by Joost Philippa

My new position as the Regional Coordinator began in August and since then, I have been based in Rwanda at the Gorilla Doctors HQ in Musanze. Recently I was able to make my first visit to DRC. It’s always exciting to visit new places and cultures… especially when the differences are quite big. I was looking forward to working with my veterinary/primate colleagues from Disney, Detroit Zoo, and of course the staff at GRACE.

For this trip, my main role was to provide assistance with the Gorilla Doctors new portable, digital x-ray unit, as several of the gorilla orphans at GRACE were known to have conditions that required further diagnostics, or to monitor their healing progress. Some of the gorillas had known dental problems, and therefore dental xrays were taken as well. Following a 2-hour drive to the border, I changed cars and was taken to our office in Goma. While at the office, Mike arrived with the x-ray equipment from Lwiro Sanctuary, where he had been performing health checks on the orphan chimpanzees there. I checked the equipment, and went to my hotel to charge all the batteries, and make use of the wifi connection to order supplies, while enjoying my surroundings at the edge of Lake Kivu.

The next day I was picked up at 6am, for a 1-hour flight to Butembo, followed by a 100km drive: 4.5 hours on dirt roads, stopping a few times to pull stuck trucks out of the mud. Upon arrival at GRACE, the vet team was performing a health check on one of the gorillas, and unexpectedly found a condition for which radiographs would help with a diagnosis. So I unpacked, typed in the settings, and went to work straight away. Formal introductions to the rest of the team followed after the work was done.

Dr. Joost operates the x ray machine with GRACE staff looking on.

Dr. Joost operates the x ray machine with GRACE staff looking on.

The following days we worked hard, performing 3 health checks per day, with time in the afternoon for lectures and training. It was a pure joy to work with the highly motivated team from GRACE: they were very keen to learn the hands-on techniques (blood collection, monitoring of anesthesia, etc), as well as more theoretical information on dental disease, cardiac disease, cardiac/abdominal ultrasound, behavior and training.  And they showed that they know how to work with these gorillas, as almost all of the gorillas were hand injected with anesthetic drugs, so that they did not need to be darted. During the health checks it was very busy around the gorilla: each of the 4 vets had their own station/role (anesthesia, dental, blood collection, ultrasound), each of us partnered with a staff member from GRACE for training. Despite none of us having worked together previously, the whole team was very efficient, and it was a fantastic experience.

Dr. Joost conducts training on the x ray machine with the GRACE staff.

Dr. Joost conducts training on the x ray machine with the GRACE staff.

Approximately 5 months ago, Kalonge, a young female Grauer’s gorilla orphan fell from a tree and broke her femur while she was still at the Senkwekwe Center. At the moment, she does have a slightly altered gait, but she moves well. While she was under anesthesia, we could feel that there was no movement at the fracture site, and the presence of a thick bone layer indicated that the fracture had healed.

Dr. Joost x-rays Kalonge's leg to see how the fracture healed.

Dr. Joost x-rays Kalonge’s leg to see how the fracture healed.

We confirmed these findings on radiographs, although we could also see that the fracture had healed more slowly than we would have liked. This is not surprising, as Kalonge remained in the group and did not have her movement restricted, nor did she have any kind of fixation (which would benefit/speed up healing). I am very happy to have been able to verify that the fracture has healed and Kalonge is doing well.

GRACE is located on a mountain top, and I really enjoyed the clear mornings to look for birds around the fencing of the beautiful 10-hectare enclosure, or watch the sunrise from one of the observation posts. Later in the day the clouds would appear, and create a light rain, which provided quite pleasant working conditions. All-in-all, a great first visit to the DRC!