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Entries in Virunga National Park (38)


Dr. Eddy Intervenes to Free Ensnared Bageni Group Baby

Kagera, who is estimated to be 1.5 years old, is a male infant born to mother Rubaka during the M23 rebel occupation of the Mikeno Sector in 2012. He is one of only two infants in Bageni group in Virunga National Park. With M23 occupying the gorilla sector during the time of his birth, Gorilla Doctors was not able to safely conduct routine health monitoring of the habituated mountain gorillas, so the first time Kagera was observed by one our veterinarians was on February 11, 2013. Since then, he has been in good health and growing larger and stronger by the day.

The two infants in Bageni group in Virunga National Park.

Last weekend, Chief Park Warden of the Mikeno Sector Innocent Mburanumwe contacted Gorilla Doctors after Kagera was seen with a snare wrapped around his right leg. The remnants of the snare were trailing the baby as he moved around and Kagera was reportedly limping. To make matters worse, his mother was observed leaving him behind to travel on his own as the group moved in the rain (instead of carrying him on her back as is typical with a young infant).  

Drs. Eddy and Martin immediately made the journey from Goma to Rumangabo, prepared to intervene and remove the snare on Sunday, August 16. Here is Dr. Eddy’s report:

“Early Sunday morning, Dr. Martin and I joined a team of ICCN rangers and trekked from the Gatovu patrol post up to Bageni group, loaded down with intervention equipment and supplies. An advance team of trackers had moved in ahead to locate the group and found them in the Hagarara area. They radioed to us, providing details of the group’s exact location and we quickly made our way through the dense forest.

When we arrived to the group, dominant silverback Bageni was resting with two females and both infants. Kagera was resting on his mother, Rubaka, and the nylon rope snare was wrapped loosely around his right ankle.

Silverback Bageni resting with adult female Rubaka and her infant Kagera.

We observed three wounds on the sole of his foot and his leg was slightly swollen. When the group began moving, the infant followed his mother, dragging his leg and crying out, likely because the wounds on his foot were causing him pain and he didn’t want to be left behind. We made the decision to anesthetize both the infant and his mother to ensure the intervention could be completed safely for both the infant and the field team.

At 11:07am, mother Rubaka was anesthetized with a combination of Ketamine and Dexmedetomidine, while Kagera was darted with Ketamine alone for sedation. When the baby was darted, he screamed, alerting silverback Bageni who quickly moved in to stand guard over the mother and infant. 

About 10 minutes passed and both animals were fully sedated when silverback Bageni allowed us to approach. We removed the rope snare, cleaned the wounds with Betadine, administered antibiotics and anti-inflammatory/pain medications and conducted physical exams of both animals. We also collected blood, fecal and urine samples, as well as oral and nasal swabs for future research and testing. 

Dr. Eddy removes the rope snare from the infant's ankle.

The infant's foot had small superficial wounds, likely from other group members trying to remove the snare.

Drs. Eddy and Martin work quickly to remove the snare, complete a physical exam and collect samples.

Once the intervention was complete, the mother woke first and moved off into the forest after the group. We carried Kagera, who was still groggy from the anesthesia, to the group so that he would not be left behind and another subadult female stepped in to care for the baby in place of his mother. After 40 minutes, Rubaka reappeared and retrieved Kagera, carrying him away into the dense vegetation.

Trackers will continue to closely monitor the situation to make sure that Kagera's wounds don't become infected and his behavior, feeding and energy level remains normal. Drs. Eddy or Martin will revisit the group in the coming days to assess the infant's condition.


This is the eighth gorilla that Gorilla Doctors has freed from a poacher's snare this year. Help us ensure that every ensnared gorilla will receive treatment through an emergency medical intervention by making a secure online donation today:


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.  


Baby Mountain Gorilla Freed from Snare in Virunga National Park’s Mapuwa Group

By Dr. Jan Ramer

Dr. Eddy, the Head Veterinarian for Gorilla Doctors in DR Congo was notified that a mountain gorilla had become ensnared in Virunga National Park’s Mapuwa group on May 21st. Since Dr. Martin was doing Routine Health Checks at Mt. Tshaiberimu and could not assist with the intervention, I immediately traveled from our headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda to meet Dr. Eddy in Goma, DRC. From there, we made the 1.5 hour drive to the Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo.

Mapuwa group is accessed from the Jomba patrol post in PNVi, so Eddy and I stayed in Rumangabo so that we could get to Jomba early the next morning. We arrived to the Jomba patrol post the following morning at 8:30am after a 2-hour drive on some pretty challenging roads.

We started walking from the patrol post at 9am, reaching the forest edge in about an hour.  Unfortunately we did not find the gorillas until 2:30pm – crazy that gorillas can hide in the forest, but they can! The gorillas were slightly suspicious of our field team, presumably because they are typically not visited that late in the day.  With 3 silverbacks and 2 blackbacks, the group is very well guarded! 

Dr. Eddy and Virunga National Park trackers look at GPS coordinates to try to determine the location of the group.

We got a pretty clear observation of the ensnared female gorilla, but there was no opportunity for a good “shot” with anesthesia to remove the snare.  We had to stop trying at 4pm so that we could walk back to the patrol post (by the time we found the gorillas the patrol post was 1.5 hours walk) and find a place to stay before dark. It was a long, tiring and frustrating day.   

Once we were back out of the forest, we drove about an hour to Bunagana and found a guest house where we could stay the night. We set out very early the next morning and luckily found the group by 9am. They were feeding and relatively calm, although one of the silverbacks was suspicious enough to stay with the unidentified female and her ensnared baby.  The Virunga National Park trackers were great and gently moved him away.  I darted the mother and once she was asleep, Dr. Eddy darted the infant (estimated to be about 2.5-years-old). 

The ensnared infant and her mother.

The wire snare was on two fingers of her right hand. Eddy easily removed it - the wire had cut through the skin, but did not cut the tendons.  Her finger was quite swollen but should heal completely.  

The snare was caught around the gorilla's first two fingers.

We collected samples from mom and baby, and administered the reversal to wake then up once the exam was complete. They woke up calmly and moved back to the group. There was no screaming, no silverback charging - all in all, a very calm and efficient intervention!   

Drs. Jan and Eddy conduct the snare removal intervention.

The mother, groggy from the anesthesia, wakes up with her infant in her arms.

We took “noseprint photos” (photos of the gorilla’s faces) so that we could try to identify each individual. Because the M23 rebel group occupied the area around Jomba patrol post, the Virunga National Park rangers were unable to monitor these gorillas for a time. Many villagers in the area lost their lives during this time, and now much of the land surrounding this area of the forest lies fallow, though families are now starting to come back. Without regular monitoring over the last 2 years, the trackers are working to familiarize themselves with the individual gorillas again. Gorilla Doctors will be assisting the park with creating noseprint photo booklets for ease of identification.

Between the 4.5-hour drive back to Goma, the border crossing into Rwanda, and the 1-hour drive to Musanze, I got back home to the Musanze headquarters at 5:30pm that evening. It was a long and tiring two days but ultimately, we accomplished our goal: to free and treat an ensnared gorilla who will hopefully live to have babies of her own in years to come! 


Newest Orphan Kalonge Completes Quarantine Period, Examined by Docs at the Senkwekwe Center


Orphaned infant gorilla Kalonge at the Senkwekwe Center. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

by Dr. Eddy Kambale

On March 12th, the Congolese Park Authority (ICCN) informed Gorilla Doctors that a young gorilla had been confiscated in Kalonge village, outside of Kahuzi Biega National Park. The female infant, estimated to be between 2 and 3-years-old was named Kalonge after the village where she was rescued. ICCN reported that she had been caught in a snare and brought to the chief of a local village by some young boys. Being aware of gorilla conservation efforts in the region, the chief turned her over to the ICCN authorities.

Kalonge was temporarily housed at the Lwiro Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre in South Kivu province for initial care, and she was kept separate from the rescued chimpanzees who reside at the Centre. On March 13th, Kalonge was transferred by boat to Goma in the North Kivu province and then travelled onto the Senkwekwe Centre in Rumangabo (Virunga National Park HQ).

Kalonge began her quarantine period on March 13th and has since received round-the-clock care from two experienced caretakers, Babo and Phillippe (both former ICCN rangers). When she first arrived, it was clear that she was very frightened, but took to Babo immediately for comfort and security. She had no external wounds upon first examination, however there were healed scars on her left wrist and two circular scars on her head.  She was thin, with some muscle wasting in her arms and legs, and slightly dehydrated. 

Since her confiscation, Kalonge has also had a persistent cough, however her health has been quite stable compared to other orphan gorillas we have monitored during past quarantine periods. Kalonge’s appetite has been very good and she has been enjoying forest food (mostly wild celery collected in the surrounding forest). When Kalonge takes her bottle of milk, it’s important that no one disturbs her or comes too close as she is very serious about her milk and ready to attack anybody who tries to touch her bottle.

On May 5th, Drs. Jan and I, along with volunteer veterinarian Dr. Jessica Magenwirth, conducted her first quarantine exam under full anesthesia. From her physical examination, no abnormalities were detected. We administered a Tuberculosis test with Mammalian Old Tuberculine (MOT), administered vaccinations and a deworming medication.

Drs. Eddy and Jan, and volunteer veterinarian Dr. Jessica Magenwirth conduct Kalonge's exam. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Orphan Kalonge's TB test. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Kalonge, under anesthesia during her quarantine exam. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

We also collected samples for disease screening and genetic studies to determine her subspecies. If the results show that she is a mountain gorilla, she will be transitioned into the small group of four mountain gorilla orphans at the Senkwekwe Center (Maisha, Ndakasi, Ndeze, and Matabishi). If the results show her to be a Grauer’s gorilla, she will join the 14 other Grauer’s gorilla orphans at the GRACE center in northeastern DRC.

The laboratory results (chemistry, hematology and fecal exams) did not show any sign of illness and the tuberculosis reaction test appeared to be negative on 24, 48 and 72 hours of reading. To treat Kalonge’s persistent cough, we started her on antibiotics to fight a suspected bacterial respiratory infection. After the exam was complete, she awoke from the anesthesia in her caretaker's arms.

Orphan female gorilla Kalonge recovers from the anesthesia in her caretaker's arms. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Kalonge is currently doing really well at the Senkwekwe Center and we are waiting for results from her genetic analysis, which will determine her future home.

Kalonge plays in her enclosure at the Senkwekwe Center. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg


Volunteer Vet Dr. Jessica Magenwirth Works with Gorilla Doctors in DRC

Volunteer veterinarian Dr. Jessica Magenwirth, 27, joined Gorilla Doctors for one month as her first work experience after graduating from veterinary school at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, in April 2014. Growing up in the southwest of Germany, she studied veterinary medicine at the University of Ghent, Belgium, Cornell University, NY, and Freie Universität Berlin. Her primary interests are in the fields of wildlife medicine, conservation and infectious diseases, which she is hoping to incorporate in her future career. Following her time with Gorilla Doctors, her plan is to continue working in Uganda and then move on to work as a veterinarian in Southeast Asia.

Dr. Jessica Magenwirth. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Dr. Magenwirth writes about her exciting month in DRC, working with Drs. Eddy, Martin and Jan with Grauer's and mountain gorillas:

"No amount of vet school training quite prepares you for your first health exam on a gorilla – nor for seeing them at close range in the wild. Expecting mainly lab and computer work in Rwanda, most of my time volunteering with Gorilla Doctors was instead spent in the field together with Dr. Eddy Kambale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not bad for my first trip to Africa, and my first veterinary experience since graduating from vet school earlier this year!

First Gorilla Encounters in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Getting to Kahuzi Biega, our first destination in Congo, took almost a full day. The day began with a sunrise border crossing and a four-hour boat ride across Lake Kivu. We spent a hectic few hours in the surprisingly large town of Bukavu searching for working ATMs, picking up Congolese SIM-cards and buying enough supplies to last us a week. Once we arrived to the Kahuzi Biega Park Headquarters, we quickly settled in. A visit to this park meant meeting silverback Chimanuka and his family, the only fully habituated Grauer’s gorilla group in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Dr. Eddy taught me the basics of gorilla health monitoring in the forest, listening for coughing and trying to get good views of a lesion on a juvenile’s foot. Part of the focus was also simply identifying the various members of this large group. In all honesty, having my first ever encounter with wild gorillas kept me fairly distracted for most of the first day in the field!

Dr. Magenwirth photographs lead silverback Chimanuka in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

We did not spend all our time with Chimanuka group, however. One of the many highlights of our week in Kahuzi Biega was a gruelling hike to an unhabituated group of gorillas. We finally found them after more than three hours of trudging through the dense forest, slipping and sliding down numerous hills, sinking into swamps, twisting my ankle and crossing rivers – not to mention being bitten by ants, stung by nettles and scratched by thorns. Although we never saw much of the gorillas, they certainly made their presence known: shouting, grunting and the sound of bodies crashing through the vegetation could be heard all around us. We were treated to the occasional glimpse of female gorillas hiding in bushes and trees. Exhausted but extremely happy with such a rare encounter – visiting unhabituated gorilla groups is not something many people get a chance to do – we celebrated the experience (and the two hour hike back) with cooking on an old petrol stove, a selection of cheesy 90s music and icey cold showers.

Orphan Exams and Trekking in Virunga National Park

Next, I traveled to Africa’s oldest national park in eastern DRC with Drs. Jan, Eddy and Martin. Formerly known as Albert National Park, getting to Virunga requires travel on an insecure road that stretches from Goma to Rumangabo. This is the same road where Chief Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed and gravely wounded just weeks prior. 

Expecting all of our time to be dedicated to gorillas, we were pleasantly surprised by an invitation to visit a group of chimpanzees currently being habituated near the park headquarters in Rumangabo.

A male chimpanzee in Virunga National Park. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

The short hike took us through beautiful rainforest, and the chimpanzees turned out to be a very different experience from their larger cousins: their screams of excitement and concern, their quick movements through the canopy and that look of awareness particular to the eyes of the great apes left us with sore necks, but in absolute awe of what we had just experienced. We continued to the Senkwekwe orphanage, getting our first view of the following days’ patients (Kalange, Maisha, Ndeze and Ndakasi), before finishing the day with a view of Nyiragongo volcano’s famous lava lake glowing in the night sky. 

Nyiragongo volcano from the Virunga National Park headquarters. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

The following morning, dldest orphan Maisha was first in line to receive her annual health check, although much of the morning was taken up with preparing the drugs for anaesthesia and possible emergencies, organising sample tubes and going over protocols and checklists. At 65kg and very suspicious of Dr. Eddy, it took a while to anaesthetise her, but once she was fully under, the rest of the exam proceeded without complications. 

Next up was little Kalange. Much younger and more vulnerable than Maisha, this was her first thorough health exam – there was even some doubt about her gender until we could confirm that she is indeed female. I felt much more useful this time, knowing more about what was required of me than earlier that morning. Taking an active part in the orphan’s health checks was incredibly rewarding, but watching Kalange wake up in her caretaker’s arms was the most adorable sight imaginable.  

Mountain gorilla orphan Kalonge wakes up from anesthesia in her caretaker's arms. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Ndakasi’s exam was the most complicated of the three, and showed that there is nothing routine about these routine health checks. Anaesthetising her took a long time; she continuously presented only the front part of her body, which cannot be darted. Once we began examining her she needed careful monitoring, as she was having trouble keeping up her respiratory rate. We soon discovered the cause of this and her unwell appearance: the pustules that had been observed on her lips the day before covered the mucosa of her lips and tongue, and her throat was swollen, haemorrhagic and her tonsils clearly enlarged. Dr. Jan took charge of biopsies and the special needs of the pathological findings while Dr. Eddy and I conducted the sampling, monitoring and finally, the treatment.

Dr. Jessica helps Drs. Jan and Eddy with Ndakasi's exam. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

As processing Ndakasi’s samples was now a priority, we left for Rwanda immediately and spent a long evening in the laboratory at the Gorilla Doctors Musanze Headquarters with Drs. Methode and Noel and visiting veterinarian Dr. Izzy Hirji.

Examining Ndakasi, Kalange and Maisha together with veterinarians as skilled and knowledgeable as Drs. Eddy and Jan was easily my most special work-related experience so far. On the whole, spending this time in Congo with Gorilla Doctors was more rewarding (and exciting) than I could have possibly imagined, and I now have even more respect for the amazing job done by the Gorilla Doctors, both in the field and in the labs. Over the last month, countless park officials and NGO workers have reinforced my impression that their involvement in the conservation of Africa’s remaining gorillas is of crucial importance. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spend time in the field with such a great team, and hope to be back here again one day."


**Disclaimer** While we would love to give every one of our fantastic volunteer veterinarians a chance to perform hands-on gorilla medical care, this is not always possible due to government regulations. Dr. Magenwirth's experience was the exception, not the rule, and we ask that prospective volunteers keep this in mind when applying to volunteer with us. For more information about volunteering with Gorilla Doctors, go to http://www.gorilladoctors.org/volunteer.

***All photos by Marcus Westberg of Life Through A Lens Photography.***