In an increasingly crowded world where people and animals come into ever-closer contact, the lines that separate us – physical, biological, ecological, behavioral – are essentially gone. So, the future of conservation will be initiatives that address the entire ecosystem – a ‘One Health’ approach.
‘One Health’ recognizes that the health of people, animals and the environment are inextricably linked. It is an interdependent framework that understands that in order to promote the wellness of people, we must also account for and advance the health of the animals and environments upon which human communities depend.
Gorilla Doctors, a non-profit organization providing life-saving veterinary care for wild mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, has employed a One Health approach for decades and has demonstrated this method is essential for preventing the extinction of great apes.
In the 1980s, primatologist Dian Fossey first sounded the alarm that mountain gorillas were getting caught in snares and dying of their injuries. She called for the assistance of veterinarians who could safely anesthetize wild gorillas to remove the snares. Fossey’s plea resulted in the establishment of Gorilla Doctors in 1986.
Today, Gorilla Doctors is an international team of Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese veterinarians stationed in all three countries. It is the only organization performing clinical interventions to save sick or injured mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in the wild, as well as conducting hundreds of group visits to routinely monitor their health.
We are able to conduct this lifesaving work because a majority of mountain gorillas (and a small number of Grauer’s gorillas) are human-habituated for tourism and research. Thousands of people travel to the region every year to view gorillas in their natural habitat, generating millions of dollars that helps fund the protection of the parks and create jobs for people living in local communities.
Gorilla tourism has, undoubtedly, prevented the extinction of the species. But at what risk?
Gorillas and people share 98.6% of their genomes, making gorillas susceptible to human diseases. Close proximity of people and gorillas has resulted in the transmission of deadly human pathogens to mountain gorillas. As a result, Gorilla Doctors was one of the first wildlife conservation organizations in the world to recognize the strategic importance of a One Health approach. We launched a health program for park workers to ensure that individuals in close contact with gorillas everyday were as healthy as possible, thereby minimizing the risk of disease transmission.
Gorilla Doctors has also implemented hygiene protocols for ranger posts and tourist points around Volcanoes National Park, conducted research & surveillance for pathogens that could flow from gorillas to people and vice versa, and written international standards for disease prevention and health monitoring in great apes.
Is Gorilla Doctors’ One Health approach to conservation working? When Dian Fossey first called for a veterinarian, there were approximately 250 mountain gorillas left in the world. Today, there are 1,004, and they are the only great ape whose numbers in the wild are increasing. In a comprehensive assessment of this conservation model, veterinary care was determined to be responsible for half of the annual growth rate of the habituated gorilla population.
Gorilla Doctors’ One Health approach is literally saving a species one gorilla at a time, while also addressing the health and sustainability of the gorillas’ entire (human) ecosystem.
Gorilla Doctors is a partnership between the non-profit MGVP, Inc. and the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, housed within the One Health Institute at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.