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An insight into the Gorilla Doctors

by Kati Taylor

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We are all concerned for the welfare of the world’s mountain gorillas. Their numbers have dropped to worryingly low figures, but there are an increasing number of organisations out there working to conserve them. We sat down with Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri, a field vet for the fantastic Gorilla Doctors project, to find out a little more about what they do and his role in their team.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Gorilla Doctors project? What is its purpose and how long have you been involved?

DR. JEAN BOSCO NOHERIYou may remember Dian as the protagonist of Gorillas in the Mist. She pretty much single-handedly stopped the downhill decline of the population. We call her the founder of the Gorilla Doctors of today, as she made a request to put a veterinarian on the side of the mountain gorillas to stop needless deaths from human induced health issues. Unfortunately, she was murdered before she saw this request fulfilled.

Answering her request, Ruth Keesling - with the help of her father’s Morris Animal Foundation - hired Dr. Jim Foster in 1986 to look after the mountain gorillas. As time has passed, we have grown from just one vet to a large team, now made up of 15 vets and known as “The Gorilla Doctors”.

We are dedicated to conserving wild mountain and eastern lowland (or Grauer's) gorillas. Our team of veterinarians is the only group providing these critically endangered animals with direct, hands-on care in the wild.

I officially joined the Gorilla Doctors in November 2009 as regional laboratory manager and got promoted to the position of field veterinarian in April 2012.

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

Baby gorilla exploring in RwandaWell, it’s hard to tell but I grew up in a small farmer family and my dreams were to be either a nurse or a vet. Based on my performance in school examinations, I was sent to do the veterinary medicine course, and through this my interests grew more into wildlife health and threats.  My first professional desire was to invest myself in gorillas’ healthcare and conservation, but otherwise my inspiration is born from a love of animals in general.

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

Group dynamics change really frequently, but as I am answering you, in Rwanda we work with 11 gorilla groups with tourists, and 10 gorilla groups just for research. Population-wise I would say behaviour patterns are similar given the family structure and hierarchy, though their attitude may change according to whether there are people present or not – we can never be certain.

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

Golden Monkey - RwandaThe local communities are involved in conservation efforts. Park management (run by the Government) and its partners try to engage them at all levels of conservation. Work-wise, we step in and get involved with the community when there are animals -  Golden monkeys, Buffalo, Elephant, Antelope etc. - in their fields or houses and we need to bring them back in the park. On those occasions we talk to them about zoonotic diseases to help them understand why.

With our Employee Health programme, we reach out to families of trackers and rangers and teach them about family planning. We also distribute de-womers (drugs for intestinal worms) every quarter.

Finally, in partnership with conservation heritage Turambe, we do take some sessions to talk to primary school kids about the health and conservation of gorillas in general.

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

Baby Gorilla in RwandaI definitely have, but it is not easy to rank them!

- My first amazing day was simply when I started working with Gorilla Doctors. I got to see my dreams to be a wildlife veterinarian becoming a reality.

- Every clinical case leaves memories with me; it is always encouraging to see a gorilla in his/her group doing well after you have performed a clinical intervention.

- I will never forget my first trip to USA. It was my first time out of Africa, first time in an aircraft and I was exposed to new culture, weather and living style. 

Are there any particular Rwanda highlights you would recommend for visitors?

There are loads of things to do when you visit Rwanda, but I would recommend the following:

Silverback Gorilla - Rwanda1. Gorilla trekking

2. Visit Akagera National Park

3. Go to the genocide memorial site - it's not the most happy experience, but a profound one

4. Expose yourself to the culture of the local people

5. Visit Nyungwe National park

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

1. Simply become our friend by following and sharing our reports with the rest of the world

2. Donate veterinary supplies

3. Make a donation (even just $1) to support our programmes

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

I'd love to travel further, and I'd love to visit:

1. Saint Peter’s Church, Italy

2. The South African National Parks

3. London, UK

Make it happen

If you are interested in planning a trip to see mountain gorillas, then get in touch with our local experts in Rwanda and Uganda. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call 0117 325 7898.

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