I woke up very early this morning. For some reason my body just won’t let me sleep past 4:30. So I repacked all my gear and waited for the sun to rise. The sunrise was stunning, and the perfect start to my day. Today Dr. Mike Cranfield and Dr. Jan Ramer were finally back from traveling all over and I could have a chance to hang out with them at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project compound.
The compound is a lovely little oasis with a tidy set of gardens and friendly dogs. Each dog has a story as they were all brought to the vets as puppies on the brink. The compund is full of life, students volunteering or working on research projects, the vets are always running out to quell another emergency, and of course the dogs and gardeners.
I sat down with both Mike and Jan today to get their thoughts on the Akeley project and to learn more about the MGVP and the work they are doing. This week we have learned so much, from Dr. Magdalena Lukasik-Braum and Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani. Mike and Jan filled in even more of the blanks. All the vets who work here are increadibly warm and kindhearted, I guess that’s the type of people a project like this attracts. The best and the brightest, matched with hearts of gold.
I think now I can confidently tell their story. So here it goes.
MGVP is a breakthrough in conservation. When a species like the Mountain Gorilla gets to the critical state this species is in, there is no recourse other than direct intervention. To keep the Gorillas healthy and reproducing requires special hands on care, and this care is one of the great success stories in conservation.
The greatest threat to Gorillas is humans, there is no question. We cut down their forests and farm their homes, and kill them when they take our food. Poachers in search of buffalo and bushbuck (and still today even illegally killing gorilla) lay down snares that maim or kill. Thousands of tourists carrying bacteria and viruses from around the world trundle up after being on a virus filled airplane and cough on the Gorillas food source and every once and a while come in direct contact. The last is the most serious threat of all.
You see, because they are so closely related to us on the genetic level, they are very susceptible to the same diseases we are. Most of us have been immunized from some of the deadlier diseases, but that doesn’t mean we don’t carry them around. It is disease and not guns that will probably kill the last of the gorilla, and the only way to stop that from happening is to give them the same care we get to prevent us from dying. The gorillas are simply a doctor away from survival.
Mike, Jan, Jean Felix, Magdalena and a score of vets in both countries, as well as volunteers and assistants have been filling that role since very soon after the murder of Fossey in ’85. Jan had just met Fossey at Kinosoru a few weeks before she was killed. Dian had requested a vet, realizing that disease had become a threat to her groups, and out of the Digit Fund MGVP was born.
The first clinic was a single vet, Doctor *** and has since grown in to the group of dedicated staff that protect the animals in the mountain range today.
Mike Cranfield has been instrumental in introducing an even greater initiative. The vets here realized very quickly that they would need to work with the tourism industry and local communities to save the Gorillas. In fact, it is tourism that peaks the awareness of the plight of the critically endangered species. The tourists are touched and in turn spread the word further and faster, as they now become emotionally involved. Tourism is actually a large part of why there is so much attention on this issue.
From this awareness comes something much larger, and even more groundbreaking. The ‘One Health’ initiative directly involves itself with the community in and around this fragile ecosystem. MGVP has introduced free heathcare to the workers and families in the park, vaccinate and care for local domestic animals to prevent spread of disease in to the jungle and have worked tirelessly to help teach local people to embrace biofuels and alternative fuel sources other than illegally gathered trees from the protected forests. The local population has come to understand that the gorillas are an important source of income, if not the most important, and by protecting themselves, and the local forest, they make an investment in their own future.
That’s right, a few more than a dozen people do all this as well as visit every gorilla group once a month to observe them, rehabilitate a group of orphaned gorillas, treat gorillas with illnesses or injuries, do groundbreaking research, autopsies, studies and about 10 billion more things each and every day. The office calendar is a giant blackboard filled to the brim with to- do lists for each team member.
Recent studies have shown a MASSIVE 17% increase in the abituated population of mountain gorilla, 4% per year. 2% of that is a direct, provable result of the work that MGVP is doing here right now. No other conservation effort has had success like that. It is a model, that, as we sit on the brink of ecological chaos, will need to be mimicked to save other critical animals as we push them in to final extinction.
I am not a rich man, but a first hand experience with both my beloved Mountain Gorillas and long, deep, moving conversations with my new friends has made me wish I was, so I could give them all the money they need to keep doing this noble task. I realize my only real power is to spread the word through my craft, and to help Stephen and Jeff get everything they need to spread the word further with their art.
So I am spreading the word. I apologize now to all my friends and family that are going to have to listen to me for the rest of my life as I dron on about these wonderful people and the noble task they are entrenched in. I need everyone I can come in contact with to be moved by my story and to in turn donate money, time, or thought to what they do here.
To make an impact, not only on the Gorilla, but on a local population in dire need of well managed aid, and to support some people I genuinely care about, visit www.gorilladoctors.org. There is no umbrella comitee taking that money and spending it on office space, there is just a small group of heroes that need your help to keep up this task that is overwhelming in scale.
Overwhelming and it works.
So that was my day. I went to dinner with Jan and a few of my other friends, in the course of which my Rwandan circle of collegues grew larger as we were joined by Martha Robbins famed researcher who is currently carrying on Dian Fossey’s work, and Marcell Claassen a respected ornithologist and bird guide who recently discovered a wealth of new birds in the last year and regularly guides birding tours around Musanze.
That is the coolest part of Musanze, and really the thing that everyone is missing when they shuttle off on their package tours. Under the ecotourism is a tightknit group of people from Rwanda and around the world working together to keep this specific eco system alive, and in hopes of improving it before it disappears forever. This is a city full of inspired people giving up comfort and ease in a combined effort for the greater good.