Gorilla Doctors: Saving the Last Great Apes

“Quiet! The gorillas are near. They are scared, you must be quiet!” We were all knackered, we’d been hiking for eight hours to catch up with the gorillas and finally we were close. I looked around the rest of our crew: Todd with his hand in plaster after breaking a bone a week before we flew out to Africa; Jon with his bandana saturated with sweat; Peter and Andy heaving away, sucking in the slightly rarefied air up at 1800m above sea level; and Tim looking as happy and fresh as he always does. The Gorilla Doctors were with us, so were the armed rangers and trackers whose job it is to ensure the survival of the tiny number of mountain gorillas that remain after decades of persecution.

I was in southwestern Uganda in the wonderfully named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the rarest and most charismatic animals on earth: the mountain gorilla. There are only about 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild, but unlike many species, this number is rising, if very slowly. Over the past few years, 7% of the rise in numbers has been attributed to medical interventions provided by a dedicated team of veterinarians called the Gorilla Doctors. I had teamed up with the Gorilla Doctors to join them in their daily work up in the jungles, and to try to document a medical procedure – known as an ‘intervention’ – should a medical emergency arise.

The chances of the Doctors needing to perform an intervention while we were there were very slim. We knew that a Canadian journalist had been living in the area for the past three months and was yet to photograph an intervention in all that time. We knew this was a possibility, but as they say: you’ve got to be in it to win it. We were there, we were ready, and we’d fill our time getting all the other footage we needed anyway; if we could record an intervention that would be the icing on the cake.

After several days in Bwindi, we’d recorded some incredible footage of gorillas, both deep in the near-impenetrable forest and, remarkably, walking through the grounds of a hotel that borders the forest edge. The Gorilla Doctors had been with us the whole time, and we filmed them at work, documenting the physical state of each and every one of the gorillas they saw, noting how alert it was, how well it was feeding, whether it had any new wounds etc. Thankfully none of the gorillas had required any medical treatment. I say thankfully: I was thankful for the gorillas’ sake, but for our film we dearly wanted to witness an intervention!

We were back at our hotel, the same hotel that Diane Fossey used to stay in when not in the field, when Dr. Fred received a phone call from the Chief Park Ranger: there had been an altercation between a lone silverback and a family group of gorillas, and the silverback that leads the group had been injured. The Gorilla Doctors were required to go and assess the situation immediately!

We piled into the 4WDs and set off on the five hour drive to reach the village from which we’d access the forest and pursue the gorillas. We arrived after midnight, so put our heads down for a few hours. We were up at dawn and by 8am we were hiking up into the hills with a team of rangers. As we walked we received radio updates from the trackers ahead of us who were trying to locate the gorilla family and the injured silverback. The gorillas were on the move, fleeing from the rogue silverback that had attacked them, and they would be hard to find. The trackers worked tirelessly throughout the day, following the tracks of the gorilla family as they moved deeper and deeper into the forest. I have never seen forest so beautiful, so strange, so ancient-looking. I would not have been surprised to have stumbled upon a dinosaur grazing on some tree ferns!

Finally at around 4pm we caught up with the trackers. They gestured to us to come over, and implored us to be quiet, for the gorillas were nearby and we didn’t want to alarm them. Dr. Fred and Dr. Jan called us all together: we had to try to find the injured silverback and assess the extent of his injuries, but finding him might be difficult: he might be hiding. We all nodded gravely, wondering whether we’d hiked all that way for nothing, when I looked over my shoulder and I couldn’t believe my eyes! There, only 15 meters away and walking slowly towards us, was the injured silverback, come to show us his wounds!

Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to Uganda and treks through mountainous jungle terrain alongside the gorilla doctors who are on a medical mission to save these last great apes tonight at 9/8c on Biggest & Baddest: King Lives only on Nat Geo WILD!