The pioneering group of vets performing this medical intervention is known as Gorilla Doctors. Led by Canadian Mike Cranfield, they work in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, where the world`s last Mountain Gorillas can be found.
Gorilla Doctors practice “extreme conservation” and work to bring the endangered mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction, one gorilla at a time. They perform routine check-ups, treat orphaned infants, and even do surgery right on the jungle bed. It’s both incredibly risky and important work, as only 880 Mountain Gorillas are left.
The great apes are threatened from all sides. Poaching and habitat destruction are problems, to say nothing of rebel armies making a base out of the gorillas’ home in Congo`s Virunga National Park. In their extreme efforts to save the mountain gorilla, Gorilla Doctors have been held at gunpoint by rebel soldiers while making their rounds. And more than 140 Park Rangers have been killed in the past decade alone, trying to protect the gorillas and their Park.
But more than rebels or poachers, Gorilla Doctors worry about the threat of human disease. Because they share 98% of our DNA, gorillas are susceptible to nearly all human diseases. And with no immunity, they can die from even a simple human cold. With so few mountain gorillas in the world, the vets want to prevent the death of even one.
It`s for this reason that the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda decide to intervene to treat Muturengere, a sick young adult-male gorilla, even when they know that he has a history of being aggressive. Park Rangers put themselves between Muturengere and the vets as the Gorilla Doctors lift their dart guns to inject him with antibiotics. As if on cue, Muturengere charges. How dangerous can they be? Mike Cranfield responds, “There`s been trackers and guides that have been bitten, there`s been veterinarians that have been bitten. The gorillas are looking to protect their families. But the bites can be fairly severe and painful.”
Living near some of the most densely-populated areas in Africa, the risk of disease transmission is so serious that Cranfield believes pro-actively vaccinating the gorillas is one of the best ways to ensure their survival. But is this going too far? Critics fear that with this level of intervention, the mountain gorilla is losing its “wildness”, and will end up living like any other zoo animal, except with food that regenerates and a much bigger living space. For his part, Mike Cranfield believes that the threats to the gorillas are so severe that it`s either intervention, or extinction.
Even admiring eco-tourists pose a threat to the great apes. Every year, nearly 30,000 people go to Rwanda and pay top dollar to visit the gorillas. While that money has gone a long way towards protecting the Park and the gorillas, allowing so many people to come so close to the gorillas also increases the risk of disease transmission. And while the tourists are supposed to stay seven metres away from the gorillas, in practice that`s not always possible. It`s not hard to imagine that some day an unknowing tourist – enjoying the magical experience of being up close with mountain gorillas – will also bring a disease along with them.
Gorilla Doctors was pProduced by 52 Media, Inc. and directed by Roberto Verdecchia and Michael Boland. It airs this Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 8 PM on CBC-TV.