Dian Fossey with her pet monkey Kima.

By Molly Feltner, MGVP Communications Officer

This year, MGVP is celebrating its 25th anniversary and we’d like to share a little bit of our history with you.

The MGVP began from the vision of American gorilla researcher Dian Fossey. Fossey dedicated her life to studying and protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and by the mid-1980s, research indicated that the mountain gorilla population was rapidly decreasing, with fewer than 300 known mountain gorillas remaining in the world. Gorillas were being killed outright by poachers, suffering from life-threatening injuries caused by snares, and succumbing to illnesses Fossey suspected were being transmitted by humans. At that time, there was no health program in place to treat sick and injured gorillas.

Ruth Morris Keesling with a silverback.

In 1984, Fossey met with wildlife enthusiast Ruth Morris Keesling, whose father was Dr. Mark Morris, founder of the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF), a group that funded wildlife conservation projects around the world. “There are 248 gorillas in the world, and they’re all going to die,” Fossey told Keesling. “Would you help me save them and send a vet for them?”

Keesling promised to help Fossey by establishing a veterinary clinic in Rwanda through MAF. She hired Dr. James Foster to be the resident veterinarian—the first Gorilla Doctor. Sadly, on December 26, 1985, a few weeks before Dr. Foster was scheduled to arrive in Rwanda, unknown assailants murdered Fossey in her cabin. Fortunately, MAF vowed to honor Fossey’s wishes, and in early 1986, Dr. Foster set about building the Centre Veterinaire des Volcans. 

Dr. James Foster with a silverback.

Dr. Foster served as program director of what would become the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project until his death in Rwanda in 1997. Thanks to his leadership, the project built a veterinary program that would ultimately help turn around the decline of the mountain gorilla species. During the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the years of armed conflict that followed, Dr. Foster tirelessly advocated for the protection of the mountain gorillas caught in the crossfire.

Dr. Mike and the team in 2001.

Following Dr. Foster’s death, Dr. Mike Cranfield became executive director of the organization. Under Dr. Cranfield, MGVP grew significantly to include health programs for the mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, orphaned gorillas, and people and domestic animals living near gorilla habitat.

In 2006, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project became its own 501(c)3 organization, separate from MAF.  Three years later, MGVP partnered with the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis, to create the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program (MGOHP), which is overseen by MGOHP Director Dr. Kirsten Gilardi. Read more about our One Health programs.

The MGVP now employs more than a dozen veterinarians and health experts in all three countries where mountain gorillas live. You can read more about the past and the current roster of Gorilla Doctors on the MGVP website.

Please consider supporting MGVP by making a secure online donation. Every dollar you give goes to directly supporting our gorilla health programs and One Health initiative. Thank you for your generosity.

For the most up-to-date information about the Gorilla Doctors, “like” our Facebook page. You’ll find gorilla health reports, news items, photos, videos, and links to related content.