Nyakagezi group spends time in both Uganda and DRC – they don’t know that there is a boundary between the two countries in their forest home.  They are currently living in Uganda in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.  There are 3 silverback gorillas, led by Mark, 2 blackbacks, Ndungutse and Rukundo, and 2 adult females and their babies.  One Sunday afternoon not long ago, Dr. Fred received a call that the 2.5 year old infant of Inshuti was caught in a wire snare.  Trackers were able to cut the snare from the bamboo and the baby made it back to his mother, but the snare was tight above the knee on his left leg. This was a seriously life threatening situation for this infant.

 The team hikes through fields to reach the spot where the gorillas are.

Dr. Fred, Dr. Noel and I prepared for an intervention early the next morning.  Emergency bags were checked, drug doses calculated, and contingency plans planned.  Dr. Noel and I headed to the Uganda border from MGVP headquarters in Rwanda before dawn the next morning, and there we met Dr. Fred.  We piled everything into Dr. Fred’s truck and drove for the next hour over bumpy roads through villages to the ranger station nearest where Nyakagezi group bedded down last night.  From there we walked through the potato fields to the edge of the park.   Dr. Fred had requested extra trackers and rangers to accompany us that day, in order to have enough people to provide protection to the veterinarians in case the silverbacks became aggressively protective of their family.

 A ranger shows the cut snare.

We entered the forest about 10:30 am and followed the trails through the thick underbrush to where trackers knew the group was resting, but on the way we found yet another snare, set and ready capture an unlucky antelope, or gorilla.  Trackers immediately cut the snare, and were on the lookout for more.  UWA, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, would send out a patrol the next day to search the area. 

 Preparing the darts.

We entered a small glade about 100 meters from where the gorilla group was resting, and gathered the trackers, rangers and porters to review the plan, making sure everyone knew their role.  One tracker, Dr. Fred and I would quietly go to the group and assess the situation. If we felt there was a good opportunity for a dart we would come back to the glade, load the darts, and take the pistols back to the group.  The rest of the trackers, porters and rangers would stay quietly behind, but be ready to advance once the dart was delivered.  All attempts would be made to calm the group by moving quietly and slowly, making the throaty calming noises, however if there were signs of aggression once the darts were delivered, these trackers and rangers were ready to make lots of noise and beat sticks together to keep the gorilla group at bay.

 Silverback Mark keeps a careful eye on us.

Unfortunately the best laid plans sometimes go awry….  Dr. Fred and I set out with the tracker and easily located the group resting quietly in dense greenery, but Inshuti and her infant were nowhere to be found.  We spent some time searching, but finally decided to wait until the group awoke from their late morning naps and were on the move again, convinced that Inshuti and her infant would show themselves at that time.  Sure enough, about 30 minutes later they emerged from the brush.   The wire snare could be seen tight around the infant’s left leg, with a trailing edge about 18 inches long.  He was snug on his mother’s back, whimpering quietly off and on, and they were being followed closely by Mark, the chief silverback. Mark was wary of us – the whole group was a bit tense, which was understandable.  After all, one of their babies had been severely traumatized by the snare less than 24 hours ago. 

Inshuti and the injured baby. 

We followed the group at a respectable distance, waiting for the right moment.  Dr. Fred and I knew that we would only get one chance to dart, and we knew now that we would have to dart both Inshuti and her infant in order to safely get the snare removed from the infant’s leg.  Then it started to rain.  Hard.  The gorillas hunkered down in small groups under trees and bushes.  We hunkered down as well and waited.  We had no choice.  Finally, after what felt like an eternity, but was really only about 45 minutes,  the rain stopped and the group began to move out again.  At one point Inshuti was high in a tree eating lichen, and the trailing edge of the snare got stuck in the branches. The poor baby cried out as he clung to her back, and she reached up, pulling the snare hard from the branches, freeing him once again.

 Waiting for a good shot.

Inshuti descended from the tree sat next to Mark.  Dr. Fred and I had loaded the darts and were hiding the pistols as we approached.  Inshuti and the baby were in perfect position.  Slowly we crept forward, hearts pounding, took aim and shot, almost simultaneously.  Just like that the darts were delivered to their respective patients and the medicine that would make them go to sleep was delivered.  Now we had to get to them once they went to sleep.  Inshuti pulled out her dart and ran off with Mark right behind her. Dr. Fred followed, while Dr. Noel and I put the guns away and gathered our packs to follow a minute or so behind.  Then the screaming started.  A gorilla screamed, immediately followed by a cacophony of human and gorilla screams.   Dr. Noel and I could not see what was happening because the foliage was so dense – we ran toward the screams with our terrified porters close behind us.  The screaming continued as we were approached by a tracker who motioned for us to follow him. 

 Dr. Fred examines the injured baby.

We found Dr. Fred with the two sleeping gorillas, surrounded by trackers and rangers doing exactly what they needed to do – making lots of noise to keep the silverbacks and other family members back while we did our work.  Dr. Fred removed the snare while I did quick physical examinations.  I didn’t notice that it was raining again until I reached into our medical bag for a syringe to collect blood – everything was soaked!  But no matter, we continued our work, monitoring the two gorillas, taking blood and fecal samples, treating the little one with massage of his very swollen leg and foot (but thankfully it was still warm indicating that there was still blood supply and would hopefully be fine now that we removed the snare), antibiotic injection, anti-inflammatory injection and fluid therapy. 
Collecting samples.

As were collecting samples on Inshuti, the baby began to wake and whimper a bit.  We decided at this point that it would be best to administer the reversal drug, and allow Inshuti and the baby to return to the safety of their group.  The group had moved off a ways, and things were quiet.  We delivered the injection of reversal drug to each patient, gathered our things, and stepped away while they slowly woke up in the drizzle.  When Inshuti was able to sit up, she reached out and pulled her baby close to her, wrapping her arms around him protectively.  Within the hour she was nearly completely awake, so we left the scene, with two trackers staying to monitor.  We felt good about the day’s work, but would only feel truly comfortable when we got news of the baby the next day. 

 Mother and baby awaken.

Fortunately that news was good!  We heard from trackers that the next day Inshuti and the baby were with the group!  Inshuti was feeding well, and the baby was moving around a bit on his own, using the injured leg – this news was a huge relief to Dr. Fred, Dr. Noel and me.  Since then he has gone on to make a complete recovery, and we feel fortunate to have been able to help this precious life.   Fingers crossed, he’ll grow up to be a powerful and protective silverback like his father Mark. 

Watch the video of the intervention here!