly outdoors, surrounded by nature and incredible animals.” 

Once he has completed the 2,663 mile walk through Mexico, the United States and Canada, Young hopes to visit the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and meet the Gorilla Doctors team.

But Nichol and Young aren’t the only supporters logging miles in the name of gorilla conservation.

Raemonde Bezenar lives in Canada, where Young plans to end his 4-month journey. Raemonde shares Drew and Kyran's passion for mountain gorillas; she took a 2007 trip to Africa that was "the greatest experience of my life." After nine gorilla treks, four in Uganda and five in Rwanda, Bezenar says it will change anyone.

"You look at them, and they look at you, and you can see yourself in their eyes," said Raemonde. "The kids are twirling and playing, just like our children. They remind you of what a family unit is like."

When Raemonde got home from her first trip, she knew she had to make a difference. She had heard that a new home was needed for gorilla orphans Ndakasi and Ndeze, who were rescued when their mother was killed. Funding for a new home was needed desperately, so Raemonde put her own home on the line, remortgaging her house so she could donate the $30,000 needed.  She also created a non-profit organization called Canadian Friends of the MGVP in 2008, and since then has hosted four Gorilla 5K Fun Runs in Edmonton, Canada. She even ran the International Peace Marathon in Kigali, Rwanda while wearing a gorilla suit. 

Her generosity doesn't stop there though. Through her dinner fundraisers and other events, she has helped fund the expansion of the Ruth Keesling Wildlife Health & Research Center at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where many of the region’s young wildlife veterinarians are trained. Currently, her fundraising projects focus on creating scholarships to send African students to veterinary school so that one day they can continue the important medical care for mountain gorillas. 

Raemonde plans to return to see the mountain gorillas she loves so much and hopes everyone can, at one point in their life, go on a gorilla trek. 

"When you leave the gorillas,” she said. “You want to be better human being." 

You can donate to the work of Gorilla Doctors’ efforts in Congo, Uganda, & Rwanda as well. 


Dr. Fred Shares His Gorilla Doctors Journey

By Michael Morales

When Dr. Fred Nizeyimana was hired as a Field Veterinarian for Gorilla Doctors in Uganda in 2010, it was a full-circle moment.

“For me personally, it was like I got a call back home,” said Dr. Fred. “My training at Makerere University was funded by Gorilla Doctors. I did a small research study about enteric bacteria resistance.”

He partly credits that networking experience for his return to Gorilla Doctors.

“In 2009 I had the chance to meet Gorilla Doctors Director Dr. Mike Cranfield at a great ape health workshop in Entebbe, Uganda,” he said. “I had previously been working with the Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Ngamba Island and was looking for a new challenge. It was quite a coincidence I meet the director of another great ape organization.”

Dr. Fred is quick to point out the difference between his work with chimpanzees and his current daily work with mountain gorillas.

“The chimpanzees were in a semi-captive or captive arrangement and we were concerned with their welfare,” he said. “The mountain gorillas are in the wild, where we focus on health care.”

Dr. Fred and his wife, Florence Busingye Nizeyimana, who married in 2011, have two children: a son, Francis Inshuti, and a daughter Felicia Ineza.

“When I checked the pews of the church, seeing my Gorilla Doctors colleagues was heartwarming,” Dr. Fred said of his special day. “When we go into the forest, we are going to see our other family.”

“I like living simple," continued Dr. Fred. "I wake up a 5:30am, get my gear on. I have my kits with me in the truck all the time. By 7 a.m., I am with the trackers, the rangers. They have their briefing. There is nothing that delays me, so we get right to the forest. The time it takes to get through the forest depends on the travels of the gorillas. The longest it’s ever taken me to get to the gorilla is six hours, one way. I stayed overnight once, but not because I wanted to stay. I just felt more safe to remain there, because it was late at night.”

Part of Dr. Fred’s work includes visiting with young kids to teach them about conservation efforts to protect the gorillas.

When explaining the struggles of mountain gorillas to schoolchildren, he takes a basic approach and puts it in terms they can understand. He draws attention to the kids as a group and describes a scenario in which their friends began to disappear one by one with little explanation.

“I see how it saddens them.” Dr. Fred said. “I explain that we have very few mountain gorillas left, so every single one of them counts.”

He also describes the numerous threats that the mountain gorillas face: poaching, setting snares, illegal logging companies and mining companies. 

“All of these affect gorilla conservation,” he said. “Those are real dangers to their survival. If we don’t wake up and do something, then they can disappear on us.”

One of Dr. Fred’s most memorable assignments was early on in his career as a Gorilla Doctor.  In 2010, in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, wire snares were wrapped around the leg and neck of a baby gorilla in the Nyakagezi family.

It took multiple attempts to dart the baby gorilla due to its small size. Once the gorilla was successfully darted and sedated, Dr. Fred and his colleagues removed the snares and cared for the snare-related wounds before returning the baby to its family, which had moved about 2.5 km away. 

“They were overjoyed, as much as the humans were,” Dr. Fred said. “We carried the baby to them, placed it down at close distance, and the whole family came rushing to see the baby and smell the baby. Even the dominant silverback.”

Baby Nvuyekure was soon nicknamed “Baby Fred.”

“I would pray that Gorilla Doctors receives more funding to increase our on-ground capacity,” Dr. Fred said, acknowledging the importance of donations to the program’s success. “We need more manpower in the future.”


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. 

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


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.


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.”