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The race to save the world's great apes.

" ... As more and more humans encroach on the mountain gorillas' habitat with agriculture, logging, and other developments, the animals' options are dwindling."

MOUNTAIN GORILLAS, one of the world's rarest of all animals, could be on the verge of extinction, as future prospects for their survival remain grave. Man--the great apes' closest relative--is their only true enemy.

Massive human population growth, increased consumerism, and the commercialization of the bushmeat trade are the leading factors threatening the great apes. Habitat destruction and fragmentation also are contributing to the demise of mankind's nearest kin. Largely to blame is the logging industry, which has created access to previously isolated areas via roads that aid the bushmeat industry in transporting products to commercial markets. Moreover, global warming, diminishing biodiversity, and emerging diseases--including exposure to novel pathogens and pathogen densities--are causing major reductions in some ape populations. Ebola fever alone is estimated to have killed close to 1,000 western lowland gorillas in Africa's Republics of Gabon and Congo, as well as an unknown number of chimps in that same habitat, during repeated outbreaks that began in the 1990s.

Likewise, these factors probably have reduced the bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee) population from 100,000 to 10,000 in the last 25 years, and the common chimpanzees from 25,000,000 to 200,000 during the last 55 years. These mankind-based activities have led to all species of apes being listed as "endangered" by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the World Conservation Union.

Apes are tailless nonhuman primates that diverged from the cercopithecine monkeys about 25,000,000 years ago. Gorillas diverged about 7,000,000 years ago. Chimpanzees, with whom we humans share more than 98% of our genetic material, have been around for about 6,000,000 years. The apes of the world include the lesser apes (gibbons) and great apes (orangutans) of Asia and the chimpanzees and gorillas native to Africa.


Apes share many health problems, infectious and noninfectious, with humans. In addition to Ebola fever, pathological conditions common to both include trauma, polio, anthrax, and respiratory diseases. Research is the key to disease prevention in all human and animal populations. The study of animal pathology frequently produces insight into human diseases as well. Because we share so many genetic characteristics with world primate populations that are facing extinction, some scientists believe that, we, too, may be in danger.

Gibbons, orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees, and lowland gorillas can be found in zoos and wild animal parks worldwide. Countries of origin also maintain apes in captivity, and there are sanctuaries for injured and orphaned chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas linked by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. There are orangutan sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra and gibbon sanctuaries in Thailand and Indonesia. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity that we know of.

Although all ape species face similar threats to their existence, the mountain gorillas are considered most at risk due to their small population. Research into health and disease in this subspecies and care for ill and injured gorillas in their native habitat are crucial for their preservation.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) was founded in t986 at the request of the late anthropologist Dian Fossey, a champion of these endangered animals whose story was told in the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." Established and funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, the project was mankind's first step toward protecting and making safe the home base for the mountain gorillas. At the time, it was believed that less than 250 mountain gorillas remained in the Virunga Massif. The project's original purpose was to monitor the health of the gorilla population and provide veterinary health care for individuals in this threatened population.

The mountain gorillas' natural habitat consists of dormant and active volcanoes and steep, heavily forested slopes in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the early 1990s, another gorilla population of similar size was confirmed in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in extreme southwest Uganda.

Wars and the ensuing civil unrest and influx of refugees have caused massive deforestation of, and poaching in, the gorillas' natural habitat. In addition, snares meant for other animals often trap gorillas, resulting in injuries that can lead to blood poisoning and other fatal infections.

MGVP was the first project to provide treatment to individual animals in a wild setting. It functioned originally with just one veterinarian, whose main job it was to provide medical care to gorillas that sustained human-induced illnesses or injuries. Although providing health care to individuals of a wild population usually is considered cost-prohibitive, it can be crucial when a population's numbers decline to the levels seen with the mountain gorillas. Each individual (especially the female) becomes genetically important to the population sustainability as a whole.

Through the years, MGVP has expanded its role, growing from one veterinarian in Rwanda to several across a handful of countries, with a broader focus on the gorilla population and ecosystem health. The veterinary staff includes expatriates and African veterinarians whose training has been enhanced through MGVP. U.S.-based consultants in pathology and epidemiology provide additional expertise. The current project has four primary goals: to monitor the gorillas; provide health care; conduct gorilla health-related research and disseminate the information; and facilitate in-country capacity and employee health programs for the conservation workers who come in close contact with the gorillas on a daily basis.

Since its founding, MGVP has succeeded in stopping outbreaks of a number of viral diseases and providing veterinary care for countless gorillas that have fallen victim to poachers' Imps and snares. As a result, the population of this highly endangered species has grown from under 250 in 1986 to more than 700 today. Thanks to MGVP and the help of other dedicated organizations like the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, mountain gorillas are the only species of great apes whose population is on the rise.

However, as more and more humans encroach on the mountain gorillas' habitat with agriculture, logging, and other developments, the animals' options are dwindling. Mountain gorillas currently live within protected areas along the common borders of three countries: Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (both in Uganda).

The threat of eco-tourism

With mountain gorillas living in protected areas, threats from habitat encroachment and the bushmeat trade have diminished. However, the threat of disease is on the rise as ecotourism raises the potential for disease transmission by bringing thousands of humans into close proximity with the gorillas each year. MGVP veterinarians are working with local governments to enforce rules on tourism that would minimize the gorillas' exposure to human disease. Whether introduced by the ecotourist, military, community, or conservation staff" themselves, human disease is the largest threat to gorillas in the protected areas and the third largest in the unprotected ones. Several factors are responsible for this.

First, there is no buffer zone between the parks and the surrounding communities, where some of the highest human densities in Africa are found and growing by nearly four percent a year. The community's domestic animals, found in the areas surrounding the park, also carry diseases known to be contagious to apes.

Second, these communities are poor and unable to practice optimal hygiene and health care. Because gorillas share nearly the same genetic makeup as humans, they are susceptible to many of the same diseases, including tuberculosis, influenza, measles, polio, and intestinal parasites. The more contact between the two species, the greater the risk of disease transmission. Since gorillas historically have not been exposed to these diseases in the past, they have not built up immunity. When a disease enters the gorilla population, it easily can run its course with potentially devastating results.

Disease surveillance

Because humans share so many health problems with apes, it is critical to gain a better understanding of these diseases. Veterinary pathologists are playing a key role in this research--and in ape conservation--by conducting disease investigations in conjunction with nongovernmental organizations working in conservation or sanctuaries in countries of origin. There also is extensive disease surveillance in captive populations in laboratories, sanctuaries, and zoos in developed countries.

To keep the mountain gorillas' existence as normal and disease-free as possible, MGVP veterinarians curtail their direct interventions, limiting them to situations deemed life threatening. These typically occur only a few times a year and usually involve the removal of snares and treatment of injuries or illness. During interventions, veterinarians may collect samples for further research: blood for health assessments and disease studies; hair for genetics and nutritional assays; urine for establishing normal parameters; and feces for parasite and bacterial investigation. MGVP veterinarians perform postmortem exams to determine if infectious disease is present in the gorilla population and to define normal values for the species. Using noninvasive samples, such as feces and urine, they likewise conduct health-related research outside of the interventions, collecting data that is useful in determining the impact of humans on the gorilla population over time.

Following a strategic planning session in 2000, MGVP determined that the project not only needed to continue the established programs, which are important to sustainability of the species, but take a broader approach. "One health," or "conservation" medicine, recognizes the need to create an umbrella of health for all species that come into contact with the animals or their habitat. Particular emphasis has been placed on humans and domestic animals.

In a recent year-long stretch, for instance, field veterinarians evaluated or monitored more than 50 cases of illness or injury and completed a dramatically increased number of postmortems. The latter was due not to increased gorilla mortality, but an improved ability by MGVP and other conservation organizations to find the deceased animals within a time frame that allowed for productive examination. Subsequent examination of the tissues by veterinary pathologists has led to new insights into gorilla health.

The project has developed a health-monitoring program designed to fill in important data gaps on the prevalence and importance of clinical signs. Called IMPACT 0ntemet-supported Management Program to Assist Conservation Technologies), this system serves as a trigger for a veterinary intervention or a contingency response to a gravely serious situation or disease outbreak. The program has been adopted by similar groups studying great apes in other regions of Africa.

To lessen the threat of disease transmission, MGVP established its first employee health program database for conservation workers in the wild. Through the program, the MGVP team organized health exams for more than 150 employees of various mountain gorilla organizations. This preventative approach is critical to guarding the gorillas against potentially contagious human diseases. The program has tackled important issues such as HIV. Although not contagious to the apes, HIV reduces the health of the employee and puts him at greater risk of shedding organisms that are contagious to ape populations. IMPACT has the capacity to handle the data from the employee health program as well as from other species in conjunction with the gorillas.


One of the more unpleasant tasks of the project is providing health care and rehabilitation to animals retrieved on their way to illegal markets. This involves assessing not only the health of the animals, but of the poachers to whom the animals have been exposed. The conservation community then spends great time and effort determining when and how best to release the rehabilitated animals (mountain gorillas, especially) back into the wild or wildlife sanctuaries.

MGVP has made research a priority, supporting or facilitating seven postgraduate degrees and several veterinary student final-year research projects. These projects, with support of ACVP scientists, reflect the "one health" approach with the focus on interactions of the gorilla populations with domestic animals and humans. To facilitate further research, MGVP has set up a biological resource center with thousands of samples from various species in different preservatives and storage environments to optimize opportunities in the future and help scientists objectively determine changes in gorilla health over time.

The veterinarian pathology program has amassed a huge amount of data showing that respiratory diseases, especially in infants, along with trauma, play a large role in the mortality of the mountain gorillas. Consequently, clinicians have taken a more aggressive approach to the management of health needs of the young, intervening earlier to treat the animals or retrieve good postmortem information. The program appears to be having positive results.

If not for the dedicated work of MGVP, the mountain gorillas might not exist today. Instead, their population, although still extremely fragile, has increased substantially during the last 25 years. The mountain gorilla project has been one of the most positive influences on conservation of the species, and continued support is critical to MGVP and, in ram, the magnificent mountain gorillas.

Michael Cranfield is director of Animal Health, Research, and Conservation at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Linda Lowenstine is a professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, Madison, Wis., and pathology adviser to MGVP.
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Title Annotation:Ecology; Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project
Author:Cranfield, Michael; Lowenstine, Linda
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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