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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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PhD Candidate Alisa Kubala Conducts Research on Malaria in Eastern Gorillas

Every year, Gorilla Doctors supports graduate and PhD student research projects examining infectious diseases in eastern gorillas. This year, Gorilla Doctors has facilitated PhD research projects on respiratory illness in mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and herpesviruses in mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable and Volcanoes National Parks. Also this year, Gorilla Doctors hosted Murdoch University PhD candidate Dr. Alisa Kubala, who is conducting research on malaria in eastern gorillas in Rwanda and DRC. Dr. Kubala generously agreed to share insights and details about her research and experience working with the Gorilla Doctors in the field.

Dr. Alisa Kubala in the field with a mountain gorilla. 

Dr. Kubala's PhD thesis, Health and Conservation of Eastern Gorillas: A One-Health Study of Blood-Borne Parasites and Retroviral Infections will look specifically at the prevalence of malaria, microfilaria and retroviruses in eastern gorillas, humans, and other primates in Virunga and Kahuzi Biega National Parks in DRC.

These three diseases are endemic in humans in eastern gorilla host countries, where they are leading causes of morbidity and mortality. Some evidence suggests that co-infection with all of these pathogens can lead to increased parasite/viral loads, faster disease progression, and increased disease transmission.

Dr. Kubala's research will give insight into whether eastern gorillas are infected with any of these pathogens, if they can acquire these pathogens from humans, and if these pathogens cause any clinical disease. Her work will also hopefully reveal which vector species (mosquitoes and flies) are responsible for transmission of malaria and microfilaria in and around eastern gorilla habitats.

The region of central Africa where Dr. Kubala is conducting her research.

The study is complex in that it requires the collection of blood and fecal samples from humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons and monkeys sharing habitat in Kahuzi-Biega and Virunga National Parks. Of course, it also requires the collection of the vectors that transmit malaria and microfilaria in these habitats.

"Some of my sample analysis occurs in the field, but the vast majority occurs in specialized laboratories in the United States. Obtaining so many samples from two national parks, storing and transporting them to international laboratories requires careful collaboration among the entire Gorilla Doctors team."

Dr. Kubala with staff members from the Gorilla Doctors and Radar Nishuli, Director of Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Gorilla Doctors Employee Health Manager, Jean Paul Lukusa, has helped facilitate the collection of human samples for Dr. Kubala's research and these samples come under strict confidentiality from the employees of both national parks and their families when they participate in the Employee Health Program. While conducting annual health exams and obtaining blood and fecal samples, Jean Paul also delivers a questionnaire to each employee to help Dr. Kubala determine risk factors for malaria, microfilaria and retroviral infection among humans in the two parks.

Blood and fecal samples from gorillas and other primates are not so easily to obtained, however. Only when an individual is anesthetized for a medical intervention in the field (or during routine health checks of the orphans at the sanctuaries) can samples be opportunistically collected, though fecal samples can sometimes be collected from the wild gorillas' night nests. "Fortunately, I've been able to accompany Gorilla Doctors DRC Field Vets Dr. Eddy Kambale and Dr. Martin Kubayaya, as well as Regional Manager Dr. Jan Ramer, on several field interventions and routine health checks of the Senkwekwe Center gorilla orphans and collected important samples for my study." 

Chimpanzee, baboon and monkey interventions and health checks are carried out at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre (CRPL) by the Centre’s Veterinary and Technical Director, Carmen Vidal. Time and circumstances permitting, Dr. Kubala will go along to help with sample collection and organization.

After blood samples have been collected, many hours are spent at a field microscope, reviewing each sample for malaria and microfilaria:

Dr. Alisa Kubala working in the lab at the Gorilla Doctors Regional Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda. Photo by Life Through a Lens Photography.

Malaria and microfilaria in human blood smears.

Mosquito (Anopheles kingi) captured at a gorilla night nest in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Vector traps, an important component of the sample collection, requires the collaboration of national park workers and Gorilla Doctors veterinarians. Currently based at Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre, Dr. Kubala captures mosquito and fly vectors daily by hiking up to gorilla night nests or to chimpanzee, baboon or monkey enclosures and setting up light traps. Vector trapping in Virunga National Park is being completed by Dr. Martin and employees of both national parks (trackers, guards and administrators) take traps home with them every afternoon in order to capture vectors at many different locations around the parks overnight.

A vector trap near the chimpanzee enclosure at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre.

"When traps are taken down the next day, I spend several hours at a dissecting microscope in the field identifying each vector to species level" said Dr. Kubala. "While I am able to do the gross analysis of blood smears and vectors in the field, I do the molecular analysis of blood, feces and vectors at two specialized laboratories in the United States." To this end, all samples are sent through to Gorilla Doctors Regional Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda, where Laboratory Technician Dr. Methode Bahizi organizes and stores them until it is time for them to be transported.  Dr. Method also runs the hematologic analyses of gorilla blood samples in order to determine reference intervals for the species, while Bio Bank Manager, Jennifer Sohl, RVT, runs all of the biochemical analyses at the Gorilla Doctors Biobank at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

"A study of this size is certainly a team effort. Its successful completion will be a testament to the determination of Gorilla Doctors to support ambitious health research in order to provide the best possible medical care to the world’s remaining eastern gorillas. I’d like to thank the Institut Congolaise pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) for their gracious permission to conduct this study in their national parks."

Dr. Kubala will remain in Kahuzi-Biega National Park to collect samples throughout the rainy season until February 2015.  She will return for dry season sampling from May to August 2015, and analyze her samples in the United States from November 2015 to February 2016.


A Message from Gorilla Doctors on Ebola and Eastern Gorillas

We share the world's deep concern regarding West Africa's Ebolavirus outbreak and the devastating impact the virus is having on people, communities and nations. We are also concerned about the separate Ebolavirus outbreak occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Gorillas are highly susceptible to Ebolavirus; indeed, many thousands of western lowland gorillas have likely perished in past Ebolavirus outbreaks in central Africa.

Mountain and Grauer's gorillas are among the world's most endangered primates. With just 880 mountain gorillas and only a few thousand Grauer's gorillas left in the world, an outbreak of a disease such as Ebolavirus could have a devastating impact on the survival of the species.

If an Ebolavirus outbreak were to occur within or very close to the range of the mountain or Grauer's gorilla, from a conservation standpoint it would be important to consider all measures for assisting their survival. All options, including the potential for vaccination (if a vaccine were available), would need to be collectively discussed by governments and stakeholders.

All discussions about protecting mountain and Grauer's gorillas from Ebolavirus would of course consider the paramount importance of human health, and any decisions could not be at the expense of protecting the health of people living in the communities surrounding mountain gorilla parks.


Spotlight on Dr. Noel, Rwanda Field Veterinarian

Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli, better known by his colleagues as Dr. Noel, appreciates every day he spends as a Field Veterinarian with the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda. “This is a commitment. Our work is motivating. When you do it, you are always proud. It’s something that makes you happy every day.” Everyday is a new challenge for 34-year old Dr. Noel, who says he is constantly learning from the mountain gorilla groups throughout Volcanoes National Park.

Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri, better known as Dr. Noel.

Dr. Noel, now in his 5th year with Gorilla Doctors, is walking proof of the power of perseverance and dedication: getting to where he’s at today was not so easy, he says. “After the genocide, the country was building up everything from zero. They created a veterinary school. When I was in my 4th year, I applied for an internship with Gorilla Doctors.” However, Dr. Noel was not accepted at that time. “In my 5th year I tried again, but I wasn’t accepted either. In my final year at veterinary school, I worked in a laboratory analyzing fecal samples from cows and when I was nearing graduation, a position became available with Gorilla Doctors - the Regional Laboratory Manager... I applied and got it!”

He spent 3 years working in the lab in the Gorilla Doctors Regional Headquarters, analyzing gorilla and other wildlife specimens and assisting in necropsies on deceased animals to learn more about disease and the cause of death in mountain gorillas.

Dr. Noel working in the lab in Musanze.

In 2012, Dr. Noel was promoted to Field Veterinarian, a moment he had waited for a lifetime. “In my very young age, I used to hear Dian Fossey on the radio, how passionate she was. That was motivation.”

Dr. Noel says he and the staff at Gorilla Doctors take every precaution when they are in the field for a medical intervention or conducting routine health checks of the gorilla groups by wearing protective clothing and masks. However, with locals entering the park, the health hazards and risk of disease transmission increase.

“In the dry season in the area bordering the park, kids will be go into the forest to look for water. When they are there, they can urinate and defecate, which can expose gorillas to disease.” Even a human’s common cold can be very hazardous to the gorillas. “The rules say to stay 7 meters away. Human beings know that, but gorillas do not. Sometimes, they just come to you.” 

The Gorilla Doctors spend time speaking with local school children about the plight of the mountain gorilla and the importance of safeguarding the environment in Rwanda. Dr. Noel makes periodic visits, particularly to the schools in close proximity to the national park, to talk about his work as a Gorilla Doctor and share his knowledge of wildlife health. He hopes to inspire the younger generation of Rwanda to become guardians of their country's national treasure. And who knows, in one of those classrooms could be a future Gorilla Doctor! 

Dr. Noel shows school children the dart gun that is used to administer anesthesia to begin an intervention.

In addition to human colds and respiratory disease, the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa is another huge concern says Dr. Noel.

“There is a whole national and regional fight against the spread of Ebola. As people involved in this particular work, we are thinking: “how would we protect gorillas? how would we protect our people? Those involved in gorilla conservation are very much concerned.” 

As a field veterinarian, Dr. Noel explains why every procedure must take place in the wild:  “If you take an animal outside the park for care, there is zero chance to take the animal back in the group. Even if [the procedure] takes several hours, everything has to be done close to the group, immediately, and in the forest.”

Dr. Noel administers medication to an infant mountain gorilla caught in a poacher's snare.

And ironically, it’s often easier to work on a 400 pound silverback mountain gorilla than it is a baby. “The silverback is big. It’s very easy to find the target if you’re shooting [a tranquilizer] dart. But if you are intervening for a sick or injured juvenile or an infant, the silverback is the one to protect his family... this is where you might be exposed to danger if you don't pay attention and stay on your toes.”

But why go by Dr. Noel, if his name is Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri ? A simple explanation: "I was born on Christmas Day. Noel means Christmas in French. So it's very short, Instead of saying Noheri, which is very hard for some people to pronounce."

Dr. Noel remains optimistic about the future for the mountain gorilla population and the people who work to save them. “Our goal is to save every single gorilla. Every single life counts for us. The Gorilla Doctors team has grown bigger, so the outcome in the future can be bigger, both in gorilla conservation and wildlife medicine.”


Watch Dr. Noel as he is interviewed for Australian television program "The Project" about his work with orphan Grauer's gorilla Ihirwe:


Thanking Donors at Tucos Restaurant in Davis, California

Gorilla Doctors Directors Drs. Mike Cranfield and Kirsten Gilardi with Chef Pru Mendez in front of Tucos Restaurant in Davis, CA.

On Wednesday, September 24th, Tucos Restaurant in Davis, CA hosted a special evening for Gorilla Doctors. “Small Plates, Big Thanks,” was a chance to honor and appreciate current Gorilla Doctors supporters and reach out to new ones. Pru Mendez (Owner and Chef) prepared a special themed menu of hors d’oeuvres featuring bamboo shoots (gorilla food!) and tasty African wines. Gorilla Doctors Co-Directors Dr. Mike Cranfield and Dr. Kirsten Gilardi updated guests on some of the challenges and triumphs of the program. Gorilla Doctors Advisory Board members Deborah Dunham and Jonna Mazet joined our guests as did Science Advisors Ray Wack and Kelly Stewart.  

"The evening was such a great way to celebrate the people who make Gorilla Doctors possible,” said Gilardi. “ Being able to thank our donors for their support, and to make new friends for the program -- it was a great night!"

Before the evening was over, guests were already buzzing about planning another event soon. In wrapping, Gilardi said "A special thanks to Chef Pru Mendez for dreaming up the evening and then making it a reality. We can't wait to do it again!"

Director Dr. Mike Cranfield, Chef Pru Mendez, Development Assistant Desiree Aguiar and Gorilla Doctors board member Deborah Dunham.


Interns Gain Unique Insight into Gorilla Doctors Work in Rwanda

Mentoring the next generation of wildlife health experts in Africa is a top priority for Gorilla Doctors. Thanks to a generous donation by attendees of our inaugural Gorilla Love fundraising event in Beverly Hills last November, we have been able to host two veterinary interns at our Regional Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda. Both young men are completing an 8-month internship with our Gorilla Doctors and receive a monthly stipend to help offset their living expenses, thanks to the generosity of our committed donors.

Jean Claude and Gaspard, veterinary interns with Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda.

Meet the Interns

Gaspard Nzayisenga completed his Bachelor's degree in veterinary medicine from Umutara Polytechnic University in 2012. Soon after, he became a volunteer with the Gorilla Doctors PREDICT staff in Kigali, working for 7 months as a field assistant alongside Drs. Julius and Olivier, gaining valuable experience in field work.

“Participating in this unique internship will prepare me for my future career goals and aid in my growth as a conservationist” said Gaspard. “I love working in the field amongst experienced veterinarians and gaining hands on training. I want to be able to contribute to the conservation of wildlife in Rwanda, particularly endangered species like the mountain gorilla.”

Jean-Claude Tumushime also completed his Bachelors degree in veterinary medicine from Umutara Polytechnic in 2012. While the focus of his post-graduation training and experience was in dairy medicine, in his heart he wanted to work on wildlife conservation: among his career goals are to "strive to see that conservation imperatives are safeguarded at an excellent level" and "to keep learning so that I can improve my knowledge and skills in relation to veterinary medicine”.

Gaspard and Jean-Claude conduct a routine health check alongside Gorilla Doctors Field Vets and RDB staff.

Both interns have been working under Dr. Jean Felix Kinani, our Head Rwanda Field Veterinarian, and have shadowed Drs. Jean Felix and Noel on surgeries (such as dog neuters and spays), participated in an intervention to release an ensnared jackal, assisted in necropsies on deceased antelopes, buffalo and gorillas, observed the transfer of a Grauer’s gorilla orphan to GRACE, and conducted numerous routine health checks of the mountain gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park (alongside Gorilla Doctors Rwanda Field Vets). Through this internship, Gaspard and Jean-Claude have been able to learn new laboratory procedures and how to generate reports for partners and contribute to the IMPACT database. They have also attended meetings and workshops on conservation over the last several months, such as the Rwanda Development Board Conservation Forum and the Annual Ranger Based Monitoring Workshop with RDB and stakeholders.

“Both Gaspard and Jean-Claude are proving to be great learners, eager to participate and contribute, both in the field and the laboratory” said Gorilla Doctors Director Kirsten Gilardi. “We love having them be part of our team!”