I am often asked what brought me to Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo to work with mountain gorillas.  I still do not know how to adequately answer this question.  Mostly, I jokingly blame my parents for encouraging a less-traveled path; I do not think it was surprising to them when I announced I was moving to Central/Eastern Africa to work with wild gorillas. 

However, it is really not an unusual path. There are many people living here that have chosen their passion over the traditional “American dream”.  To live in a third-world country is not always easy. Between the lack of development, politics and bureaucracy, consistently inconsistent electricity and water, and most certainly the lack of cheeseburgers…. it can be challenging. Yet it’s often the things that take you down a difficult path that are the ones worth doing. 

And there is something about the simplicity of it all, an uncluttered lifestyle in countries so untouched by overconsumption, materialism, commercialism, and drowning reality shows. Yet so touched by poverty, disease, and war – from a horrible genocide just 20 years ago that killed almost a million people in a country the size of Maryland to multiple Congo wars leaving over 5.4 million people dead since 1996 – widely considered the worst cause of human suffering since WWII.  I think as a result, the people here don’t live in the past nor do they live for the future, but live only in the present.  

Dr. Dawn with an Art of Conservation class in Rwanda.

To the tourists who ask me this question, what brought me here, I always answer “just wait”. Wait until you see the beautiful countryside, wait until you meet some of the remarkable local people, wait until you trek up these greenest of green hills into the lush forest, and just wait until you see the mountain gorillas…. Then, there is no need to ask.  Then, it is easy to describe the allure of an often unforgiving forest, the difficult treks up step muddy volcanic slopes, working in countries rifled by war-torn pasts (and present), and working with patients that can (but don’t) cause harm. All for the satisfaction of performing a veterinary intervention, to save some of the remaining 880 mountain gorillas. It has been an exceptional experience.

Dr. Dawn leads a veterinary intervention on injured silverback Inshuti.

Dr. Dawn checks 5-year-old Gutungura’s heartrate during a snare intervention in Rwanda. Dr. Dawn examines 17-year-old Kanama, who had a swollen tongue, preventing her from feeding.

Certainly some of my best memories over the past two years are of the gorillas. Of their protective and nurturing nature, evident when observing mothers caring for their newborns, when huge silverbacks play gently with their tiny infants, and even when charging the intervention team to protect their family.  Of the three little orphans taken into care during my time: baby Isangi, tiny Baraka, and sweet Matabishi. And of the not-so-little juvenile Impundu running up to give me a hug (despite my attempts to back away) and knocking me over three times. 

Dr. Dawn with orphaned Grauer’s gorilla infant Baraka in DRC.

Dr. Dawn examines adult orphan mountain gorilla Maisha at the Senkwekwe Center in DRC.

I remember when RDB veterinary warden Elisabeth and I went to check on a recent split subgroup from Karisimbi group, now called Isimbi-Getty.  The day was cold, the trek was long and steep, and it rained the entire time, soaking through my rain pants.  When we finally found the group, they appeared anxious after the split.  Blackback Muterengere continually pursed his lips, a sign of irritation and often a precursor to a charge. Even Elisabeth commented that he was about to live up to the punk teenage behavior often seen in blackbacks. As he slowly peered at me from the corner of his eyes, he pursed his lips even tighter, suddenly ripping two large lobelia trees out of the ground, running over to my side and hitting me straight over the head.  Satisfied with his display, he quickly ran away. I couldn’t help but laugh, insisting to Elisabeth that it was a display of affection.  Regardless, it made the rainy cold trek worth the pain. Later, when silverback Getty was severely injured by silverbacks in Susa group, Muterengere protected the group when Getty could not, and ever since, seems to have taken on the role of bodyguard for the group.

Another favorite memory is performing a routine health check on Nyakagezi group that had just come over the border into Rwanda from Uganda.  As such, the trackers understandingly did not know their identities very well.  Silverback Bigingo had a reputation for being a bit aggressive while dominant silverback Mark is usually fairly relaxed.  As we approached a silverback, I was cautious and hesitated before moving forward.  The tracker said “do not worry, it is Mark, not Bigingo”.  As we approached closer, the silverback suddenly charged, stopping inches from me such that I could feel his breath on my face, then moved quickly off to the side.  The tracker looked down, shaking his head with a slight smile, and said, “Yep, not Mark, that was Bigingo.” Really?

And there are sad memories too. Of little Ngwino who died after a snare injury that had also left him with a necrotic fractured shoulder. Of silverback Urugamba suddenly dying at the young age of 21, leaving a group without a leader.  As Urugamba’s members integrated into a new group, Ntambara, we all watched with resigned dismay as adult female Bishushwe stayed just outside the group for weeks with her 1-year old infant that she knew would be killed when she joined the group.

Dr. Dawn works to repair the damage caused by a snare on infant Ngwino in Volcanoes National Park.

And stressful times: of being called to emergency-evacuate the only 4 mountain gorillas in captivity in the world from a war zone, but to do it within a 6-hour “cease fire” window; of the only male mountain gorilla in captivity dying with no way to get to him during the rebel takeover; of getting a call that our Employee Health Manager was shot at in Rutshuru… and trying to maintain our sanity by joking that he was short enough that he didn’t need to duck.

To combat the sad and stressful times, I have been fortunate enough to meet some pretty great (and pretty crazy) people these last two years.  To Nelis and Trace, Elaine and Kavos, Kim, and Julie: thank you for the memories, the laughter, and for keeping me sane with probably way too much box wine.  To the multitude of passionate conservationists and dedicated rangers: thank you for working tirelessly to save the forest and the species that live within.  I will miss packing 15 trackers into the back of our truck singing Eminem on the way up to the mountain.  To all of our amazing donors who support us from afar: we cannot do it without you. And to the incredible Gorilla Doctors’ staff: thank you for letting me be a part of the extraordinary work that you do.

Gorilla Doctors staff at the regional headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda.

Moving forward, I hope to continue working with endangered species through in-situ work within the field of conservation medicine; to create my own path in both the care for captive species and their wild counterparts.  I also hope to remain involved with some aspects of the Gorilla Doctors’ work such as fundraising and research.

I will miss this one-of-a-kind, amazing project that has helped save a critically endangered species.  I will miss my crazy ex-pat and African friends and colleagues who are doing great things. I hope our paths will cross again.  And I will certainly, most undoubtedly, miss the gorillas. 

I have learned from the gorillas, have learned from my colleagues, and have learned from the friends that I have made here.  Mostly, however, I have learned a philosophy of the region, to “ku hishi kwa sasa”…. to “be/live here now”.

You can follow the Gorilla Doctors health monitoring efforts on our Facebook page, where we post photos and notes from our monthly visits.

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