Going Gorillas for Conservation

Wildlife Health and Conservation

As the Anthropocene continues to dominate and exploit the natural world, the concern for preserving biodiversity grows. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), we are experiencing rates nearly 10,000 times that of background extinction rates, or those than can be expected normally. The Science and Development Network estimate that of the nearly 6,000 mammal species described to date, 21% have become deemed threatened by 2010 (SciDev.Net). With most scientists in agreement that these accelerated rates are due to human activity, that of a single species, it is critical that more individuals dedicate their lives to righting this wrong.

The field of ecology and conservation is multidisciplinary and calls for individuals with every skill set. At UC Davis, a world leading university in environmental sciences, a student interested in a future of saving the natural world may do so in a number of disciplines. Temporally speaking, we are in what ecologists call the Era of Conservation Biology. When describing this new era, the state of Delaware’s Wildlife Action Plan reports that with “conservation laws in place and with more and more public involvement, preserving and restoring our endangered wildlife species has finally become possible” (Delaware Wildlife Action Plan). This statement implies that the issue of conservation goes far beyond the notion of scientific data collection and publications, but rather, is relying more and more on interdisciplinary communications and keeping an informed public. For example, empirical data on species decline does nothing to help the species until it is used to construct a conservation procedure. This is the key idea behind the One Health Institute initiative to improve human, animal, and environmental health collectively. Some wildlife health projects are now using this holistic mindset in their conservation programs and policies. Considering the One Health approach originated at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, it is no surprise their wildlife health programs are succeeding with this method.  

The One Health trifecta

Wildlife Health Center and Gorilla Doctors

Institutions such as UC Davis (UCD) have created organizations like their world-renowned Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center (WHC) to provide a platform for the One Health approach for their varying conservation programs. As the WHC explains on its website, the goal of each project is “to advance the health of wildlife in balance with people and the environment.” They not only has an office open to the public at the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine, but also a website providing up-to-date information on the goals, partnerships, challenges, and successes of the center. The WHC website homepage features a mission statement as well as links to their social media accounts, donation page, partnerships, and various wildlife health programs. This paper focuses on a specific program, Gorilla Doctors, but the bigger picture, highlighting the importance of communication, pertains to other projects as well.

Gorilla Doctors is a collaboration between the UCD Wildlife Health Center and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. This program is aimed at monitoring and treating both mountain and eastern lowland (also known as Grauer’s) gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. Gorilla Doctors also works with personnel at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), L’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI), the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), as well as many others. When working with this many international organizations, exchanging information and collaborating on action plans are paramount to the success of the program. Gorilla Doctors has an established method  for communicating information internally as well as with their various partner organizations. For the sake of clarity, I will primarily focus on the gorilla health monitoring aspect of the program. This is the veterinary medicine-based side of the project that works in the field to provide medical care to the gorillas when needed. At the end of the paper I will briefly touch on the non-science-based communications involved in maintaining their efficacy. The following seven sections summarize how the Gorilla Doctors monitor gorilla health with the program listed on their “About Us” webpage.


Gorilla Health Monitoring

Routine monitoring of the gorillas is a first step to establishing health records for purposes of tracking health patterns over time. Just like humans can prevent illness by monitoring their health and having regular check-ups, Gorilla Doctors veterinarians and affiliates must make routine visits to ensure a healthy population. The doctors keep track of individual gorillas through identification trackers or nose prints that can be matched through an extensive photo archive. The field veterinarians work with park rangers in performing regular health surveillance. These checkups have a set protocol for how to detect any irregularities. Logistics for these treks are arranged via email, phone call, or face-to-face communications. Planning the trips also requires communication with those who are aware of the political climate of the area and whether it is safe for field work. In 2009, the team made zero routine visits to DRC due to the safety issue of traveling through areas occupied by guerrilla war groups (Annual Report 2009).

The routine monitoring observations from both field veterinarians and park ranger trackers are first taken as notes, compiled in a Google Spreadsheet, and then eventually added to the Internet Management Program to Assist Conservation Technologies (IMPACT) database (Cho). As of June 2015, the Gorilla Doctors IMPACT system had over 23,000 data entries (Monitoring and Intervention). This database ensures that all team members can input and use up-to-date data from almost any location despite the vast geographic range of the project. This data includes medical reports that are eventually trimmed and redistributed in blog form or on social media by Marketing and Development Coordinator, Eunah Cho. She explains how her job “allows the data to reach an even wider audience beyond those with access to IMPACT so that more people can stay informed of ongoing issues and developments in the gorilla conservation world” (Cho).

Veterinary Interventions

When the veterinarians and park rangers monitoring the great apes notice a problem needing their assistance, such as a gorilla with a possible respiratory infection, the next step is intervention. The head veterinarian of each country is responsible for constructing a proper and feasible intervention plan. The veterinarian uses routine health monitoring and follow-up reports to determine the best plan of action. The responsible head vet keeps the entire Gorilla Doctors team informed by recording and distributing the plan via email listserv after it has been reviewed and shared with park staff and government authorities in the area (Cho).

Watch gorilla Noel being treated for a cold by the Gorilla Doctors team

Caring for Orphaned Gorillas

When team members find an orphaned gorilla during routine visits, Gorilla Doctors veterinarians work national park staff to ensure the survival of the young ape. It is usually park rangers who find the orphans and get in contact with Gorilla Doctors to make arrangements with sanctuaries via email (Cho). Orphan care can also require the use of veterinary specialists. In 2009, an orphan Eastern lowland gorilla, Amani, needed to be seen by a veterinary radiologist to properly treat a dermal bullet wound in her leg (Annual Report 2009). Without the communication and collaboration of Gorilla Doctors and the specialist, Amani may have been deprived of the hopeful future she now has.


Understanding Health Trends

Understanding health trends allows the veterinarians to better predict, prepare, and prevent zoonotic outbreaks. The Gorilla Doctors team uses information from publications and papers in order to assess current threats as well as construct preventative health care plans for humans and animals. Relevant information that is not yet published is communicated between veterinarians via email or phone, much like in routine gorilla health monitoring. The Gorilla Doctors is using the PREDICT database platform to aid in global zoonotic disease surveillance. PREDICT is being used in over 30 countries to “enabl[e] global surveillance for pathogens that can spillover from animal hosts to people by building capacities to detect and discover viruses of pandemic potential,” according to their webpage on the UCD veterinary medicine site (PREDICT). Although Gorilla Doctors is limited by the geographic range of the gorillas they are treating, global surveillance is required to understand health trends that could pose risks in the future. This requires collaborative, extra-community communications that benefit the wildlife health world as a whole.

Post-Mortem Examinations

On top of disease monitoring, the field veterinarians and affiliate staff perform post-mortem examinations to determine cause of death in these gorillas. In 2016, the team determined cause of death for 23 gorillas that did not make it to 2017 (Annual Report 2016). The pathologists communicate this information via publications and papers. This data can then be used by other team members to keep track of health trends and take preventative measures to avert the death of more gorillas. The information is summarized and presented with vocabulary more understandable for the general public in their Annual Reports that also serve as calendars for the following year. The Annual Reports are meant to inform interested parties of the progress made in the year. They are specific in terms of introducing individual gorillas and team members, while also emphasizing bigger picture One Health ideas. They serve as a great rhetorical tool due to their inclusion of ethos, logos, and pathos elements. While the content of the report establishes ethos and logos, the pictures and narratives of gorillas elicits pathos in most.  

Biological Samples

When a gorilla is suspected of having a disease, but the symptoms make diagnosis and treatment unclear, the team may decide to take biological samples. Such samples may include blood, urine, feces, skin snips, etc… These samples are then sent via mail to a pathologist to determine an accurate diagnosis or cause of death. All Gorilla Doctors pathologists are trained with the standardized procedures by the UCD One Health Initiative staff. This training ensures that all samples are treated uniformly which facilitates communication between the pathologists and field veterinarians. These samples are kept in the respective country while being used for diagnostic purposes before being copied with the original being sent to the Maryland Zoo where they are managed by Jennifer Sohl (Cho).  

Preventative Health Care

With humans and gorillas sharing over 98.5 % of their genome, human-gorilla disease transmission is a huge concern for the Gorilla Doctors. The areas surrounding the national parks where most of the gorillas are habituated tend to be relatively highly populated. In order to protect the apes and humans living in nearby areas, Gorilla Doctors needs to communicate with public health groups and regional parks to arrange for preventative public health care. Although the veterinarians do not treat any humans, they are responsible for arranging that their public health concerns are met (Cho).

One Health logo highlighting holistic nature of health

• • •

In an interview with the Gorilla Doctors Marketing and Development Coordinator, Eunah Cho, I was able to learn more about the challenges that this community faces as well as their reason for success. Ms.Cho explains how “the primary challenge of communicating within this ‘discourse community’ is technological/financial limitations” (Cho). Due to the rugged nature of the Gorilla Doctors work, this is a common problem for two reasons. One being that equipment faces above-average wear and tear due to the rough terrain of the field sites. The second reason being that wi-fi is and cellular reception are spotty at best, thus most communications take quite a bit of time to transmit. Eunah summarizes that “when medical equipment fails, communicating that information can take time, and finding replacements or getting it fixed can take much longer” (Cho). Another major challenge that Eunah mentioned are the time zone differences between the regions in which the team members work. Eunah is in charge of collecting, repackaging, and redistributing reports to keep the entire Gorilla Doctors community informed. In the interview she explains how the process can take quite a bit of time “because of the time zones, as well as the rigorous field work schedules of our dedicated team.” She also goes into the culture of communication and how “it is also important for [the] team to share all content with their park and government partners so that good will and trust is fostered within the communities” (Cho).

At the end of the day when all of the data has been recorded and logged, it comes down to the people. Without efficient communication and cooperation from all parties, projects such as Gorilla Doctors would make little progress. Without fundraising efforts and generous donors, the program would not be able to afford the personnel and technology needed to make strides towards conservation. Intra-community communication is needed to ensure all team members are up to date on the status and needs of the gorillas and people in surrounding areas, and extra-community communication is important in ensuring the success of the project as a non-profit organization. Empirical data does little good when it lacks a platform for collaboration and interdisciplinary analysis. However, without empirical data, coalitions such as Gorilla Doctors would lack the content required to get people interested. It is this dialectic relationship between science and society that hallmarks the Gorilla Doctors discourse community.


Works Cited

“About Us.” Gorilla Doctors. Gravityfree Web Site Design, n.d. Web. May 2017.

Cho, Eunah. “Discourse Community Interview.” E-mail interview. 30 May 2017.

“Division of Fish & Wildlife.” History of Conservation. State of Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, n.d. Web. May 2017.

Gorilla Doctors. Annual Report 2009. Rep. Gorilla Doctors, 2009. Web. May 2017.

Gorilla Doctors. Annual Report 2016. Rep. Gorilla Doctors, 2016. Web. May 2017.

Hood, Laura. “Biodiversity: Facts and Figures.” SciDev.Net. Science Development Network, 10 Aug. 2010. Web. May 2017.

“Monitoring and Intervention.” Gorilla Doctors. Gravityfree Web Site Design, n.d. Web. May 2017.

“PREDICT.” UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. The Regents of the University of California, Davis, n.d. Web. May 2017.