On November 22nd 2010 I got a phone call from Mr. Pontious Ezuma, the Senior Warden of Mgahinga National Park, Uganda. He informed me that an infant gorilla had been caught up in a snare and needed rescue. He sounded alarmed because of the location of the snare—around the infant’s neck and seemingly almost strangling hm. I received the call with sadness because the very infant, the son of Inshuti and Mark of Nyakagezi  group, had been rescued from another snare on the knee 2 months earlier. The same infant again!

Baby Fred with a snare around his neck.

The news came in at the time when the MGVP team was preparing to transfer the  mountain gorilla orphans—Maisha and Kaboko—from our Kinigi center in Rwanda to DR Congo. I was part of the team preparing for this exercise and was in fact cleaning and arranging the darting equipment, drugs, tubes and bags in our laboratory in Musanze, Rwanda. I received the news with calmness and immediately shared it with my superior and senior colleagues. The preparations immediately began for an intervention.

The same day, I traveled with Dr. Mike, MGVP’s Executive Director and Shannon McCook, a veterinary student at Tufts, to Uganda while the rest of the Gorilla Doctors team remained in Rwanda to transfer the orphans.

Preparing for the first intervention

The next morning, we woke up early for the intervention and started hiking to the gorillas. We reached them in the bamboo in zone. We got ready to dart both Inshuti and the snared infant. Only the mother was successfully darted. The dominant silverback Mark grabbed the infant and ran away into the forest. We could not locate the gorillas again until the next morning.  At this point, the gorillas were very suspicious and protective of the mother and baby. The group kept moving  from place to place, hiding in dense vegetation.

On November 25, the gorillas were located by the trackers and reported that the affected infant was with the mother. This day, we put off an intervention attempt to allow the gorillas to stabilize and settle to feed.

Hiking out of the park after another failed attempt.On November 26, another intervention was attempted but this time the 3 silverbacks of the group were aggressively protective and charged whenever we came within 10-15 meters. A two-day break was observed to allow the gorillas enough feeding time since they barely fed enough on the days of these attempts. The MGVP team was composed of Drs Mike and Magda, Shannon, and myself. Not successful again!

On November 29 and 30, we returned to Mgahinga to again attempt the snare removal but the gorillas were still nervous and moved a lot, reaching close to the peak of Gahinga volcano. We withdrew and planned to have a break to allow for stabilizing. The trackers were instructed to continue monitoring the group and report back. The infant was looking lethargic from a distance and his health was so concerning that we arranged to return on December 3 and 4 to do closer assessment. The team was Drs.  Jan, Jean Felix and Noel, staff photographer Molly Feltner, Shannon, and myself.  We had a very frustrating day on the 3rd and could not get a good look at the infant.

FrustrationDr. Jan says: “It was frustrating and discouraging to spend all day tracking the gorillas with no good look at the infant or good opportunity for the necessary shot of anesthetic.   Fortunately the infant was still strong, although clearly in pain, so we had the opportunity to reconsider our approach again.  It is so important in these situations to be flexible and patient, and wait until you have the best chance at success.” Dr. Jan returned the next day to do a closer assessment and was able to see the exact location of the snare. We thought perhaps the snare might be around the infant’s shoulder, like a sash, but Dr. Jan saw it was tight around his neck.

A break of 1 week was observed and then on December 12, I went to Mgahinga to make an assessment. The group was calm but very apprehensive if approached within five meters. The infant was lethargic and kept touching and cleaning the neck, indicative of wounds and pain. The infant could at times move behind the group and the silverbacks were not as aggressive as they were a week before.

On December 15, myself and Drs. Magda and Noel, made our 7th attempt to save the infant. As the gorillas had been behaving calmly when visited by tourist groups, we posed as ‘tourists’, first approaching them with no medical or darting equipment and snapping many photos. This allowed us to get close and find the best positions for darting. When the gorillas moved to a deep ravine, we followed them and from there we had good darting chances on Inshuti and the infant.  And success!!

Severe wound on Fred’s neck

When we got to the anesthetized infant we immediately removed his wire snare. It had been deeply embedded in his flesh and had caused a significant, infected wound. We cleaned his wounds thoroughly and left them open so they might dry out, preventing further infection. Antibiotics were administered to fight off any remaining infection.

Cleaning the wound

When we had finished our work, we found that the group and the infant’s mother were not nearby, so we carried the infant in a jacket until the group was located. Dr. Noel laid the infant on the ground and administered an injection to revive the infant. As he woke up, Inshuti, his mother, stepped forward from the group and came to claim her baby. She picked him up and carried him back to the family.

Dr. Noel administers an injection to revive baby Fred.

It was the discipline of the MGVP team, the support of the Uganda Wildlife Authority staff, protocol adjustments, and our precision and patience that lead us to successfully remove the snare.

Baby Fred calls to his mother.

Now, a month later, the baby is healing well and behaving like a normal, playful infant. As the 2.5 year old infant did not have a name, my colleagues decided to call him “Mgahinga Fred.”  I can only hope my namesake avoids another snare! 

 Inshuti carries Fred back to the group