Confiscation in Walikale: Dr. Jan Ramer on the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project

October 22, 2010

Last Friday morning, we learned that there was a young, orphaned gorilla in Walikale, which is a plane flight north and west of our home in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Whenever we get news that there may be a gorilla “confiscation,” or rescue, we Gorilla Doctors must be ready, because rescued gorillas are very stressed, frightened, and sometimes badly injured or very ill.

After a flurry of phone calls, texts and e-mails, we still didn’t know the age or gender of the gorilla, how long he or she had been in human care or the gorilla’s physical condition. We did know that Walikale is considered a “red zone” – a dangerous area of DRC where army and rebels often clash – but we needed to try to rescue this helpless little gorilla.

Our partners in DRC scrambled to put together the finances and a team for the confiscation. Inspite of bad weather, a cancelled flight, political demonstrations and a military presence, a frightened infant gorilla was finally delivered to our Congolese in-country field veterinarian, Dr. Eddy Kambale. Dr. Kambale stayed with her all night in his hotel room, and the next morning they got on an airplane and headed to Goma.

I was with Sandy Jones, manager of confiscated gorilla care, when the little gorilla arrived. She was only about a year old, and in amazingly good condition, but very frightened. Dr. Kambale took her out of the travel crate and sat her on the ground to see if she would like to explore, but she was so tense she could only lie in a ball in the grass.

My maternal instincts kicked in, and I scooped her up into my arms. She immediately began biting and struggling, but I sat quietly making calming gorilla noises and groom- ing her like her mother would do. We sat and rocked, and she began to calm down. She finally unwound enough and reached for a bit of pineapple – that small victory felt wonderful.

After a thorough examination, and after spending some more quiet time with her, I was comfortable that our little patient’s health status was relatively good. Reluctantly, I knew it was time for me to hand her to her new caregivers, who will stay with her day and night to give her the love, care and consistency she needs.

Now the task is to get her settled into her new home at the newly constructed Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She will be in quarantine, away from other gorillas, for a month – we want to be sure the other gorilla residents, Mapendo, Amani and Kighoma, do not catch anything from her. In the meantime, she will be in the loving hands of her new caregivers at all times, and will learn to trust again, but it will take time and patience. Once we are sure she is healthy, she will be introduced to Mapendo, Amani and Kighoma so that she can have a new family. This little gorilla is safe now.

Dr. Jan Ramer is the regional veterinary manager for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). MGVP works to improve the sustainability of mountain gorilla populations in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. Read more posts from the field