Gorilla Health Threat: Gorilla-Inflicted Trauma

Physical injury or trauma is the leading cause of death in mountain gorillas. Trauma can be human induced (such as injuries caused by snares), the result of accidents, or caused by other gorillas. When taking over a group or acquiring new females, silverbacks sometimes commit infanticide of the other male’s infants so that the females will start cycling and the new males can father their own offspring with the females. Silverbacks and blackbacks, with their long, sharp canine teeth, can inflict serious injuries when fighting with each other for dominance. Occasionally, adult females and youngsters get caught in the middle of fights and are injured. 

While infanticide and fighting are natural occurrences in the gorilla population, the Gorilla Doctors sometimes intervene to save individuals suffering from life-threatening injuries. Geneticists believe that because the mountain gorilla population is so small and genetic diversity is vital to the species’ survival, that individual gorillas contributing to the gene pool need saving. The conservation personnel including the veterinarian team never step in to stop infanticide or violence as it is happening, since it is a natural behavior.  However, the team may choose to intervene  if the veterinarians and host government feel it is in the best interest of the population and/or the individual and the gorilla appears to have a chance at recovery with medical help. 

For example the Gorilla Doctors intervene in the case of badly injured breeding-age females. Unlike males, which may never succeed in leading their own family, almost all healthy females depending on age will have the opportunity to produce additional offspring. For this reason, last year the veterinary team performed multiple interventions on the adult female Samehe from Nkuringo group in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, who suffered a serious head wound. Sadly, she succumbed to an infection. The Gorilla Doctors have also intervened in several instances when youngsters were injured.

The decision to intervene when a silverback is injured is more difficult. Silverbacks fight to maintain dominance in a group or to take over the position of another silverback. Biologically, it is healthy for different silverbacks to introduce new genetics into a gorilla group, but the babies of the usurped silverback may be killed when a new male takes over. Thus far, the Gorilla Doctors have not performed any full interventions (meaning the gorilla is anesthetized so that veterinarians can provide hands-on care) on badly injured silverbacks. However, the veterinary team has darted wounded silverbacks with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs to prevent infection and aid the healing process.

Our veterinary team continues to examine and debate the complicated issue of intervening to save gorillas suffering from wounds inflicted by other gorillas. We look forward to the day when the mountain gorilla population is large enough that there is no longer the need to intervene.