Sunday, August 8, 2010


On Saturday, the nice people of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project* brought us to see their baby orphan gorillas. I say “the nice people” because they usually charge 500USD for people to do this, and even limit the number of people who can go, even if they are willing to pay because they don’t want the gorillas over-exposed to humans. For us, they did not charge, and even asked if we wanted to go rather than waiting for us to ask them.

Such are the benefits of knowing the few other muzungus in Musanze.

While the original mission of MGVP is to perform veterinary…stuff…on sick/injured gorillas in the field, they have recently been called in to care for rescued orphan gorillas (that are confiscated from animal smugglers) because they are one of the few gorilla veterinary organizations in Rwanda/Uganda/Congo. They keep these orphans in a sanctuary for a few years before sending them off to larger sanctuaries that actually have the funds to care for them. (I guess even feeding a gorilla for a day is pretty expensive.)

In the blind enthusiasm that I’ve been practicing pretty much since I got here, I literally just jumped in the back of a car on Saturday morning, not really knowing where we were headed or what we would do when we got there. We travelled pretty far, picked up a few tourists, and then pulled up to a gate and parked. We were told that we’d all just climb to the top of the car to watch the gorillas. I was still pretty confused. And hungover.

I stumbled out of the back of the car and was immediately forced to cover my eyes from the glaring sun (left my sunglasses in America). It took me a few moments to realize that everybody else who got out of the car were staring, dazed, at a gorilla that was practically right above us! We climbed on top of the car and what we saw was amazing…in no way compares to the exhibits at the zoo (turns out the two tourists we picked up are zookeepers in their real lives and started telling us stories about girls falling into baboon exhibits, etc.)…there were about 10 baby gorillas RIGHT THERE. They looked pretty much exactly like the huge gorilla stuffed animal that I used to have (Kopper’s probably the only one on this list that remembers that).

Jan, the woman who brought us, could tell us all of their names and personality quirks. The coolest part, I thought, is that because many of the gorillas are captured at such a young age…they recognize their caregivers as their mothers. One of them literally clung to one of the two Rwandan caregivers that sat in the area all day to monitor them. (And even sleep with the gorillas when they’re really young.)

The only downside to this whole experience was that our entire group was hungover from the night before. I was stuck in one of the standing positions on the car and kept on having images of stumbling and falling off the back – which resulted in multiple awkward situations when I grabbed the shriveled stub of the armless zookeeper who was squatting next to me. And I probably handled it the best. One of the kids got the shakes and just had to sit down, facing away from the gorillas. And all of us needed a long nap when we got home at 1pm. I should add that the bumpy car ride did not help anything. None of us were in any shape to go out last night.

Rwanda is slowly becoming famous for its gorillas…but it’s almost prohibitively expensive for average people to go see them…so it was awesome that we got to do this for free…thank you Jan!

*MGVP ( was born of the same funds as the Jane Fossey Gorilla Fund when Jane Fossey died (she’s famous?). As their name shows…they perform veterinary stuff on gorillas. For the most part, their project sounds awesome. They have a few monitors who pretty much live with the gorilla tribes in the mountains and call in the trained vets (mostly US zookeepers on leave) to come operate if anything extreme happens. The vets come and perform everything in the field so that the gorillas are not “ex-communicated” from the tribe. Yes…this is playing with nature in strange ways…but it is also helping to protect some very endangered species. According to their website, there are 720 mountain gorillas left on earth…and not written on their website is that many of these are being hunted in the Congo.

It also served as the original financial sponsor for WWHPS in Rwanda…which means that we like them even more.


Ms. W said...

eli-- from professor dobson's primate anthropology class, i learned that mountain gorillas are some of the only other animals that mate face to face. check it out!

i miss you! sounds like youre doing awesome stuff over there!

kathryn said...

I love this line, Eli: "In the blind enthusiasm that I’ve been practicing pretty much since I got here, I literally just jumped in the back of a car on Saturday morning, not really knowing where we were headed or what we would do when we got there." What an experience.