Entries in Virunga National Park (41)
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. 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 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."
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:
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
**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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.