On March 28th, Dr. Fred first treated Uburanga, the lead silverback of Hirwa group, for mild respiratory illness. In the following days of monitoring, Uburanga’s resipiratory signs resolved but he was mildly lame in his right leg. Dr. Fred administered a second dose of antibiotics on March 31st and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park rangers continued to keep an eye on Uburanga. At some point during the next several days, Hirwa group crossed back into Rwanda and was first observed by Volcanoes National Park rangers on April 15th. At that point, it was clear that Uburanga’s condition had deteriorated; read on for a summary of Drs. Noel and Gaspard’s work to treat Uburanga, the sole silverback in Hirwa group.

Dominant silverback Uburanga from March 2020. © Gorilla Doctors

As we have reported, Hirwa group moved from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda in August 2019 and then experienced both the tragic lightning strike that killed several members of the family, and then the loss of former lead silverback, Munyinya, in February 2020.

Summary of Uburanga’s Treatment

Location: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Gorilla Group: Hirwa

Gorilla Doctors: Jean Bosco ‘Noel’ Noheri and Gaspard Nzayisenga

Start Date: April 15th (for start of monitoring and treatment in Rwanda)

End Date: Monitoring continues

April 15th – Volcanoes park rangers first saw Hirwa group on April 15th and observed Uburanga in poor health and not using his right leg. They immediately reported Uburanga’s condition to Gorilla Doctors, prompting our veterinarians to head into the forest as soon as possible.

April 16th – Dr. Jean Bosco ‘Noel’ Noheri conducted a veterinary monitoring assessment of Uburanga and a health check on the other 10 group members. With the exception of Uburanga, the group was in general good health. Dr. Noel observed that Uburanga traveled behind the group, not bearing any weight on his right leg and he could see a superficial wound on Uburanga’s right leg and two additional wounds on his foot. None of the wounds appeared obviously infected but there was swelling (which could indicate a deeper infection). The cause of the wounds was unknown. Close monitoring of Uburanga’s condition would continue.

Hirwa group feeding, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. May 2020. © Gorilla Doctors

April 18th – Rangers observed Uburanga walking on his right knee – not using his foot at all and the wounds not healing.

April 22nd – No change in Uburanga’s condition but he was observed feeding and moving.

April 28th – Dr. Noel conducted another veterinary monitoring visit and could see that there had been no improvement in the condition of Uburanga’s foot or use of his leg. In the process of examining an ill or injured animal, a veterinarian always develops a mental list of the potential causes of what he or she is observing in the animal, in order to guide next steps and decisions around treatment. Dr. Noel developed a list of three possible diagnoses: 1) ulcerative dermatitis, a bacterial infection of the surface layers of the skin, 2) severe cellulitis, a bacterial infection of deeper layers of the skin; and/or 3) traumatic injury of undetermined cause.

A full intervention would be necessary to further investigate the cause of Uburanga’s lameness and provide more comprehensive treatment. But given Uburanga’s status as the lead and only silverback in Hirwa group, Dr. Noel decided to first review Uburanga’s case with his fellow Gorilla Doctors’ veterinarians and Gorilla Doctors’ technical advisors. Upon consultation and discussion, and given that the wounds were more than 2-weeks old and did not appear to be healing on their own, Gorilla Doctors decided a full intervention was the best course of action. Severe weather (heavy rain) in subsequent days and the COVID-19 lockdown delayed plans. Meanwhile, Uburanga’s condition was stable: his lameness was not worsening but was not improving either.

X-ray of Uburanga’s foot to check for bone fractures and/or infections.

May 4th – Drs. Noel and Gaspard conducted a full intervention to treat Uburanga. Using a portable x-ray machine, they found no evidence of a bone fracture or infection. The wounds and surrounding inflammation was suggestive of a previous physical trauma that led to infection of the deeper layers of the skin and soft tissue of the lower leg and foot. Drs. Noel and Gaspard cleaned the wounds thoroughly, collected samples for further testing, and administered medication in addition to performing a full physical examination. Close monitoring of Uburanga’s post-intervention condition by park rangers would continue.

Drs. Noel and Gaspard conduct full intervention to treat Uburanga, May 4, 2020. © Gorilla Doctors

May 8th – Dr. Gaspard conducted a follow-up monitoring visit and found Uburanga significantly improved. Uburanga was with the group feeding, using his right foot while walking (albeit carefully, and he would sometimes alternate weight-bearing on his right knee) and even climbed a tree! While his right lower leg was still swollen, the wounds appeared to be slowly healing. Close monitoring would continue.

May 15th – Dr. Noel conducted a monitoring visit and found Uburanga further improved. His overall activity was totally normal and he had recovered almost full use of his right leg and foot (see video). He was bearing weight on his right leg while walking, but still keeping his toes lifted (wounds on toes were still healing). The leg swelling was greatly reduced. Close monitoring will continue but no further treatment was recommended at this time.

A Note from our Executive Director

Gorilla Doctors’ breathed a big sigh of relief over Uburanga’s recovery: having witnessed the toll on Hirwa group earlier in 2020, his loss would have been a huge blow to his gorilla family and to all of us at Gorilla Doctors. In the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uburanga’s recovery is a cause for celebration and a reminder of the continued importance of our work. The health of one impacts the health of all – the One Health approach we take to our work – and as a global community, we truly understand this now more than ever before.

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