In the thick of the jungle of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, an infant mountain gorilla has been caught in a snare. If the rope is not removed quickly enough, the young gorilla could lose its hand. In order to remove the snare, a team of veterinarians will first need to sedate the infant's mother. But if the infant screams too much, the three 400-pound adult males that form part of this gorilla group will all attack. Everything must go perfectly, or there's no telling what could happen. And being jungle medicine, things rarely go perfectly.
Photo: Roberto Verdecchia
The pioneering group of vets performing this medical intervention is known as Gorilla Doctors. Led by Canadian Mike Cranfield, they work in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, where the world's last Mountain Gorillas can be found.
Gorilla Doctors practice "extreme conservation" and work to bring the endangered mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction, one gorilla at a time. They perform routine check-ups, treat orphaned infants, and even do surgery right on the jungle bed. It’s both incredibly risky and important work, as only 880 Mountain Gorillas are left.
Virunga National Park chief warden shot and wounded. Read a National Geographic news article.
The great apes are threatened from all sides. Poaching and habitat destruction are problems, to say nothing of rebel armies making a base out of the gorillas' home in Congo's Virunga National Park. In their extreme efforts to save the mountain gorilla, Gorilla Doctors have been held at gunpoint by rebel soldiers while making their rounds. And more than 140 Park Rangers have been killed in the past decade alone, trying to protect the gorillas and their Park.
But more than rebels or poachers, Gorilla Doctors worry about the threat of human disease. Because they share 98% of our DNA, gorillas are susceptible to nearly all human diseases. And with no immunity, they can die from even a simple human cold. With so few mountain gorillas in the world, the vets want to prevent the death of even one.
Photo: Roberto Verdecchia
It's for this reason that the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda decide to intervene to treat Muturengere, a sick young adult-male gorilla, even when they know that he has a history of being aggressive. Park Rangers put themselves between Muturengere and the vets as the Gorilla Doctors lift their dart guns to inject him with antibiotics. As if on cue, Muturengere charges...
"There's been trackers and guides that have been bitten, there's been veterinarians that have been bitten. The gorillas are looking to protect their families. But the bites can be fairly severe and painful." - Mike Cranfield
Living near some of the most densely-populated areas in Africa, the risk of disease transmission is so serious that Mike Cranfield believes pro-actively vaccinating the gorillas is one of the best ways to ensure their survival. (Is ebola a risk, read more)
But is this going too far? Critics fear that with this level of intervention, the mountain gorilla is losing its "wildness", and will end up living like any other zoo animal, except with food that regenerates and a much bigger living space. For his part, Mike Cranfield believes that the threats to the gorillas are so severe that it's either intervention, or extinction.
Vaccinate gorillas against Ebola, Gorilla Doctors recommend: Read a story by CBC.ca online
Listen to an interview with Mike Cranfield online.
Read a review of the film.
Even admiring eco-tourists pose a threat to the great apes. Every year, nearly 30,000 people go to Rwanda and pay top dollar to visit the gorillas. While that money has gone a long way towards protecting the Park and the gorillas, allowing so many people to come so close to the gorillas also increases the risk of disease transmission. And while the tourists are supposed to stay seven metres away from the gorillas, in practice that's not always possible. It's not hard to imagine that some day an unknowing tourist – enjoying the magical experience of being up close with mountain gorillas – will also bring a disease along with them.
Produced by 52 Media, Inc. and directed by Roberto Verdecchia and Michael Boland, GORILLA DOCTORS takes you to the spectacular Virunga mountains and the world of the mountain gorilla, putting you right alongside the jungle vets as they weigh the risks of intervening to save these great apes.
writer and co-director
co-director and director of photography
post supervisor / assistant editor
voice of andré bauma
voice of jean-felix kinani
graphics / animation
Sandra Richmond – Stohn Hay Cafazzo Richmond Dembroski LLP
Kay and Warburton
Associated Press Archive
Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project – “Gorilla Doctors”
Dr. Mike Cranfield
Dr. Kirsten Gilardi
Dr. Eddy Kambale
Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri (Dr. Noel)
Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani
Dr. Jan Ramer
Dr. Dawn Zimmerman
Dr. Jacques Iyanya
Jean Paul Lukusa
Rwanda Development Board
Dr. Tony Mudakikwa
Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature:
Virunga National Park Chief Warden Emmanuel De Merode
Warden Rumangabo Station Innocent Mburanumwe,
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Dr. John Sallaway
Natasha Carleton, Lac Kivu Lodge
Dario Merlo, Jane Goodall Institute
Greg Bakunzi, Amahora Tours
Mao and Imaculee Umiwana, Briquettes Project
Hotel Muhabura, Ruhengeri
Mikeno Lodge, Rumangabo
produced with the participation of the Canada Media Fund
produced with the assistance of
Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit
Ontario Media Development Corporation – Tax Credit Program
Rogers Documentary Fund (logo)
produced with the participation of
Rogers Telefund (logo)
Canadian Federation of Musicians
produced in association with
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
52 Media Inc.
@ 2014 52
Visit our website to watch the series online, discover extra behind-the-scenes stories and find our Best of 2014 iOS App. Visit Wild Canada
NEW SERIES: Follow our team online as we work on a new series, Wild Canadian Year , debuting in October 2017.
Tweets about #CBCTNoT OR #NatureofThings