Episode available within Canada only.
Photo: Bryn Hughes

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.

gorilla doctors in the fieldMike Cranfield (left) and his team examine Matashishi
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.

The gorilla doctors perform an intervention in the field
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.


Credits (Click to expand)

David York
Bryn Hughes

writer and co-director
Roberto Verdecchia

co-director and director of photography 
Michael Boland

picture editor
Tony Coleman

music composers
David Wall
James Shields
Adam White

sound design 
Michael Bonini

sound recordist  
David Best

Wendy Glauser

visual research  
Erin Chisholm

post supervisor / assistant editor    
Haya Waseem

assistant editor  
Amanda Strachan

Rwanda/DRCongo fixer 
Paul Harera

Wilson Kambale
Marc Kubwimana

on-line editor  
Frank Cassano

Grayden Laing

transcription services 
Laurel Toews

voice of andré bauma 
Jeff Tremblay

voice of jean-felix kinani 
Alain Patry

graphics / animation 
Visual Inclination
Ivan Verlaan
Mathiew Martel
Mick MacEachern

production accountant 
Nancy Gomes

Sandra Richmond  – Stohn Hay Cafazzo Richmond Dembroski LLP

accounting services
Kay and Warburton

archival footage
National Geographic
Associated Press Archive
Scott Johnson
Gorilla Doctors

thanks to:
Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project – “Gorilla Doctors”
Dr. Mike Cranfield
Dr. Kirsten Gilardi
Jessica Burbridge
Dr. Eddy Kambale
Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri (Dr. Noel)
Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani
Dr. Jan Ramer
Dr. Dawn Zimmerman
Schadrack Niyonzima
Dr. Jacques Iyanya
Jean Paul Lukusa

Laurie Harris
Kerry Bowman
Martha Robbins

Rwanda Development Board
Dr. Tony Mudakikwa
Prosper Uwingeli
Elizabeth Nyirakaragire
Mark Mkurunziza

Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature:
Virunga National Park Chief Warden Emmanuel De Merode
Warden Rumangabo Station Innocent Mburanumwe,
Andre Bauma
Beau Davis
Augustin Ngumbi
Cosma Wilungula

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Dr. John Sallaway
Natasha Carleton, Lac Kivu Lodge
Dario Merlo, Jane Goodall Institute
Blaise Iraguha
Greg Bakunzi, Amahora Tours
Mao and Imaculee Umiwana, Briquettes Project
Hotel Muhabura, Ruhengeri
Mikeno Lodge, Rumangabo
Dr. Mutzig

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
(logo) 2014

senior producer
FM Morrison

executive producer
Sue Dando

Produced by
52 Media Inc.
@ 2014 52

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