By John Balson
When renowned American primatologist Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 the mountain gorillas population was estimated to be as low as 250 animals in the wild.
Dr Fossey, who dedicated her life to saving the species, was found face-up on the floor of her cabin in the forest, having been bludgeoned with a machete.
As well as inspiring the Oscar-nominated movie Gorillas in the Mist, her life's work also gave rise to the Gorilla Doctors, who nearly 30 years later have contributed greatly to bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.
The most recent census revealed that today, there are 880 mountain gorillas ranging in central Africa.
The international team of veterinarians operates in the heart of Africa, treating maimed and critically ill gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Their work extends beyond wild gorilla health care: the Gorilla Doctors treat infants orphaned by poachers, conduct wildlife disease surveillance to look for emerging pandemic threats, and provide health care and medicine to over 2,000 national park workers and their family members.
The veterinary team intervenes when the gentle giants are trapped in poacher's snares, exhibiting symptoms of potentially fatal human viruses.and suffering from life-threatening trauma resulting from conflict amongst and between gorilla groups.
‘This is the most challenging job I have ever had, but also the most rewarding,’ said American Dr Jan Ramer, the Gorilla Doctors regional manager.
‘I visited Rwanda in 1985 when I was a primate keeper at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. I was lucky enough to meet Dian Fossey and saw mountain gorillas for the first time during that visit.
‘I fell in love and always dreamed of returning to Rwanda and working in gorilla conservation.’
‘Much of my job consists of reporting, accounting, and meeting with partners, government officials and donors but I still love it when I get to be a clinical veterinarian.’
Empowering local doctors is an important objective within the organisation.
Dr Ramer is the only expatriate veterinarian on the ground - the majority of the team is comprised of Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese veterinarians and all support staff are African.
The Gorilla Doctors' work continues to see the mountain gorilla population rise, while all other monitored populations of great apes around the world are steadily declining.
The last six years have seen the vets and scientists employ increasingly advanced techniques, which they hope will help all critically endangered species, not just gorillas.
Gorilla Doctors operates under a 'One Health' approach to conserving the species, which live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the Virunga Massif, which straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo.
'One Health' is a belief that the health of one species is inextricably linked to that of the entire ecosystem - including humans and other animal species.
This is important as disease can be spread by local people, who, earning an average of $1 (£0.59) a day, delve into the forest for resources such as water and firewood, as well as to hunt bushmeat.
The region, which is the most densely populated in Africa, is also a magnet for thousands of eco-tourists who trek to the habituated gorilla groups, eager to observe the wild apes in their natural habitat.
The Rwanda Development Board, which orchestrates the gorilla tourism program, requires tourists maintain a 23ft (7m) distance from the gorillas.
However, the gorillas are not aware of the rule and often approach much closer, making disease transmission a primary concern.
But there is two-way traffic around the national park and some of the mountain gorillas, which can weigh 30st, also wander out of the protected forest and into close proximity to local communities in search of eucalyptus and bamboo shoots.
The common cold could potentially kill the animals, who share 98.5 per cent of their genes with humans.
In fact, infectious disease, such as human-born respiratory illness, accounts for 20 per cent of mountain gorilla deaths in central Africa.
Gorilla Doctors immediately treat all gorillas exhibiting severe respiratory illness symptoms with medications to help the animal overcome the infection quickly.
The region the Gorilla Doctors operate in is also one of the most turbulent in the world and has been marred by genocide and war.
At times, the team has been unable to monitor the gorillas' health, primarily in the DR Congo, where rebel factions have moved into the gorilla's habitat.
Most recently, the M23 rebel group occupied the Mikeno Sector of Virunga National Park for 18 months and were finally dispersed by the Congolese army and UN forces, allowing conservation workers to re-enter the park and check on the gorillas and other wildlife.
Their latest mission, to fly a young Grauer's gorilla orphan named Ihirwe to the Grace sanctuary in north-eastern DRC, was made possible by UN forces.
Gorilla Doctors has provided critical medical care to over 30 orphan gorillas since the organisation's inception.
The Senkwekwe Centre, located in Rumangabo, DRC, is home to four mountain gorilla orphans and one suspected Grauer's gorilla orphan.
The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (Grace) center is home to 14 Grauer's, or eastern lowland gorilla orphans. More....