Mar 02, 2015
“When I applied to work with the organization Gorilla Doctors, I thought I wouldn’t see a single gorilla during my stay,” says Jessica Magenwirth. A graduate of the veterinary medicine program at Freie Universität, Magenwirth had developed a particular interest in wildlife during her studies, and she also wanted to deal in greater detail with virology and infectious diseases.
She fully anticipated that her stay in the East African nation of Rwanda would involve working in a lab, and expected to spend a lot of time analyzing pathogens. “But then it all turned out completely differently,” the 27-year-old graduate says.
Instead of working in a lab, Magenwirth spent most of her time in the field with Gorilla Doctors, an organization dedicated to protecting Africa’s gorillas. Members ensure that the endangered animals receive medical care and strive to save as many of them as possible.
In Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Magenwirth visited troops of gorillas in the wild with veterinarian Dr. Eddy Kambale. “It was quite an adventure sometimes,” she says. In search of a gorilla family that is not accustomed to people, they once had to spend seven hours struggling through the rainforest in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. “We heard them all around us. The calls of the gorillas, and how the silverback, the alpha animal, beat on his chest – it was indescribable,” Magenwirth says.
During her stay, it was time to perform the annual health checks on orphaned gorillas at the animal shelter in Virunga. “It was a wonderful experience to be able to actively take part in the examinations,” Magenwirth says. The gorillas were anesthetized first. Then blood samples were taken, and they were checked from head to toe for injuries and symptoms of disease. “But the nicest thing was watching as the little two-year-old orphan Kalonge woke back up after the exam in her caretaker’s arms. It was just too sweet!”
On their monthly visits to the various gorilla troops – always accompanied by local trackers and national park rangers – the veterinarians observed the animals’ behavior: what they eat, and whether they show signs of illness. Although gorillas are “deeply relaxed,” as Magenwirth puts it, humans still have to keep their distance at all times. “Seven meters is the minimum,” she explains. “And it’s important to always leave an escape route open for the animals,” she adds.
When it comes to the right way to behave around gorillas, Magenwirth says, a wealth of education work has been done in recent years. Local rangers are very well trained and informed, she reports. In general, the local people of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo now have a positive overall perception of gorillas. In East Africa, gorilla tourism is limited to a certain number of visitors per troop, per year, the veterinarian says. This is done to protect both humans and animals. “You need something called a gorilla permit, a kind of visa for the national parks, in order to actually be able to see gorillas,” Magenwirth continues. This policy serves a dual purpose: to leave the animals in peace, but also to prevent transmission of disease. “Gorillas share so much genetic material with humans that they can contract human diseases – and vice versa, of course,” Magenwirth points out.
The members of Gorilla Doctors specifically include this aspect in their work. In its efforts on behalf of East Africa’s gorillas, the organization subscribes to the “One Health” philosophy – which holds that an animal species can only be preserved if its surroundings are also considered, and contribute, accordingly. Magenwirth says Gorilla Doctors strives to establish conscious contact between wildlife and humans. National park employees and their families are carefully vaccinated and can undergo regular examinations at a hospital set up specifically for employees. Efforts are also made to minimize the risk of infection between animals by vaccinating domestic animals. What Magenwirth appreciated about Gorilla Doctors: “The fact that they don’t just treat symptoms in isolation, but instead think outside the box and work holistically,” she says.
Magenwirth’s work also focused on wildlife and the influence of their environment during her time at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, where the veterinarian completed a research stay from August to December 2014. “For example, we studied how climate change affects certain populations, including the animal population and the spread of infectious diseases.”
After her time in Canada, the young veterinarian hopes to further hone her clinical skills – in another country, of course. “In Thailand, there is a great project at a clinic in Sangkhlaburi that ties in very nicely with the ‘One Health’ philosophy,” she says. And then? “I’d also like to do a PhD in wildlife and ecosystem health,” Magenwirth says.