January 21, 2015 – By the early to mid-1980s, fewer than 300 mountain gorillas were known to still exist in the world. Zoologist and primatologist Dr. Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas exclusively in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, wanted to change those numbers.
She had discovered that the population declines in these great apes were due to poaching and exposure to human diseases brought on by habitat infringement. Much of her findings were reported in her 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist, which was later made into a movie.
In 1984, Dian Fossey met Ruth Morris Keesling, the daughter of Morris Animal Foundation founder Dr. Mark Morris Sr. Through this relationship and Dr. Fossey’s vision, Morris Animal Foundation began funding what would become known as the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), the first effort made in Rwanda to provide in-field veterinary care to the highly endangered mountain gorillas. Prior to this project, veterinary care was unavailable to help the sick and wounded mountain gorillas that Dr. Fossey monitored during her observational studies.
Beginning in 1986, funding from Morris Animal Foundation led to the establishment of the Volcanoes Veterinary Clinic, the Kinigi Veterinary Laboratory and the development of an animal health management plan for Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda—all of which operated through the MGVP. By establishing this infrastructure in Rwanda, the Foundation and the MGVP paved the way for veterinarians and animal health researchers to treat and study mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. (No mountain gorillas live in captivity.)
Over the years, the MGVP expanded to include health programs for mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas, discovered in the national parks of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since the MGVP’s inception, the number of mountain gorillas has steadily climbed, making it one of the few great ape species that has experienced an increase in its population in the wild.
The MGVP’s many health programs have led not only to treatment of sick and orphaned gorillas, but MGVP veterinarians and staff also have performed valuable community outreach to halt poaching and have conducted the research necessary to understand the zoonotic threats facing these great apes.
In 2009, the MGVP partnered with the Wildlife Center at the University of California–Davis College of Veterinary Medicine to create Gorilla Doctors. Thanks to leadership from the MGVP and the UC–Davis Wildlife Center, Gorilla Doctors now employs more than a dozen veterinarians and health experts in the three African countries where mountain gorillas live.
“Morris Animal Foundation support allowed the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to carry out its basic fundamental mission of mountain gorilla health, while allowing it to also develop partnerships that engage at a much broader ecosystem level, realizing that gorilla health is inextricably linked to the local people and the environment,” says Dr. Dominic Travis, Gorilla Doctors adviser, University of Minnesota associate professor and former Morris Animal Foundation scientific advisory board member and trustee.
Since 1986, Morris Animal Foundation has invested more than $3 million to help the mountain gorillas of eastern and central Africa. Currently, Morris Animal Foundation is funding researchers at UC–Davis who are examining the epidemiology of zoonotic pathogens in endangered mountain gorillas.