Gorillas in his midst

‘Gorilla Doctor’ is on the Island this week to talk about his work with some of the world’s most threatened creatures

  • A veterinarian and gorilla hold hands. Gorillas are thought to be at least 98 percent genetically similar to humans.

    A veterinarian and gorilla hold hands. Gorillas are thought to be at least 98 percent genetically similar to humans.

  • The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project treating a young gorilla.

    The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project treating a young gorilla.

  • Some clients of the Mount Gorilla Veterinary Project.

    Some clients of the Mount Gorilla Veterinary Project.

  • Dr Cranfield (right) and another veterinarian providing veterinary care to a Mountain Gorilla in east Africa.

    Dr Cranfield (right) and another veterinarian providing veterinary care to a Mountain Gorilla in east Africa.

Mike Cranfield’s patients won’t say ‘ah’, and they are terrible at measuring doses but they can be forgiven for that considering they are mountain gorillas.

Dr Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), is on the Island this week to talk about his work in Africa with some of the world’s most threatened creatures.

MGVP is the only American charity that provides wild mountain gorillas with direct, hands-on care in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Its international team of veterinarians are called ‘Gorilla Doctors’.

Dr Cranfield is here courtesy of the Bermuda Zoological Society (BZS) and Atlantic Conservation Partnership (ACP).

“It is fascinating to treat gorillas,” he told The Royal Gazette. “It can be a little bit frustrating that they don’t understand what you are doing. It can be challenging because sometimes male gorillas think you are trying to harm the family.”

He said MGVP’s work was not without danger. He has never been injured but the last time the team carried out a medical intervention one of the trackers was badly bitten and had to be hospitalised.

MGVP employs more than a dozen veterinarians and technicians. All but one of the full-time gorilla doctors based in the region are African veterinarians from the area. MGVP’s gorilla health care programme includes monitoring the health of mountain gorillas to ensure early detection of disease and injury; staging medical interventions to treat gorillas suffering from human-induced or life-threatening trauma; rescuing and providing veterinary care to gorillas orphaned by poachers; and providing health care to people and their animals that live near gorilla habitat to reduce the risk of spreading human diseases to gorillas.

“The genetic makeup of a gorilla is 98 percent similar to ours,” said Dr Cranfield. “In fact, it is probably 98.8 percent or so similar, but that is a little controversial. They are very highly susceptible to human diseases.”

The animals are particularly vulnerable to human diseases such as tuberculosis, upper respiratory diseases, measles, ebola and marburg haemorrhagic fever, he said. In the 1990s an outbreak of measles significantly reduced the gorilla population. Dr Cranfield said one of the problems is that there is no buffer zone between the conservation area where the gorillas live and the human population.

“There is only a wall and the gorillas come over the wall to go into the community and humans go into the enclosure to get food or water,” he said. “Surrounding the park is the highest density of people in Africa and they are making a $1 a day, on average. That doesn’t provide great infrastructure in medical care or education.”

As a result, MGVP tries to support human health programmes in the area, where it can.

“We have an employee health programme that looks after our trackers and guides which come the closest to the gorillas,” he said.

“We are working with other people to improve health care standards around the park. There are 13 clinics nearby, and from there, people are funnelled into a hospital. There are only nurses within the clinics and the hospital services 500,000 people in the area with 20 doctors.”

He said there are currently plans to expand the gorilla habitat, which will cause some nearby people to be moved to another location. However, the sacrifice may be worth it for the community overall, as the gorillas bring in about $10 million a year in revenue for Rwanda.

In the early 1990s there was genocide in Rwanda and rebel activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the gorilla population came out of the human conflicts unscathed.

Dr Cranfield thought it was because all parties involved saw the gorillas as valuable assets and “instant industry”. Therefore, they were careful not to damage the gorillas.

“I think the education and conservation process around the park has been successful enough that the people understand that the gorillas are contributing to their life,” said Dr Cranfield. “The population is going up. The latest census figures show the population has gone up in eastern Africa by 26 percent in total. For a slow reproducing species that is excellent. It is also the only great ape species increasing at this point.

“They are still highly, highly endangered. One outbreak of measles or ebola or a pathogenic organism and the number could be cut in half again.”

Dr Cranfield has led the MGVP team for 13 years, splitting his time between overseeing operations in Africa, fundraising on the road, and administering the project from his base at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Maryland. He was one of the first veterinarians to embrace the One Health concept for great ape conservation, and worked to establish the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program at the University of California Davis, where he is a staff veterinarian. He is originally from Peterborough, Ontario, and he obtained his doctorate of veterinary medicine at the University of Guelph and completed his residency at the Toronto Zoo. He later moved to the Maryland Zoo where, in addition to his clinical duties, he pursued research studies of avian malaria in penguins, parasitic diseases in snakes, in vitro fertilisation in lion-tailed macaques, and captive breeding of endangered frog species.

“I started out working in zoos,” he said, “but I always thought that the purpose of a zoo should be to look at problems of wild populations and utilise the captive animals to develop better diagnostic tests and treatment.”

He started doing a lot of work with primates in Africa, and that led to his involvement with MGVP. Part of his job now is to fundraise for the organisation.

“We are having more trouble fundraising with times being what they are,” he said. “I think everyone is having challenges. At this point, we have been fortunate to receive funds from foundations and through government grants and we haven’t had to cut programmes but it has been very, very tight.”

Dr Cranfield will talk with students from different schools at the Ruth Seaton James Auditorium today. Tomorrow and Wednesday the public is invited to presentations at Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) starting at 7pm. Those events will include a half-hour performance by African musician Samite, who works with MGVP, prior to Dr Cranfield’s lecture. Tickets, $20, are available at BZS, by calling 299-2326 or online, www.bdatix.bm.

Useful website: www.gorilladoctors.org.

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Published Jun 27, 2011 at 8:21 am (Updated Jun 27, 2011 at 8:19 am)

Gorillas in his midst

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