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.