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Entries in Virunga National Park (43)


Lulengo and Mapuwa Groups Interact, Silverbacks Face Off

While Dr. Eddy was on Mt. Tshia last week, Dr. Martin was in the Mikeno Sector of Virunga National Park assessing the health of the 31 mountain gorillas in the Lulengo and Mapuwa groups. There was an interaction between the two groups during Dr. Martin’s visit and when he arrived to the group, the four silverbacks were facing off. Dominant silverback Lulengo was outnumbered though, as he faced down the Mapuwa groups silverbacks (Mapuwa, Vuyekure and Mambo). Check out the amazing photos that Dr. Martin took during his health check:

Dominant silverback Mapuwa

Silverbacks Mapuwa and Mambo and blackback Gourba

Dominant silverback Lulengo.

Silverback Mvuyekure

Half of Mapuwa group remained behind silverbacks Mapuwa, Vuyekure and Mambo during the interaction, while the other half moved behind dominant silverback Lulengo.  After 45 minutes of posturing, all of the gorillas began to settle down to rest and feed, with the infants and juveniles from either group playing with one another. Adult female Bitangi’s one-month old infant looked to be strong and in good health.

Adult females and infants watch the interaction.Silverback Lulengo keeps an eye on his family members during the interaction

Bitangi carrying her 1-month-old infant on her back.

Fortunately, this interaction was peaceful and did not result in any injuries. We look forward to observing how the group demographics shift as these two families continue to range in close proximity.


Rugendo Group Battles Respiratory Disease Outbreak

The Rugendo group mountain gorillas have been battling a respiratory disease outbreak since early April, keeping Drs. Eddy and Martin on their toes as they administer treatment to the group members most severely affected by the illness. 

Several group members began to exhibit symptoms of a respiratory infection on April 14th, when the ICCN trackers observed silverback Bukima coughing on the first day, with silverback Kongomani coughing on the next day. As the week progressed, blackback Noel and juvenile Mastaki also began to show symptoms and the Gorilla Doctors were notified for a veterinary assessment.

Silverback Kongomani with nasal discharge.

On April 20, Dr. Eddy traveled from Goma to the Bukima patrol post in Virunga National Park. It is the rainy season and the travel was arduous, particularly on the muddy road near Bukima, and his truck got stuck on three separate occasions. The Head DRC Field Vet eventually made it to his destination and prepared to enter the forest early the following morning.

Rugendo group was ranging in the Kinyagurube area of the park at 2162 meters in altitude on the morning of April 21. The group was resting when Dr. Eddy and the field team arrived. Immediately, six gorillas were observed coughing: silverbacks Kongomani and Bukima, adult female Janja, subadult male Bagambe, juvenile Mastaki and blackback Noel. Silverback Kongomani appeared lethargic and anorexic and he had not moved from his night nest. His cough was deep and laborious and was clearly in need of veterinary treatment.  Dr. Eddy darted the silverback with an antibiotic and in the coming days, administered antibiotics to Bagambe, Baseka, Janja and her infant.

Dr. Eddy prepares medication for the intervention.

Janja resting with her infant

Janja's infant in Rugendo group, Virunga National Park

On April 28, when Dr. Eddy was en route back to Rugendo group, his field team was charged by a lone male buffalo. One of the trackers was severely injured when the buffalo's horn cut into the side of his head. Dr. Eddy administered first aid treatment, stopping the bleeding and wrapping the wound, and he accompanied him back to the patrol post, where an ICCN nurse sutured the wound. Once the tracker was taken care of, Dr. Eddy and the field team returned to the forest to trek Rugendo group.

Dr. Eddy stops the bleeding on a tracker's head injury after being charged by a buffalo.

On May 5, Drs. Eddy and Martin returned to the group to follow up on the sick gorillas. Upon arrival to the group, silverback Kongomani and blackback Noel appeared anxious and were charging and vocalizing. The field team quickly realized that the rest of the group was nowhere to be seen. The two males charged the field team and Drs. Eddy and Martin and the accompanying ICCN trackers retreated. They came upon a trail which led them to an unknown lone silverback. The large male did not charge and seemed habituated to human presence.  Drs. Eddy and Martin observed him for 10 minutes while the silverback fed calmly before leaving to track the rest of Rugendo group. After an hour, the field team located the other group members, none of whom were exhibiting any signs of respiratory illness. The group was calm and feeding on bamboo shoots and Drs. Eddy and Martin reported that each individual was in good visual health.

Kongomani, Janja and her infant resting among the bamboo.

Silverback Bukima and other members of Rugendo group in Virunga National Park.

Second only to trauma (e.g. fatal injuries caused by fights, accidents or snares), infectious disease is the leading cause of death in mountain gorillas, accounting more than 20% of mortality. The most common infection is respiratory disease, which can range from a mild cold to severe pneumonia. For this reason, Gorilla Doctors respond quickly to treat respiratory disease outbreaks to prevent the illness from spreading further in the group and keep any affected individuals from becoming so sick that it could be life threatening.



Orphan Kalonge Receives Treatment for Suspected Respiratory Infection

Orphan Grauer's gorilla Kalonge was rescued in early March after she was caught in a snare and brought to a local village chief by a group of young boys outside of Kahuzi Biega National Park (read about her rescue here). Through a joint rescue operation by ICCN and Gorilla Doctors, 2-year-old Kalonge was brought to the Senkwekwe Center in Rumangabo, DRC for medical treatment and rehabilitation after her ordeal. Kalonge was thin, dehydrated, coughing and had a snare wound around her left wrist when she arrived at Senkwekwe. But over the last 6 months, the youngster has made a full recovery and has been in good health. Gorilla Doctors recently received the results of her genetic analysis by the Max Planck Institute, confirming her subspecies as Grauer's. Very soon, she will be moved to the GRACE center in Kasugho, DRC, where she will join a group of rehabilitated orphan Grauer's gorillas and finally have a family again. 
Unfortunately, Kalonge's caretakers reported that their young charge was coughing again on October 23rd. Dr. Martin made the trek from Goma to Rumangabo to assess Kalonge's health and administer treatment (if deemed necessary).
Orphan Grauer's gorilla Kalonge, in her enclosure at the Senkwekwe Center.
Here is Dr. Martin's report:
"The caretakers reported that Kalonge had begun coughing overnight and was having some difficulty breathing. I began my assessment in the afternoon but continued to observe her well into the night to get a full observation of her health condition. Kalonge's appetite and behavior were both normal during my observation - she was alert, responsive and active. When night fell, she began coughing and had some nasal discharge. Her breathing became more labored as well. 
Later in the night, I heard a troop of wild baboons (which live in the forest near the Senkwekwe Center) coughing. It is very possible that Kalonge acquired her respiratory infection from a wild baboon as her outdoor enclosure is open and occasionally other primates will pass through the trees. 
I made the decision to administer an oral antibiotic to help Kalonge overcome her respiratory illness. Her caretakers will continue to closely monitor and report her progress to Gorilla Doctors daily, but she should make a full recovery and be ready for her transport to the GRACE center in the coming weeks."
While at the Senkwekwe Center, Dr. Martin made a visual assessment of the orphan mountain gorillas who reside there, Maisha, Ndakasi, Ndeze, and Matabishi. He reports that the little family of orphans was in good visual health and enjoying playing in their sunny outdoor enclosure during his visit. 
7-year-old orphan mountain gorilla Ndakasi, hanging out in a tree in her enclosure at the Senkwekwe Center.

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 is looking 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 trackers, guards and administrators of the national parks, who 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." Gorilla Doctors Laboratory Technician Dr. Methode Bahizi 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.


Jicho's Infant Kidumu Freed from Poacher's Snare by Drs. Eddy and Martin in Virunga National Park

On Monday, August 25, the Gorilla Doctors team received a call from Virunga National Park warden Innocent Mburanumwe notifying our veterinarians that a baby mountain gorilla named Kidumu, the infant of adult female Jicho, was caught in a snare. The park rangers had spotted the snare that morning and was able to cut it free from the anchor point in the vegetation, but the wire noose remained around her arm. 

Infant Kidumu with mother Jicho, before the intervention.

Kidumu is one of the infants in the Mapuwa family, a group of 20 mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park that ranges in the Jomba and Bikenge areas of the park. The group is lead by dominant silverback Mapuwa, but he is now getting old and the second ranking silverback, Mvuyekure, is taking over leadership responsibilities. 

Mvuyekure, Dr. Eddy’s “favorite gorilla” has an interesting story:  it is rumored that when he was a young juvenile, he was poached from the park and park authorities confiscated him at the Bunagana border (on the border of Uganda and DRC). ICCN officials decided to reintroduce him back in his group since he was positively identified. Mvuyekure was successfully reintroduced and now he is a silverback, leading the group. 

Silverback Mvuyekure in Mapuwa group. Virunga National Park, DRC.

Here is Dr. Eddy’s report from the intervention:

“We left Goma around 11am and reached the Jomba patrol post after three hours of travel. Dr. Martin and I, along with a team of ICCN rangers and porters, started treking at 2:30pm, walking along the park boundary in community potato fields. 

The intervention team: Drs. Eddy and Martin, ICCN trackers and porters.

We located the group at 3:45pm, about 200 meters from the park boundary around the Runyoni area (where the M23 rebel group’s former headquarters were located). The group was moving fast looking for bamboo shoots and getting close to nesting time for the evening. We spotted the ensnared baby and she was clinging to her mother Jicho. It was clear that both mother and infant would have to be anesthetized to safely complete the intervention. 

Dr. Martin darted Jicho with the anesthesia first and once she was fully sedated, I hand injected the anesthesia for Kidumu at 4:25pm. ICCN rangers quickly and efficiently formed a protective barrier around Jicho and the infant so that we could safely complete our work. 

Mother Jicho is also sedated so that Drs. Eddy and Martin can safely remove the snare from her infant's arm.

The wire snare was wrapped tightly around Kidumu’s left bicep. The wire was pressing tightly into the skin and the arm was slightly swollen, but thankfully, there was no open wound yet. The snare was removed with wire cutters, a physical exam was completed and samples were collected for future research.

Dr. Eddy works quickly to conduct an exam and collect samples while the infant is under anesthesia.

During the intervention, silverback Mvuyekure and the other group members were mostly quiet, feeding and moving in the periphery. But when the baby began to wake from the anesthesia, the silverback was alert and started charging aggressively. Since it was time for the gorillas to start making their night nests, we left the group and Mvuyekure joined adult female Jicho and infant Kidumu.”

Mother Jicho and infant slowly wake from the anesthesia after the intervention.

Mother Jicho slowly recovers from the anesthesia and moves off to join the group.

This is the ninth snare intervention Gorilla Doctors has conducted in 2014 (five in DRC, three in Rwanda, and one in Uganda). At the end of the M23 occupation of the Mikeno sector, the community members came back to their villages, and among them were poachers. This could perhaps explain the seeming increase in snare incidents in Virunga National Park within the previous months.

It is important to point out that in general, poachers set snares to catch antelope and other forest animals in order to feed their families. The land surrounding mountain gorilla habitat is some of the most densely populated in Africa, and most of the population is extremely poor. The pressure for food is enormous and some people turn to poaching to survive. Unfortunately, gorillas, especially infants and juveniles, sometimes get caught in these snares. Gorillas may lose limbs or digits to snares, or die as a result of infection or strangulation so Gorilla Doctors immediately mobilize to intervene and free the ensnared gorilla when a report comes in from the field.