TRANSCRIPT: Gorilla Doctors LIVE December 8, 2022By Gorilla Doctors Staff on Wednesday, December 14th, 2022 in Uncategorized.
Below is a written transcript for Gorilla Doctors LIVE, a virtual event that took place on Zoom on Thursday, December 8, 2022.
DR. KIRSTEN – Welcome to Gorilla Doctors LIVE! Today we are going to take you deep into the forest of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo to learn about our work protecting the health of critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas. My name is Kirsten Gilardi, I am the Executive Director of Gorilla Doctors and I am based at the University of California in Davis. I have been a wildlife veterinarian with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine since 1998. I am also the Director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center here at the vet school. It is such a pleasure to have you join us today to meet Drs. Eddy Kambale Syaluha, Fabrice Katembo Malonga and Aldophine Lina Nturubika — our veterinary team in DR Congo.
But before I introduce them, just a reminder, that you can send in your questions using the Q&A feature in Zoom anytime during our conversation. We will answer as many of your questions as we can at the end although remember that we’ll spend the last quarter of the hour with our guest, Tommi Wolfe. Also, this is our first time offering closed captioning. So, you can turn this feature on by clicking on the ‘Live Transcript’ button along the bottom of your Zoom window.
So, without further ado, let’s meet Drs. Eddy, Fabrice, and Lina! Good evening, team! Good morning for lots of us. We’re live on Zoom so fingers crossed that our internet connections hold for the next hour.
DR. EDDY – Hello, everyone!
DR. FABRICE – Bonjour à tous!
DR. LINA – Greetings from Kahuzi-Biega National Park!
DR. KIRSTEN – How about each of you introduce yourself and share a fun fact – either about yourself or about Grauer’s gorillas. Eddy, you start.
DR. EDDY – Yes, thank you. I am Eddy Kambale Syaluha, the head veterinarian in DR Congo. I have been with Gorilla Doctors since 2004. A fun fact…did you know mountain gorillas have unique nose prints just like human finger prints? It is how we identify individuals. But, with Grauer’s gorillas, it is not so clear. You see, Grauer’s gorilla faces are longer and they have smoother noses than mountain gorillas. We cannot always see a defined pattern of wrinkles. We may have to use other physical features to help us identify individuals. For example, the shape of their ears or the presence of scars.
DR. KIRSTEN – Eddy, okay, that is one of those fun facts I didn’t know until I first started working with Gorilla Doctors. Seriously! Audience members, participation time! Did you know that about Grauer’s gorillas already – that they have smoother noses than their cousins, the mountain gorillas? Put a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the poll so we can all test our knowledge of Grauer’s gorillas…let us see how many of us learned something new today! Alright, watching the results…Mhmmm, so we all, most of us learned something new today. That’s fantastic, wonderful. That’s what Gorilla Doctors LIVE is for. For you all to learn something about gorillas and about Gorilla Doctors. Thanks for participating in the poll. Okay Fabrice, please introduce yourself.
DR. FABRICE – Hello! My name is Fabrice Katembo Malonga and I have been a field veterinarian of Gorilla Doctors since 2020. I am going to share a fun fact about myself. My wife and I welcomed our first child, Felicien, on September 26th. It is a new world where we do not sleep or wake up when we want to. We are now on our son’s schedule.
DR. KIRSTEN – Fabrice, I think there are likely many parents with us today who can relate…I certainly remember those days very, very well!
DR. FABRICE – Yes, but it does not bother us, we are having fun!
DR. KIRSTEN – I’m sure you are! Thank you, Fabrice and congratulations! Okay Lina, I know everyone is excited to hear from you, our newest Gorilla Doctor!
DR. LINA – Hello dear, how I love being called a Gorilla Doctor! I joined the Democratic Republic of Congo team as a field veterinarian in 2021. I have two fun facts! First, I am based at Kahuzi-Biega National Park where I care for the three habituated Grauer’s gorilla groups. Second, I became the first female wildlife veterinarian in my country in 2014. It is still a challenge in Democratic Republic of Congo for women to advance in careers. My mom always believed in me and I am here today because of her.
DR. KIRSTEN – Lina, I know the Grauer’s gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega are really lucky to have you caring for them. And we are also really grateful to your mother!
DR. LINA – Thank you! It was not easy but I was very motivated. I could not believe I was the first in my country. And I am excited that now there are five female wildlife veterinarians in Democratic Republic of Congo. I am proud that other women in my country have followed me. These women have also received training from Gorilla Doctors. I am not alone anyway! And we are doing good work.
DR. KIRSTEN –Lina, tell us about your work. Tell our audience what it’s like to monitor the health of the Grauer’s gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
DR. LINA – First, Kahuzi-Biega is named for two mountains in the park. Kahuzi, which means ‘windy’ and Biega which means ‘rocky’. Now, other than a small area of Virunga National Park, Kahuzi-Biega is the main protected area in Democratic Republic of Congo where Grauer’s gorillas remain. There has been a 77 percent decline in the overall population of Grauer’s gorillas and the majority of them do not live in protected areas.
DR. LINA – Yes, snares are really tricky! One of my first interventions as a Gorilla Doctor was to remove a snare from a juvenile Grauer’s gorilla in Bonane group, named Wilugula. Since then, he has made a full recovery. On a recent health check, I found him lounging in the trees. In some other good news, I recently discovered an infant gorilla born to mother, Siri! It can be very difficult to know when a female is pregnant because their bellies are already big from feeding. New babies are the best surprise! And when you are responsible for protecting a critically endangered animal, the health of every single individual is important. Each one contributes to the health of the entire population.
DR. KIRSTEN – I agree! Thank you, Lina, what great insight into our work and what it is like to trek and treat wild Grauer’s gorillas. Fabrice, we’d love to hear from you next. Why don’t you tell us about the Grauer’s gorillas that you and Eddy monitor in the Mt. Tshiabirimu sector of Virunga National Park.
DR. FABRICE – Yes, thank you. We monitor two small groups of Grauer’s gorillas in the Mt. Tshiabirimu sector of the park. It is north of the sector of Virunga National Park where the mountain gorillas live. The two geographic areas do not overlap. I was at Mt. Tshiabirimu at the end of October and found both groups in good health. We had to trek for nearly three hours before we found Kipura group…and silverback Mwasa, the leader of Kipura group, was very protective and kept charging us! But, he calmed down and I was still able to observe the individuals in the group. They all looked to be in good health.
DR. FABRICE – The second group is Katsabara group. I also conducted a health check on this group. The structure of Katsabara group is very interesting. There is a juvenile, named Espoir, which means ‘Hope’ who is cared for by a female that is not his biological mother. In 2021, Espoir’s mother migrated to Kipura group but Espoir stayed behind and the other female became his adoptive mother. Then in February 2022, Espoir’s biological mother gave birth to an infant in Kipura group.
DR. KIRSTEN – So Fabrice, in addition to tracking the gorillas to observe them for signs of illness and injury you also have to keep track of the gorillas moving between groups which is actually, really a natural part of their social dynamics and their biology, right?
DR. FABRICE – Indeed. Each visit is a new experience and tells a new gorilla story.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thank you, Fabrice. I think it is important to note that these natural movements between groups can also impact their health which is one of the reasons we keep track of these things.
DR. FABRICE – Yes, keeping track of their group dynamics helps us to understand population health trends.
DR. KIRSTEN – Alright, okay, Eddy, let’s talk with you now! Even as head veterinarian in DR Congo, you are still in the field alongside Drs. Fabrice and Lina and you also have the responsibility for keeping your team safe. This is a very serious issue in DR Congo. Tell us a little about the challenges you face.
DR. EDDY – Unfortunately, this is our reality and we do what we can. Warfare is a constant threat here. And there are more than 120 militia groups who use violence and unpredictability to create chaos and fear. We have not been able to monitor the health of the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park and that has been for many months because the M23 rebels occupy that area of the park.
DR. KIRSTEN – So, what I’m hearing you say Eddy and I want to make sure this is clear for the audience, that the level of danger you all face really makes it hugely difficult for us to monitor the health of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park right now.
DR. EDDY – Yeah, that’s correct. This past March, park rangers were able to check on the 10 groups that include over 200 mountain gorillas, and the gorillas were OK. But the stability did not last long and it has been several months since we were last able to assess the health of mountain gorillas in Virunga…We face similar challenges in our monitoring of the Grauer’s gorillas. Dr. Lina had to evacuate Kahuzi-Biega for safety reasons twice in August. When we are able to monitor Grauer’s gorillas, armed rangers must accompany us into the forest to provide protection.
DR. KIRSTEN – And Eddy, and just last month you were trapped in Rumangabo, which is where Virunga National Park’s headquarters are. You were there for a week because of the M23 rebels. It was terrifying enough for me – I can only imagine what you experienced.
DR. EDDY – Yes, at that time I was treating orphan mountain gorilla, Matabishi, at Senkwekwe when the rebels advanced toward Rumangabo. The road between Rumangabo and Goma was not safe to travel, even if we were with armed escorts. So, I could not return to Goma where I live and where Gorilla Doctors office is located. Park management was prepared and provided safe shelter in a cave that was equipped with power, food and water. I even had internet and was able to stay connected.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thank goodness for that, so that we could stay in contact by text — I think I even saw you on Zoom a couple times that week. It was always such a huge relief to be able to see you.
DR. EDDY – Yeah, yeah, yeah thank you. We keep going on.
DR. KIRSTEN – Well, those of you who are new to the work of Gorilla Doctors, this conversation was a very real introduction to our work and the challenge of implementing conservation medicine in the wild.
We’ve got a good amount of time for questions and that’s the purpose of today’s GD Live so we’re going to start answering some of your questions that you’ve posed now for our wildlife heroes. So, let’s turn it over to you. I’ve got to put my glasses so I can read these. Okay, I’ve got a question from Skyler in Portland, Oregon. Let’s see, I’m going to give this one to you Eddy. What percentage of the Grauer’s gorilla population is habituated enough to conduct a health assessment?
DR. EDDY – Hello? Sorry.
DR. KIRSTEN – We can hear you Eddy. A question from an audience member asking about what proportion of Grauer’s gorillas are habituated enough so that we as Gorilla Doctors can conduct a health assessment?
DR. EDDY – Ah, that’s a really good question. As you may know, we are really facing many challenges on the ground and sometimes we are habituating many and some, and the rest are coming back, then again they come back to wild behavior. So, at the moment we are having almost in Kahuzi-Biega around 44 Grauer’s gorillas in number. Which are in three groups. So, those are the ones that we can really get close to them and we can do the health assessment closely, we can treat them if they are sick, and we remove snares like Lina was just explaining what has been going on with Wilungula in that Bonane group. And so we have another portion of Grauer’s gorilla we are monitoring in Tshiabirimu and Fabrice just said that and there we have seven gorillas at the moment but that number is growing slowly on that side too. That is for two groups in different locations we can monitor.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thank you. So, speaking of habituation which is obviously what allows us to get close enough to the gorillas to see that they are injured or ill and may require our veterinary care, we have a question from Richard and I am going to pose this to you Fabrice. How, so when we go in to do, get close to the gorillas and maybe do a clinical intervention, how do we make sure that the silverback is not going to get upset and want to interfere with our medical intervention. What do the other gorillas do when we are caring for one of their family members?
DR. KIRSTEN – Does anyone want to take that? And go ahead Fabrice.
DR. FABRICE – I don’t get you very well. What is the question?
DR. KIRSTEN – Okay, the question is, what do, when we are doing a clinical intervention to treat an injured or ill Grauer’s gorilla, what do the other gorillas in the family group do while we are taking care of that patient, our patient in the forest.
DR. KIRSTEN – Eddy, do you want to take that?
DR. EDDY – Please, thank you so much. I can try to explain something and my colleague can jump on it if he has something to add on. So, when we are doing an intervention, we always have two teams. We have an intervention team and a protection team. The protection team is composed of rangers and trackers which have to make kind of a wall to protect us. And who do their best to keep the rest of the group away from the individual we are working on. Because if they are just getting close, they will not accept anybody to touch it – one of their members – so they feel…they get like afraid, so they have to do their best to chase us away. So, for us, also we do our best to keep them away from our side and so we can work peacefully without any problem until we are done. And if we see anybody, like among the young ones, most of the time they can go up a trees and they try and watch us, what is going on, with one of them [their group member]. So, at that time we ask some people from the protection team to try and see if they can push them a little bit far from us.
So, that’s how it is. But, most of the time, when we dart the animal, we pretend we are tourists, like we didn’t do anything. So, we just follow slowly, not harming them. We move slowly until we isolate the rest of the group from the one we are working on. So, most of the time it is the way we work. But sometimes we get some surprises – the baby can cry, even if he was under anesthesia and just wakes up, we didn’t know that it was going that fast and then he can scream – that way we get trouble. And so we manage to protect everyone and that way we are having to rush and to reverse the anesthesia so we can stay safe. So, it is always a challenge, and every day is really different, a new challenge, you can prepare very well but you’ll be surprised by lots of challenges. So, we always plan, be there ready to re-plan how we really be doing then – everything can change in a minute, a second. Thank you.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thank you, Eddy, that is such a good a good point that of course, we prepare as best as we can for every clinical intervention but we always have to be prepared for things going not as planned or for the gorillas to do something unexpected. And so, you all have to remain so flexible and ready to deal with any challenges as they come up. I see that Lina has her hand up. Lina, let’s hear from you.
DR. LINA – Yes, please. It’s like Dr. Eddy is telling. Like what I watched, like my first experience, when we show the Wilungula intervention. I learn also that we must be determined, knowing that everything can happen. The way you are with a baby gorilla, even if it is not down on the ground, the Mom try to come to take you, or your arm or the baby. I noticed I learn, I know usually, they may leave you but you need to be determined and motivated to know that we must do it.
Dr. Kirsten nods
DR. LINA – And the other time, we are going and you lost the individual after darting, Dr. Eddy, sometimes then you are worrying to know what can happen after but it is a very amazing experience. I can’t know how to explain it. It is very motivating.
DR. KIRSTEN – Yeah, well, no more true words have been spoken. I often use that same phrase, Lina, when I talk about being with the gorillas, it’s really hard to explain what it’s like to be with them so thank you for that. We have a question from Marcy about whether gorillas have been affected by COVID. I think that question is for me so I’ll just answer on behalf of the organization and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a concern across the board, but as with any emerging infectious disease that is impacting humans we always worry about the health of the gorillas too because gorillas are susceptible to human pathogens – viruses or bacteria – so, we’ve been screening, so, mountain gorillas, by the way, it is common for them to get respiratory illness, it happens year round. So, it’s something we are accustomed to monitoring and when there is a respiratory disease outbreak in a gorilla group, whether they are mountain gorillas or Grauer’s gorillas, our veterinarians are going in everyday to monitor signs, see if any animals are getting sicker or better, etc. So, since the COVID pandemic started we’ve been monitoring gorillas for respiratory illness and we’ve been collecting samples as we can. By that I mean, we’re not anesthetizing gorillas just to get samples to test them for COVID. Instead we’re using non-invasively collected samples like fecal samples to screen for the coronavirus. To the best of our knowledge, COVID-19 has not affected the gorillas.
In fact, we saw a decline – at least in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda – we actually saw a decline in the number of respiratory disease outbreaks affecting gorilla groups during the pandemic compared to the years leading up to the pandemic. And we think that’s for a couple reasons – less people were in the park of course, because many fewer people traveled to the region to see the gorillas. That’s changed now, people are back. Back making trips to see the gorillas. We also think it’s because those basic preventive measures that we’ve all been taking ourselves to protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections – those same health preventive measures, wearing a mask, keeping distance, and not going to see the gorillas when people are sick has really made a difference. And it’s really wonderful to see that all the parks where habituated Grauer’s and mountain gorillas live, are now, they require people to wear masks when they’re close to the gorillas and I think that’ really going to make a huge difference.
Okay, so, more questions, let’s see…we’re back to, there’s a question from Debbie for Eddy. This is I think related to the story that Fabrice was telling about gorillas in Mt. Tshiabirimu. But the question is: is it common for a mother to leave her young behind? To move to a new group and leave her baby behind?
DR. EDDY – At some point that can happen, but can’t leave behind a really small baby. But sometimes, also training the baby to try to walk, also to manage in the forest is kind of a training, just to see if the baby can feed a bit away from the Mom. Not for longer, its just always around or behind the silverback because the silverback also takes really good care of the baby. So it’s not very often for the Mom to leave the baby unless it is already at an age – almost at weaning and for feeding – but not abandoning the baby, no. That is rare. The other one of Tshiabirimu stayed because it was at the age of weaning and the Mom had already moved to another group. And also primates, those are one of the times when the mother can leave the baby on his own. But, with the group.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thanks, Eddy. We’ve got a question from Krista. Fabrice, this is a question for you because I know you monitor the Grauer’s gorillas in Mt. Tshiabirimu. You also monitor mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park when you can. Are there behavior differences between Grauer’s gorillas and mountain gorillas?
DR. FABRICE – Okay, thank you for this good question. I can say about social structure, Grauer’s gorilla groups never have more than one silverback while mountain gorilla groups can have multiple silverbacks. Yeah, thank you.
DR. KIRSTEN – Thank you. And, are there other, any other differences between – so, we learned about their noses – and the fact that it is harder to tell, you can’t use the nose wrinkle pattern as definitively with Grauer’s gorillas as you can for mountain gorillas. Are there other differences you guys, in their anatomy, how they look, how they act?
DR. FABRICE – Grauer’s gorillas have a longer face. I can say that.
DR. KIRSTEN – A longer face, okay.
DR. FABRICE – Yeah, and mountain gorilla have a…I missed the good word for saying that…face, like round.
DR. KIRSTEN – Very good. And of course, they live in different, somewhat different, altitudes, right? The Grauer’s gorillas live on the slopes of the Congo Basin whereas the mountain gorillas live on the tops of volcanoes, so there are differences in their hair coat, and Grauer’s gorillas are bigger than their mountain gorilla cousins.
We have a question also, about how they are related. The mountain gorillas and the Grauer’s gorillas are subspecies of the eastern gorilla. So, that’s why we call them cousins. They are the same species but different subspecies.
We have a question, this is common, but I’d love to hear from one of you who’d like to take the question – do the gorilla family groups learn that you, the veterinarians, are there to actually help their sick family members? This is a question from Autumn. Again, do the gorilla groups figure out that you are there to help them? What’s been your experience there?
DR. EDDY – Actually, I have really one group experience in Virunga National Park and that was in Rugendo group, where we were helping juvenile Myani, who had a snare. And, we darted the baby when the silverbacks were around because as we said, mountain gorillas, they can tolerate the presence of many silverbacks in a group and that was the case of Rugendo group – there were many silverbacks – four. And just once we darted the baby, the other young silverback wanted to attack us when we were just approaching the baby to try and remove the snare.
But, the dominant male, his name was Bukima, he just came in between and started just standing between, pushing the other one away. Just ‘saying’ – no, don’t approach these guys. It was as if he knew that these guys are doing good work on this guy [the juvenile with snare]. Because when we met them, they were carrying that baby with the snare and so on. And we did the intervention, and no one of those silverbacks attacked us. So, we did everything very well and the silverback kept on moving in between, just making sure no one could jump out of that line. So, I can say that was one of the experiences we had where he was really trying to help us. As we did our intervention, at the end we had no problem.
DR. KIRSTEN – That is one of my favorite stories of yours Eddy, thank you for sharing that with our audience. I’m sure they loved hearing that. We’ve got time, for a few more minutes, for some questions. I’ve got a great one for you Lina and I’m going to ask you because you shared that photo of the brand new baby Grauer’s gorilla that you observed. Do you know when a female is pregnant before she gives birth or is it always just a beautiful surprise to find a baby? That’s a question for you, Lina.
DR. LINA – Thanks so much for the question. It’s very complicated to know that. First, you can’t know because they have always a big belly on feeding. That is important when you see them. You may confuse seeing all of them – saying maybe this one is pregnant and the other, she is pregnant – but you can’t know. Usually it is a surprise.
Another way, when they meet, when you are there [observing], you watch – at which date did they mate, the silverback and the female – you go just, counting and suppose, maybe in which month – an habituated one [female] – can give birth. If she is habituated and you can know her to watch her every day. But usually is a surprise. You are going in the morning time and there is a new baby. Or, in the nest, you can see, you know when a female, you can see some parts – like in human behavior, if someone gives birth you know – so you know what you can find in the nest too. And it’s a surprise!
DR. KIRSTEN – That’s wonderful. Thank you, Lina. We’ve had a few questions from audience members and Eddy, I’m going to pose these to you, but do you have a sense for if war and the occupation of the park – how has it impacted the gorillas? I mean, we talked about how the park is so unsafe for park personnel and for us – that we can’t get in to monitor the health of the gorillas, but do you have a sense for what gorillas do in situations like they are in right now, where the park is occupied by militia groups?
DR. EDDY – That’s really something which is a really good question and we have been receiving that kind of question several times. At the moment, the gorillas were observed at some point to come closer to some patrol posts. It means they [the gorillas] were kind of missing some people who visited them on a daily basis. So, they keep moving around and we don’t know what is happening to them really. We hope they are good, and some can get injuries…so, we don’t know. We’ll discover all those again when we get back. And I’m sure there are a lot of snares now, set there. And we may find some gorillas already losing some limbs. That is really something that is horrible. We don’t know really what is happening. So, we were able to see a few groups coming at the edge of the park, that was around Kibumba. That was one and some came also around Jumba, so, we think they are safe, but not so safe enough because poaching activities must really, really be going on. With a lot of risk of losing some gorillas. And from diseases and from snares.
DR. KIRSTEN – And of course we know the gorillas are incredibly intelligent and I just always think and hope that they are using their big brains of theirs to stay out of the way of danger. I know that there will be a time when we can get back into the park regularly as we have always done and I’m just hoping and counting on the fact that the gorillas have kept themselves safe and we’ll see them all when we can get back in there.
I’m going to end our question session here with just a fun question from David in San Francisco, who asks: why doesn’t everyone just agree that Grauer’s gorillas are the best-looking gorilla?! Lina, do you agree with that? You’re our Grauer’s gorilla veterinarian.
DR. LINA – Yes, please, the best ones are both of them! It depends for each person. Yes, the Grauer’s are the best one but also the mountain are the best one – social behavior – it is very amazing what you discover every day. Every day they teach us a lot. But it depends for each person, what you like. But both of them are nice and very special.
DR. KIRSTEN – Well, Lina, just listening to you and watching you I can tell how much you love the gorillas that you care for. We are out of time for our Q&A with our team because we have a special guest that we’d like to have join us for the last fifteen minutes. Drs. Eddy, Fabrice, Lina, thank you so much for your dedication, your hard work – please stay safe as I always say – but please keep up your extraordinary work taking care of Grauer’s gorillas and mountain gorillas in eastern DR Congo. It was wonderful to have you with us today. Bye!
DR. EDDY – Bye!
DR. LINA – See you later!
BEGIN CONVERSATION WITH TOMMI WOLFE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF GRACE GORILLAS
DR. KIRSTEN – Alright. Okay, it is my sincere pleasure to introduce you to Tommi Wolfe. Tommi is the Executive Director of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center based in DR Congo. It’s otherwise known as GRACE. Hi, Tommi, welcome to Gorilla Doctors LIVE.
TOMMI – Hi Kirsten, how are you, thank you so much for having me.
DR. KIRSTEN – For those of you who may not be familiar, GRACE is a sanctuary that cares for 14 orphaned Grauer’s gorillas. Gorilla Doctors has a long history with GRACE – we actually cared for almost all of the orphans in Rwanda before the sanctuary was built. The first four orphans were transferred to GRACE in 2010, right Tommi?
TOMMI – Yes, that sounds right. I think we had our first four in 2010 and then another six the following year in 2011. And yes, we go back a very long way. And you know, listening to the discussion that Dr. Eddy’s just having with, you know, things being tough in the Congo at the moment, and, one of the things I’ve always really appreciated about Gorilla Doctors, Kirsten, is that for all the people that do operate there we all tend to hold hands and collaborate, and lean on each other at times when we need each other. So, we’ve been very grateful for your support and collaboration over the years.
DR. KIRSTEN – Well, right back at you Tommi, we’re so grateful for what you do for Grauer’s gorillas who’ve unfortunately been removed from the wild and need to be in the safety of human care. I joined Gorilla Doctors in 2009 and remember the first time that I saw all of the orphans at our facility in Rwanda –– I actually had to stand up on the roof of one of our trucks to see them over the high wall of this facility. I was so new to Gorilla Doctors that of course I couldn’t tell a mountain from a Grauer’s gorilla if you paid me! But truly, seeing the orphans, may have been the first time I laid my own eyes on eastern gorillas. Tommi, you joined GRACE in 2020, a very challenging time to take on leadership of an organization in a pandemic! When did you first become, when did you first as an individual, first become aware of GRACE and tell us a little about your vision for the organization.
TOMMI – You know, I had a business colleague and friend who sent me a video one day to say “Hey, I’ve just joined the board of this amazing organization” – and it was actually the story of Lilingu, one of our little rescue gorillas and I was absolutely captivated by the video.
TOMMI – But that woman is now actually the Board Chairperson at GRACE, her name is Laura Maloney, and I am now the Executive Director. So, I don’t suppose that either of us knew that at the time we connected over GRACE. But, yes, I did indeed join at a, interesting time. It was just sort of two weeks before the pandemic became mainstream in the U.S. and it’s been, you know, just a very…just an interesting time to you, period in history, to be managing a nonprofit. But, it’s actually taught us more things than it’s hurt us, to be honest. I feel like we’ve learned some really exciting things and hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about it in a while.
But, to answer your question about our vision, Kirsten, what we’re hoping to do – you know, we’ve really got the sanctuary down at this point. We’ve been doing it for over a decade, I think we’re pretty confident that should a new gorilla come in as a baby from wildlife trafficking or poaching – and we haven’t had some for a couple of years – which is great! We don’t love getting them it’s a sad day at GRACE because it means something horrible has happened to their family. But because the sanctuary is there and it’s always going to be there, we’ve managed to sink a lot of roots into the Congolese soil. We’ve got a large team on the ground, and we’ve got good relationships and strengths. So, we’ve really started putting a lot of effort into things that are bigger than just the sanctuary. So, we work heavily with gorilla conservation and community engagement around gorilla conservation as well.
DR. KIRSTEN – Yeah, you know, one of the things I really appreciate is your vision statement, GRACE’s vision statement, in which you state your commitment to “Grauer’s gorillas being a source of pride for the Congolese people”. In your opinion, why is that so important, and what are some of the ways you partner with communities?
TOMMI – You know, thank you, I think that people underestimate the importance of community for conservation. Because in many ways you literally can’t tease them apart. We’re never going to be able to conserve gorillas in the Congo if we don’t have the community buy-in and passion all the way. I think Rwanda, where you head office is, has done an amazing job of that. And I think, certainly where we work in the Congo, it’s a tad more difficult because the gorillas are completely unhabituated. Which means most of the people in our area have not seen a gorilla – you know – it’s something that they hear about. But, nonetheless, you know, the people in our area are sitting on one of the world’s gems. It’s a biodiversity hotspot, it’s right in the huge Congo Basin forest which are increasingly important on the planet. The Congolese community have every right to be incredibly proud of this global gem that they have. And the other reason community is important is because they live off the forests. And it’s hard for people in the U.S. to imagine that people use the forests for medicine and fuel and food. So they have a very vested interest in protecting their natural heritage. So, their pride and understanding of everything that they need to conserve is vitally important to gorilla conservation.
DR. KIRSTEN – I know that the land upon which GRACE was built was actually donated by the local community which is located next to the Tayna Reserve, the Tayna Forest Reserve. Why is that significant and why was it an intentional choice when the GRACE facility was built? To build it next to the Tayna Forest Reserve and built it on community land?
TOMMI – Well, you know, it’s ended up having such far reaching ramifications for GRACE the fact that we are located where we are. But, yes, there are two traditional tribal kings that operate in this area and they’ve been elected by the community. They did donate the land for the sanctuary. I don’t think many people are aware of this but the IUCN has this CITES regulation that would like confiscated animals, you know, animals confiscated from the wildlife trade, need to be repatriated to their country of origin. So, we needed to put the sanctuary in the Congo somewhere, and this community actually donated their land for this purpose.
TOMMI – And the community reserve, the Tayna Nature Reserve that’s showing on the screen now, was also donated by the community that owns that land. And it’s become quite significant in many ways because I feel, you know, as Dr. Eddy was just giving a good description of, it’s not always the safest place to work. There’s a lot of armed militia and so on, and the fact that we are actually operating under the blessing, if you like, of the community and the tribal kings allows us to do things that people haven’t always been able to do in that area. So, I ascribe much of GRACE’s success to two things: 1) the fact that we work under the blessing of the community, at their invitation, and 2) the fact that we can’t go anywhere. We now run a sanctuary, we’re there for the long haul and I think that has bred a lot of trust from the community – they know we are there for them.
DR. KIRSTEN – Yeah, and I think that, as impressive I think that the fact that the Tayna Nature Reserve members, owners, whatever word you want to use, is they themselves conducted a survey of the reserve for Grauer’s gorillas. That was a great opportunity for Gorilla Doctors to collect samples from wild, unhabituated Grauer’s gorillas. If you’ll recall, our Gorilla Doctors veterinarians trained the survey workers to collect and preserve hair and fecal samples that they might have been able to collect when they encountered night nests of Grauer’s gorllas. At that point, we were essentially beta testing a protocol for collecting samples from wild Grauer’s gorillas that we can later test for pathogens and other analytes that will give us a better sense for the health of wild Grauer’s gorilla populations.
We’re about to expand that work into other parts of DR Congo where Grauer’s gorillas survive, which we’re really excited about doing. Tommi, what did GRACE learn when you and the community did the Tayna Forest Reserve survey – are there wild Grauer’s gorillas there? How many do you think there might be there?
TOMMI – We were absolutely delighted with the survey in so many different ways. It was really touch and go for a while because we were about to go and then COVID hit. And everybody was like, well, we had all the scientists lined up from the states to fly in and help. We really had to use a Plan B and we ended up having people training the field team via Zoom meetings and videos and so on. So, we were delighted that we got in. We were the first people ever to do a full survey in Tayna, which I totally ascribe to the fact that we work under the community’s invitation. But it was madly exciting – we found a lot of gorillas, a lot of Graur’s. It was a survey, so we don’t come up with an exact count. But the numbers were really healthy and we didn’t think they had declined a lot from what had been estimated before. So, somewhere in the region of about 150 and 300. Which for a reserve of that size is really thick with gorillas. And we were actually delighted by all the other things we found too, Kirsten. There were many species that actually surprised the locals. We manage to get web cams in now and it still is a happy game – we keep finding things that surprise everybody.
DR. KIRSTEN – Sounds wonderful.
TOMMI – It’s actually a very biodiverse place.
DR. KIRSTEN – That’s amazing. So, you know, that’s fantastic but as we discussed earlier during this hour, Grauer’s gorillas are critically endangered and their population has declined by 77% over the last twenty years. Can you kind of walk us through some of the key factors that are contributing to that decline and how is GRACE addressing some of these issues?
TOMMI – Thank you, yeah, it really is an issue – I can knock them off like there’s – hunting, there’s sustainable agriculture, that type of thing. But I think if were to put it into a nutshell for your audience, Kirsten, it’s really that there’s this huge pressure on the forest from a growing population. So you know, this area of Africa, the population has been growing quite dramatically. And people have been living in a certain way in the forest for hundreds of years where the forests have supplied everything they need. But as the population grows, there is just pressure for resources from the forest.
TOMMI – So, slash and burn agriculture, subsistence hunting – this isn’t hunting to go and sell to foreign markets, you know, this is a very good example of what hunting might look like in our forest. This is a kid and he’s probably been sent out by his Mom to find something for dinner. There’s lots of gorgeous rushing rivers and fishing, so he’s got fishing tackle wound around his head, and he’s proudly caught himself a little hare. So, this is what it looks like. This is not somebody evil doing something terrible which is what you think of when you think of poaching or hunting. This is hunting just for the animal, for the family. And it’s hard with an economically disadvantaged group of people to put any judgement on this. This is what people need to do, right?
But, as the population grows, ones got to be careful, so the work that we do is all to try and find ways to minimize pressure on the forest. So, for example, we have wood lock programs so that people don’t need to go to the forest to collect firewood. We’ve got food security programs, we’ve got guinea pig breeding programs for alternative sources of protein. Lots and lots of education, we’ve worked with over 800 school children this year, and clean stove projects for women so that they aren’t collecting fuel from the forest. So, really, how do we actually reduce resource [use] and pressure on the forest.
DR. KIRSTEN – Of course, thank you for that. I appreciate so much all the work GRACE does, you know, our part of the puzzle of gorilla conservation is veterinary care. As I know you know, Tommi and many of our audience members know, we began in 1986. We were providing veterinary care to mountain gorillas in Rwanda that were critically endangered at the time. And then in the 1990s we expanded our efforts to monitor the health of mountain gorillas in Uganda and DR Congo too. And then it was in 2006 when we expanded our work to include Grauer’s gorillas that were undergoing human habituation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Of course, as Gorilla Doctors we believe that monitoring and protecting the health of the remaining wild population is really just one piece of the very significant conservation challenge, so, Tommi, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. It was really important for us to include the great work of GRACE and your leadership in Grauer’s gorilla conservation. As you know and I think our audience knows, we’re really at a critical moment and as you said, it is going to take all of us working together to reverse these very alarming trends in Grauer’s gorilla populations. As I often hear Eddy say, he has hope for gorillas and people because the gorillas can teach us how everyone should be protecting one another.
TOMMI – I think Dr. Eddy is completely right there and Kirsten just my enormous thanks for the incredible work that you do with gorillas. It is indispensable.
DR. KIRSTEN -Thanks, Tommi. This has been a really enjoyable hour for me, and I hope an inspiring hour for all of you who have joined us. Thank you for your good company, and I hope you will keep Gorilla Doctors in mind as you spend time over the holidays thinking about the organizations you most care about. Take care! Happy Holidays! Bye!