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In the Spotlight: Gorilla Doctors

By Kati Taylor

Dr FredDignified, beautiful and critically endangered, the gorilla populations of central Africa offer an unforgettable wildlife experience. Threatened by poachers and habitat destruction, conservation efforts surrounding these incredible animals are more important than ever before. The Gorilla Doctors’ project is dedicated to ensuring their continued survival in the wild. Providing on the ground medical care to primates in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they offer a vital support network for wild gorilla populations.

We caught up with Dr Fred Nizeyimana, a Field Veterinarian for Gorillas Doctors in Uganda, to chat about what fuelled his interest in primates and his experiences alongside them...

TL: Could you tell us a little bit about the Gorilla Doctors project? What does it involve and how long have you been a part of it?

I have been working for Gorilla Doctors for about 7 years now, although I first made contact with them while I was a student. They sponsored me to conduct studies on mountain gorilla populations in Mgahinga National Park, an experience which profoundly influenced my later career decisions.  In terms of the project itself, Gorilla Doctors is a veterinary organisation in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is partnered with UC Davis’ Wildlife Health Center. The ground team is composed of 15 veterinarians plus support staff who are dedicated to monitoring mountain gorilla populations, treating illnesses and caring for orphaned young. Our partnership with the University of California means our work is also a valuable resource for research opportunities.

TL: What inspired you to move into the veterinary field and, more specifically, primate care and conservation?

Gorilla Doctors LogoHaving been born in Kisoro District, I grew up hearing stories of Mountain Gorillas from my family and friends. These thrilling stories about gigantic, majestic creatures - located right in my domain - inspired me to move into veterinary medicine.

After my veterinary bachelor’s degree, I nursed an interest in wildlife/ conservation medicine. I worked with a research project in Kibale National Park in 2005 and cared for chimpanzees at Ngamba Island Sanctuary between 2007 and 2009. Joining the Gorilla Doctors cemented my interest in wildlife conservation and on-the-ground care, and I’ve been at it ever since!

TL: How many gorilla groups do you currently work with? Does each troop have distinct personality and behavior patterns?

Gorilla groupThere are 14 gorilla groups that I currently work with and each exhibits unique and interesting behavioural patterns. Individual gorillas have their own personalities and getting to know them all has been one of my best experiences during my time at Gorilla Doctors. Some troops are more welcoming than others. For instance, Kokono, lead silverback of the Bweza group, is very calm and friendly and his demeanour impacts the rest of the troop. They are friendly towards us and remain calm in our presence. Others, like the Nyakagezi troop, are more suspicious - probably because we have had to intervene and provide medical care on multiple occasions. Most of these groups are involved in habituation programmes which allow visitors to come and observe their behaviour. They offer a fascinating insight into primate behaviour with each gorilla exhibiting an individual personality within their broader group.

TL: Obviously, you provide animal care on the ground - are local communities involved in wildlife conservation efforts?

Yes, local communities certainly have their place in conservation efforts. Powered by local government, community charities and international NGOs, people are beginning to take ownership of the protection movement.

TL: During your years with Gorilla Doctors, have you had any really special moments? Any experiences that you’ll remember forever?

Gorilla troopYes, there have been so many! I already know that I will remember this experience, working closely with these incredible animals, for the rest of my life. Getting to know these communities and offering them the care and treatment that they need has been a real privilege. Some of the most memorable experiences have involved snare removals. Babies are particularly prone to being caught in these painful traps and removing them is a difficult and time consuming procedure. The animal is ‘darted’ and, once tranquilised, we have to remove the snare as quickly as possible to minimise distress for the troop. When I completed my first procedure in 2010, I remember the shouting of the silverbacks and the emotion they showed when the baby was returned to them. I have also completed countless observations - provided gorillas with antibiotic treatments and given them a chance to thrive in the wild. One particularly memorable occasion involved Kabujuko, a leader of one of the troops. He took over the group when he was still a blackback and faced intense challenges from neighbouring silverbacks. He grew very weak and the troop was losing stability. With antibiotics, his condition improved and to see him thriving today makes all the hard work worth it!

TL: You’ve lived in Uganda your entire life, are there any highlights you would recommend for visitors?

BwindiUganda is truly the pearl of Africa. With wonderful people, amazing landscapes and, of course, diverse wildlife; it’s an incredible destination for international visitors. In terms of my recommendations, I would naturally suggest Bwindi and Mgahinga for gorilla trekking experiences. Kibale is great for meeting chimpanzee communities, and Murchison Falls is home to a diverse range of Savannah animals including elephants, antelopes and giraffes. If you’re an outdoor traveller, Elgon offers a hiking experience like no other. The mountain itself is unforgettable and the surrounding area is home to coffee plantations and cascading waterfalls. For sandy beaches and blazing sunsets, the Sese islands would be my ultimate recommendation - perfect for anyone wanting to get away from the modern world! Uganda has so much to offer and is simply waiting to be explored!

TL: How can people help Gorilla Doctors with their primate conservation efforts?

There are so many ways that people can get involved with our work! The simplest way is donation of funds. These funds allow us to buy the equipment we need, provide medical treatments for our gorilla communities and publicise the work we’re doing.  We are also always looking for volunteers to help us with everything from specimen analysis to marketing efforts. There is plenty of information available on the Gorilla Doctors website and all help is appreciated!

GorillaTL: What's next for Gorilla Doctors? Do you see the project expanding or moving into different regions?

Gorilla Doctors has recently expanded its focus to include eastern lowland gorillas as well as mountain ones. We are dedicated to building interest and momentum around wildlife conservation, as well as increasing gorilla numbers across our regions. We want to drive more people into the veterinary and wildlife health disciplines, so we can keep this project going into the future.

TL: And, we’ve got to ask, what would be your top three dream travel destinations around the world?

It’s hard to choose just three but I would have to say Italy, Florida and Peru - I’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu!

Make it happen:

If you want to get involved with the Gorilla Doctors’ conservation efforts, head to their website for more information. If you are wanting to see these wonderful animals for yourself, check out our destination pages or send an enquiry to our local experts in Uganda!