Kigoma with discharge leaking from his left ear.By Dr. Jan Ramer

On November 18, Volcanoes National Park Veterinary Warden Elisabeth Nyirakaragire and I went to assess Kigoma, the third silverback in Kwitonda group, who had been reported to be suffering from an ear infection. We tracked the group for 1.5 hours, finally finding the group pretty high on the slope of Mt. Gahinga. We found Kigoma behaving normally and eating well, but with a terrible ear infection – there was white discharge running from his left ear.  We decided that while the infection may not look life threatening at the moment, the severity and proximity of the infection to his brain meant we needed to intervene, with antibiotics as a first attempt, and full intervention if antibiotics failed to help. We don’t know how the infection started – perhaps an injury like a stick in the ear, but we know it is serious and needs attention.

The intervention team.Veterinary student volunteer Mailis Humbel and I set out at 6 am the next morning to meet the trackers and  Elisabeth. As has been the case for the past month or so, this intervention was to take place on the weekend. Elisabeth and I now joke about which day we will have an intervention each week when the weekend is approaching!  We stuffed trackers and our intervention bags into the truck and headed up the bad road to the parking for Kwitonda group, bouncing and bumping.  There would be no tourists visiting the group today in case the darting took longer than expected.  

Gorillas enjoying the eucalyptus trees.Today we tracked the group for almost an hour – up to where we saw them the day before, winding around through the nettles and bamboo, and then finally back down the mountain and eventually outside the park!  They were moving through the eucalyptus trees, munching on the pulp.  We saw Umoja, the 5-year-old son of Nyamurema who survived a broken leg and major surgery 3 years ago when he was caught in the middle of an interaction.  He is doing very well now. His mother, Nyamurema, is also doing well, and has a 2-year-old son, despite the fact that she has only one eye, and is missing a foot from a snare years ago.

Preparing the darts.The group was very calm, so we prepared the 3 darts that would be required to deliver the volume of antibiotic the 200 kg (440 lb) silverback needed to combat this infection. I tried a technique I’d seen work once before – where 2 darts are loaded simultaneously into a single barrel. You need to increase the pressure in the pistol a bit, but sometimes both darts will hit their mark and discharge properly. I had practiced on a banana tree in our backyard the day before, and about a third of the shots worked, so Elisabeth and I thought it was worth a try. That way we only have to shoot twice rather than 3 times.  There was no cover for me in the eucalyptus grove, so the tracker and Elisabeth stood in between me and Kigoma as a shield of sorts, when he presented me with a good shot.

Kigoma presents his rump, the perfect place for a dart to land. 

 Unfortunately the experiment failed, and only the first dart discharged, so we were back to shooting him a second time.  The good thing was that he did not scream or charge!  He only looked surprised, and annoyed, and then moved away, and continued to feed on eucalyptus.  I was able to combine the last two darts into one, and the second dart discharged properly in his left shoulder when he presented us with another shot about 30 minutes later – the poor guy looked so surprised again!  But he took it like a silverback and did not scream or charge – only moved away into the forest.  However Kwitonda, the chief silverback, knew something was up and moved very close to us, looking us up and down for a few moments (that felt like an eternity as I turned my back and hid the pistol…) while we stood still and made the throaty (mmmmhhmmm,mmmhhhmmm) gorilla calming noises.  After a few minutes he vocalized himself as he finally moved away and we all relaxed.  

Kigoma after the darting.We left the group in peace and packed our bags.  Elisabeth and I told the trackers that Kigoma might have some diarrhea tomorrow from the antibiotic, but it should only last about 24 hours.  The trackers will watch him closely, and report if he gets worse.  Elisabeth will check Kigoma on Tuesday.  If he is improving we’ll consider a follow-up antibiotic injection, or no follow-up at all if the discharge stops altogether.  If there is no improvement though, we’ll need to fully anesthetize Kigoma to explore and flush his ear canal.  Lets hope he looks better on Tuesday!  In the meantime I’ll practice the 2-dart technique a bit more . . . 


On November 22, Dr. Jan and Elisabeth trekked to see Kigoma and were prepared to perform a full intervention if necessary. Luckily, the silverback had much improved thanks the antibiotics so the intervention was canceled.

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