Shared with permission from Synergy Magazine, a publication of the University of California, School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Every single day that I am out in the forest with the gorillas I realize that when we save gorillas, we are also saving ourselves.” – Dr. Gaspard Nzayisenga, field veterinarian, Rwanda

Dr. Gaspard Nzayisenga, field veterinarian, Rwanda. Photo © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors.

This understanding has guided Nzayisenga from his early days with Gorilla Doctors as an intern in 2014. Gorilla Doctors is a partnership of the school’s Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, and the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP, Inc.), which began at the request of Dian Fossey, the famed primatologist who dedicated her life to the study and conservation of mountain gorillas.

In the early 1980s, mountain gorillas were on the brink of extinction; many were dying unnecessarily from snare injuries and infected wounds. Fossey knew veterinary care could make a difference for their long-term survival. The first American “gorilla doctor” arrived in Rwanda in 1986. Today, Nzayisenga is one of twelve African veterinarians working across Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo to provide life-saving veterinary care to both mountain and eastern lowland, or Grauer’s gorillas.

“There are always surprises when you work with a wild animal in their forest environment. When an individual gorilla is ill or injured, we perform interventions to provide treatment—never removing our ‘patient’ from the forest and always working while surrounded by their gorilla family,” said Nzayisenga.

Dr. Gaspard preps medication, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

As it turns out, the patient doesn’t always stay surrounded by the gorilla family. Nzayisenga recalled an intervention early in his career to rescue an infant mountain gorilla that had been caught in a snare. The wire was wrapped tightly around her arm, threatening serious injury.

“The gorilla group was a challenging one. It had many silverbacks and was large in size,” Nzayisenga recalled. “We successfully darted the infant with anesthesia but then the entire group ran away leaving the infant behind! We worked quickly to remove the snare and treat her wounds but as the group was moving very quickly through dense vegetation and steep terrain, we had to race to get the infant back with her group.”  “It was a long day and it was growing dark, but when I saw the infant reunited with her mother it was a great moment. We were all so relieved and today that infant is now a young adult who will soon become a mother herself.”

Seeing individual gorillas grow and thrive over their lifetimes has been one of the most rewarding aspects for Nzayisenga. For most of his life, mountain gorillas have been classified as “critically endangered.” In 2018, their conservation status changed to “endangered” and mountain gorillas are the only great ape in the wild whose numbers are increasing. Research has shown that up to 40% of the habituated mountain gorilla annual population growth rate is the direct result of Gorilla Doctors’ life-saving veterinary care.

Twitabweho, adult female mountain gorilla with infant, Muhoza group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. © Gorilla Doctors

“This is a big win for wildlife, for conservation and for my country. Rwanda and Rwandans understand the intrinsic value of mountain gorillas to our shared global community and, as a father, I am humbled to play a small role in helping to preserve this extraordinary species for future generations.”

That said, there is still work to be done and the future of mountain gorillas is not secure. Just over 1,000 mountain gorillas remain on the planet. Existing threats to gorillas have intensified and novel threats are emerging. Gorillas and humans share more than 98% of their DNA, making gorillas susceptible to human diseases (and vice versa). Advances in human medicine have the potential to transform great ape medicine and Gorilla Doctors’ scientific research is working to adapt the latest technologies to address the greatest health threats to eastern gorillas.

“There is so much work to be done, so much of our natural world to protect and care for. If you want to be a wildlife veterinarian, find every opportunity you can to get involved,” Nzayisenga said. “Volunteer. Spend time out in nature. Read. Learn from experts in the field. But most of all, learn from the animals themselves. They are our greatest teachers.”

Follow a day in the life of Dr. Gaspard out in the field:


Dr. Gaspard and team leave the Gorilla Doctors regional headquarters in Musanze heading toward Volcanoes National Park to conduct a routine health check of the endangered mountain gorilla. The drive to the main park entrance only takes about 30-minutes but the gorilla groups are spread throughout the park, which means sometimes they must drive longer – it all depends on which group they are checking on and where the gorillas slept the night before.

© Gorilla Doctors

© Gorilla Doctors


Once the team arrives to the closest entry point via truck, they often have to walk through subsistence farmers fields before reaching the park boundary. Once they reach the stone ‘buffalo wall’ – intended to keep wildlife in the park (it doesn’t always work) the team crosses a small bridge and disappears into the forest in search of the gorillas.

© Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

© Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors


After an arduous trek through the forest – following the gorillas trail of chewed plants and broken vegetation, Dr. Gaspard suddenly stops to listen. He hears a low grunt and then – a gorilla beats its chest – they have found the group! Before approaching the gorillas Dr. Gaspard puts on a mask. Gorillas share more than 98% of their DNA with humans and are susceptible to human diseases. Wearing masks and keeping a distance of at least 7-10m from the gorillas are two of the best ways to protect gorilla health. Once Dr. Gaspard approaches the group, he begins a visual health check, observing each gorilla’s feeding and activity while also looking for any signs of illness or injury.

© Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

© Will Wilson for Gorilla Doctors

Cameras are an essential tool when conducting a health check, allowing Dr. Gaspard to zoom in for a ‘closer’ look. He will also take multiple photos in order to generate a health report that is shared with park authorities and Gorilla Doctors’ conservation partners.

© Will Wilson for Gorilla Doctors


As Dr. Gaspard methodically assesses each individual gorilla in the group, he records key health indicators such as body condition, feeding activity, movement, alertness, and breathing rates to name just a few. Once he finishes recording his notes, the team packs up their gear and leaves the gorillas to get along with their day while they begin the long trek back to the truck.

© Will Wilson for Gorilla Doctors

© Will Wilson for Gorilla Doctors