Innocent Rwego’s hometown of Kisoro, Uganda, is nestled amid the volcanic mountains at the border of Congo and Rwanda – near the habitat of endangered mountain gorillas.
Growing up, however, he never saw a gorilla. “You have to pay to enter the national parks, and most of the locals cannot afford it,” says Rwego, a post-doctoral fellow in Emory's environmental studies department.
Following in the footsteps of his police detective father did not interest him: His childhood idol was the town’s sole veterinarian. When his family went to buy freshly slaughtered meat, he would see Dr. Bisangwa inspecting the carcasses for disease. When one of his grandfather’s cows fell ill, Dr. Bisangwa would be summoned. “I was impressed that he could treat an animal that was down, and it would be up on its feet again in a few hours,” Rwego says.
Dogs in the town were more guards than pets, prized for their ferociousness, and rabies was not uncommon. “Dr. Bisangwa seemed very brave to me,” Rwego says. “He knew how to grab a vicious dog, so that he could immunize it.”
Rwego attended college and veterinary school at Makerere University in Kampala, intending to become a village vet. But near the end of his schooling, he assisted in a mountain gorilla research project.
The researchers entered Bwindi Impenetrable National Park behind a machete-wielding guide who hacked out their path. After hours of hiking through the dense, hilly forest, they came upon a gorilla family, peacefully munching on leaves.
“I was amazed,” Rwego says. “The silverback male was a huge animal, but so quiet and confident.”
After he graduated, Rwego worked in the national park for four years as a mountain gorilla vet. He sometimes had to assist curious young gorillas that set off traps intended for antelope. It was a tricky task. Although gorillas are peaceful animals, the males will attack someone threatening their family members.
Once when Rwego darted a young one, a nearby silverback heard it cry out, charged in, grabbed the tranquilized youngster, and ran off. Rwego’s team followed the gorilla group, and eventually he managed to remove the wires that were cutting into the arm of the young one.
Rwego went on to become a lecturer at Makerere University. He also serves on the scientific committee of the UNESCO DIVERSITAS ecoHEALTH Cross-cutting Network, which is charged with protecting biodiversity.
“I care about the health of all animals – including man,” Rwego says. He studies how the overlap of humans, domestic animals and wildlife contributes to the transmission of disease and parasites.
At Emory, Rwego works with primate disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, who has established one of the world’s leading labs for the medical analysis of gorilla feces. The lab work is hardly glamorous, but intensely important. While the H1N1 flu outbreak started in pigs, ebola and HIV have been linked to wild primates, which are also susceptible to human diseases.
Tracking microbes that move amid species gives scientists a better chance of stemming the next pandemic – or preventing one. “Traditionally, vets work alone, medical doctors work alone and ecologists work alone,” Rwego says. “We need to work together to understand how pathogens are evolving and new diseases are emerging.”
No one is immune to the threat. “The world is becoming a village,” Rwego says. “A disease that breaks out in my hometown can be here within 48 hours.”
Mountain gorilla photos by Innocent Rwego.
Primate disease ecologist tracks germs in the wild
Why are so many infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans?