September 23, 2021 – More than 50 years ago, Morris Animal Foundation expanded its animal health funding to include important health concerns affecting wildlife. A decade later, the Foundation would embark on a massive effort to save one of the most iconic land mammal species on Earth – the mountain gorilla.
A FATEFUL MEETING
While serving on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, Ruth Keesling, gorilla enthusiast, philanthropist and daughter of Morris Animal Foundation’s founder, Dr. Mark Morris Sr., had a chance meeting with famous primatologist Dian Fossey during a trip to Africa. She later met Fossey at a primate conservation meeting in California, where Fossey shared her deep concern that the mountain gorillas were going to disappear without urgent conservation efforts. At the time, only about 240 known mountain gorillas remained in the world.
Keesling promised her new friend she would return to Africa soon to explore ways the Foundation could help save the gorillas. Tragically, Fossey was murdered at her camp just a few days before the Keesling’s scheduled trip. But Keesling kept her promise and journeyed to Rwanda with fellow Board members.
Shortly after the visit, the Foundation established the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. The Foundation provided funding to train the first veterinary teams and build the Volcanoes Veterinary Centre. The Centre provided in-field veterinary care and a much-needed veterinary lab. The on-site lab ensured quick analysis of biologic samples collected from the gorillas.
Morris Animal Foundation supported the Volcanoes Veterinary Centre for more than 10 years, never giving up on the promise to help mountain gorillas. Many people remained during this turbulent time to help protect the gorillas at great personal risk due to civil unrest and the Rwandan genocide. Eventually, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project became a stand-alone nonprofit, known today as the Gorilla Doctors. They expanded their reach to also care and protect eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorillas living in the national parks of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Initially, the Mountain Gorilla Project focused on building infrastructure and the immediate health care needs of the mountain gorillas, such as snare removal and monitoring infectious disease outbreaks. By September 2000, the Foundation, along with experts in veterinary medicine, epidemiology and conservation, developed a long-term health strategy plan to save the species. Under the umbrella of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, the plan included new avenues for gorilla health studies and increasing efforts to establish in-country expertise and resources.
GORILLA HEALTH RESEARCH
Archived samples and observations from the Mountain Gorilla Project – and Gorilla Doctors’ continued work – are a rich resource for gorilla health researchers. These data provided early researchers with insight into disease threats and the genetic makeup of gorilla families, critically important information needed to save an endangered species. Findings helped Mountain Gorilla Project veterinarians develop contingency plans for disease outbreaks as well as make more informed decisions about how to preserve ecosystem health surrounding endangered populations.
While Morris Animal Foundation’s work with facility and infrastructure is complete, the work to help gorillas exist as a thriving species for generations to come is not over. Through the years, we’ve supported projects on disease threats transmitted by regional livestock outside the parks to respiratory disease spillover from humans – and our investment into gorilla health continues.
Recent Foundation-funded gorilla health projects include:
University of California, Davis, researchers are studying gastrointestinal parasites in wild Grauer’s gorillas. The team wants to learn more about disease transmission within family groups and between groups living in different habitats. This new data will be used to identify parasite transmission hotspots to further health conservation measures. UC Davis also is home base to Gorilla Doctors.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE
Many mountain gorillas living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), Uganda, have visibly deteriorated body conditions. Institute of Vertebrate Biology (IVB) researchers in the Czech Republic are investigating the possible connection between parasitic worm infections, the gut microbial community and this chronic wasting syndrome. Findings will provide scientific-based evidence for future treatment decisions and successful management of gut parasitic infections in mountain gorillas, an approach that may help other wildlife species with similar infections.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Thanks to Keesling and Fossey’s meeting, along with decades of sustained support, mountain gorillas are the only wild ape with an increasing population. Today, more than 1,000 known mountain gorillas live in the wild and thrive under the watchful eyes of a trained veterinary staff, trackers and guides, and local support. With extra care, researchers also hope to save the eastern lowland gorillas from extinction, a species whose populations continue to decline.
You can help transform the health and well-being of gorillas and other endangered wildlife around the world by making a gift to Morris Animal Foundation. Help us honor the legacy of Dian Fossey and Ruth Keesling by supporting critical health studies that preserve life and prevent extinction.