Volunteer veterinarian Dr. Jessica Magenwirth, 27, joined Gorilla Doctors for one month as her first work experience after graduating from veterinary school at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, in April 2014. Growing up in the southwest of Germany, she studied veterinary medicine at the University of Ghent, Belgium, Cornell University, NY, and Freie Universität Berlin. Her primary interests are in the fields of wildlife medicine, conservation and infectious diseases, which she is hoping to incorporate in her future career. Following her time with Gorilla Doctors, her plan is to continue working in Uganda and then move on to work as a veterinarian in Southeast Asia.

Dr. Jessica Magenwirth. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Dr. Magenwirth writes about her exciting month in DRC, working with Drs. Eddy, Martin and Jan with Grauer’s and mountain gorillas:

“No amount of vet school training quite prepares you for your first health exam on a gorilla – nor for seeing them at close range in the wild. Expecting mainly lab and computer work in Rwanda, most of my time volunteering with Gorilla Doctors was instead spent in the field together with Dr. Eddy Kambale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not bad for my first trip to Africa, and my first veterinary experience since graduating from vet school earlier this year!

First Gorilla Encounters in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Getting to Kahuzi Biega, our first destination in Congo, took almost a full day. The day began with a sunrise border crossing and a four-hour boat ride across Lake Kivu. We spent a hectic few hours in the surprisingly large town of Bukavu searching for working ATMs, picking up Congolese SIM-cards and buying enough supplies to last us a week. Once we arrived to the Kahuzi Biega Park Headquarters, we quickly settled in. A visit to this park meant meeting silverback Chimanuka and his family, the only fully habituated Grauer’s gorilla group in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Dr. Eddy taught me the basics of gorilla health monitoring in the forest, listening for coughing and trying to get good views of a lesion on a juvenile’s foot. Part of the focus was also simply identifying the various members of this large group. In all honesty, having my first ever encounter with wild gorillas kept me fairly distracted for most of the first day in the field!

Dr. Magenwirth photographs lead silverback Chimanuka in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

We did not spend all our time with Chimanuka group, however. One of the many highlights of our week in Kahuzi Biega was a gruelling hike to an unhabituated group of gorillas. We finally found them after more than three hours of trudging through the dense forest, slipping and sliding down numerous hills, sinking into swamps, twisting my ankle and crossing rivers – not to mention being bitten by ants, stung by nettles and scratched by thorns. Although we never saw much of the gorillas, they certainly made their presence known: shouting, grunting and the sound of bodies crashing through the vegetation could be heard all around us. We were treated to the occasional glimpse of female gorillas hiding in bushes and trees. Exhausted but extremely happy with such a rare encounter – visiting unhabituated gorilla groups is not something many people get a chance to do – we celebrated the experience (and the two hour hike back) with cooking on an old petrol stove, a selection of cheesy 90s music and icey cold showers.

Orphan Exams and Trekking in Virunga National Park

Next, I traveled to Africa’s oldest national park in eastern DRC with Drs. Jan, Eddy and Martin. Formerly known as Albert National Park, getting to Virunga requires travel on an insecure road that stretches from Goma to Rumangabo. This is the same road where Chief Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed and gravely wounded just weeks prior. 

Expecting all of our time to be dedicated to gorillas, we were pleasantly surprised by an invitation to visit a group of chimpanzees currently being habituated near the park headquarters in Rumangabo.

A male chimpanzee in Virunga National Park. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

The short hike took us through beautiful rainforest, and the chimpanzees turned out to be a very different experience from their larger cousins: their screams of excitement and concern, their quick movements through the canopy and that look of awareness particular to the eyes of the great apes left us with sore necks, but in absolute awe of what we had just experienced. We continued to the Senkwekwe orphanage, getting our first view of the following days’ patients (Kalange, Maisha, Ndeze and Ndakasi), before finishing the day with a view of Nyiragongo volcano’s famous lava lake glowing in the night sky. 

Nyiragongo volcano from the Virunga National Park headquarters. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

The following morning, dldest orphan Maisha was first in line to receive her annual health check, although much of the morning was taken up with preparing the drugs for anaesthesia and possible emergencies, organising sample tubes and going over protocols and checklists. At 65kg and very suspicious of Dr. Eddy, it took a while to anaesthetise her, but once she was fully under, the rest of the exam proceeded without complications. 

Next up was little Kalange. Much younger and more vulnerable than Maisha, this was her first thorough health exam – there was even some doubt about her gender until we could confirm that she is indeed female. I felt much more useful this time, knowing more about what was required of me than earlier that morning. Taking an active part in the orphan’s health checks was incredibly rewarding, but watching Kalange wake up in her caretaker’s arms was the most adorable sight imaginable.  

Mountain gorilla orphan Kalonge wakes up from anesthesia in her caretaker’s arms. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

Ndakasi’s exam was the most complicated of the three, and showed that there is nothing routine about these routine health checks. Anaesthetising her took a long time; she continuously presented only the front part of her body, which cannot be darted. Once we began examining her she needed careful monitoring, as she was having trouble keeping up her respiratory rate. We soon discovered the cause of this and her unwell appearance: the pustules that had been observed on her lips the day before covered the mucosa of her lips and tongue, and her throat was swollen, haemorrhagic and her tonsils clearly enlarged. Dr. Jan took charge of biopsies and the special needs of the pathological findings while Dr. Eddy and I conducted the sampling, monitoring and finally, the treatment.

Dr. Jessica helps Drs. Jan and Eddy with Ndakasi’s exam. Photo Credit: Marcus Westberg

As processing Ndakasi’s samples was now a priority, we left for Rwanda immediately and spent a long evening in the laboratory at the Gorilla Doctors Musanze Headquarters with Drs. Methode and Noel and visiting veterinarian Dr. Izzy Hirji.

Examining Ndakasi, Kalange and Maisha together with veterinarians as skilled and knowledgeable as Drs. Eddy and Jan was easily my most special work-related experience so far. On the whole, spending this time in Congo with Gorilla Doctors was more rewarding (and exciting) than I could have possibly imagined, and I now have even more respect for the amazing job done by the Gorilla Doctors, both in the field and in the labs. Over the last month, countless park officials and NGO workers have reinforced my impression that their involvement in the conservation of Africa’s remaining gorillas is of crucial importance. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spend time in the field with such a great team, and hope to be back here again one day.”


**Disclaimer** While we would love to give every one of our fantastic volunteer veterinarians a chance to perform hands-on gorilla medical care, this is not always possible due to government regulations. Dr. Magenwirth’s experience was the exception, not the rule, and we ask that prospective volunteers keep this in mind when applying to volunteer with us. For more information about volunteering with Gorilla Doctors, go to https://www.gorilladoctors.org/volunteer.

***All photos by Marcus Westberg of Life Through A Lens Photography.***