Meet Rwanda’s ‘gorilla doctor’ for 26 years

A remarkable story was just send to me by a regular reader from Kigali, asking if I could PLEASE reproduce an article which features today in the Rwanda’s leading daily newspaper, the New Times Rwanda. It is a pleasure my friend – and I am sure readers will appreciate the information, especially given at this hour when the clock in Rwanda stands at a quarter to three in the a.m.

26 years of treating gorillas and still counting

photo Nyirakaragire treats one of the gorillas. She is the only veterinary warden in the Volcanoes National Park. The New Times/ Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti.

Gorillas, like human beings, fall sick. They suffer from diseases such as TB, Diarrhoea, measles, typhoid and are also prone to body injuries.

The rare mountain gorillasneed to be healthy to attract tourists. However, very few people know how to treat them.

Elizabeth Nyirakaragire, an employee with the Rwanda Development Board, under the department of Tourism and Conservation, has taken on the role of ensuring that the gorillas are healthy. She serves as a veterinary warden in the Volcanoes National Park.

The 51-year-old started her veterinary career in 1987 after completing secondary school. She has since worked with trackers to take care of the primates’ health.

After her appointment as a veterinary warden, Nyirakaragire acquired training in wild life management. She works with trackers as a gorilla medic.

“Trackers report about the status of each gorilla. Gorillas are different and we identify each of them through nose plates and particular traits. We also know how to communicate to them,” Nyirakaragire says.

Gorillas are vulnerable

Gorillas mostly suffer from respiratory outbreaks. Research showed that their genes and those of people are 98 per cent similar.

“Apart from respiratory outbreaks, gorillas suffer from TB, Diarrhoea, typhoid, and measles among others. They are also prone to injuries and poachers,” Nyirakaragire says.

Nyirakaragire also says people who live around the park have direct or indirect contact with the gorillas and are capable of spreading diseases to these animals.

“We also partner with local health centres to detect disease outbreak and work out prevention measures,” she said.

She added that tourists are also briefed about gorillas life and never enter the park with transmissible disease.

“Our focus is on gorillas but there are also other animals that stray. It is my task to take them back to the park,” she says.

How to treat gorilla

Gorillas cannot easily be approached by both vets and other people. Treating them, therefore, requires immobilisation. This is where a “durt gun” is used to inject the gorilla with anesthesia as a way of inducing sleep.

“Trackers check the body condition, and respiratory system of gorillas. We also have a binocular to test their eye sight,” Nyirakaragire says.

She said they wear masks in order to avoid contracting diseases from the gorillas.

“When we are treating one of them, we keep the others busy so that they do not attack us,” she adds.

Nyirakaragire says after extracting body samples, a test is carried out to detect any disease.

“But when there are clear signs of disease, for instance if there are visible wounds, or they have cough, flu or another clear disease, we treat them without immobilisation,” Nyirakaragire says.

She says over 90 per cent of vets do immobilisation because it helps them detect other diseases.

“When a gorilla is sick, we get samples from it. This helps us detect the problem and help the other gorillas,” Nyirakaragire says.

“We give gorillas similar medicine as that given to human beings. The difference is in dosage. Gorillas are stronger and bigger. We, therefore, administer medicine to them based on their weight,” she adds.

Park Warden officials say Nyirakagire’s role is commendable, as she works with a team of trackers and helps them understand how gorillas are treated and protected. They say she has on several occasions saved the lives of gorillas.

There are more than 218 gorillas in the park in 17 groups. Each group has a name just like each individual gorilla.

“It is my pride to keep gorillas healthy. I know I am contributing to their future existence. In addition I draw a monthly salary that I use in my daily life, and pay school fees for my children as well as invest,” she says

Tourists and other people visiting the park are advised to keep a distance of seven metres from gorillas to avoid any contamination for either gorillas or humans.

Contact email: jmbonyinshuti

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