Fewer than 800 mountain gorillas survive, and about 480 of them are in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa. Photo by Winnie Eckardt.
By Carol Clark
Winnie Eckardt’s work commute begins with a half-hour car ride from town to forest, then continues on foot. It’s often a long trek through the mountainous jungle, and the weather is sometimes rainy and cold. She may have to trudge as long as six hours before she locates one of the groups of mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Rwanda.
“Usually, I don’t mind walking up and down,” Eckardt says. “On days when the conditions are especially rough, being with the gorillas improves your mood. Spending time with them chills you out.”
Mountain gorillas are known for their tolerance and peaceful demeanor. “You can learn a lot about yourself by watching them,” Eckardt says. “They make you think about how you yourself behave and why. For me, it’s a huge privilege to work with the last remaining mountain gorillas.”
As a post-doctoral fellow in Emory’s department of environmental studies, Eckardt’s job is to observe the behavior of the endangered animals and collect their fecal samples to test for parasites and stress hormones. The first comprehensive mountain gorilla health-monitoring project is a collaboration between Emory, Zoo Atlanta, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Emory post-doc Winnie Eckardt during a recent visit to campus, to meet with the team in the primate disease ecology lab. Photo by Carol Clark.
“This is the first time all of these organizations are working together for the benefit of the gorillas,” says Emory primate disease ecologist Tom Gillespie. “It’s a natural way to build on efforts that we’ve been working on separately for a long time.”
Fewer than 800 mountain gorillas are estimated to survive in the world. About 480 of them live in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa, where northwest Rwanda joins with southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Poachers and loss of habitat are among the threats to the mountain gorillas. As humans use more land for farming, the animals are driven to higher altitudes, where the weather is colder and food is scarcer. The gorillas sometimes take food from eucalyptus trees and bamboo patches cultivated outside the park, risking an exchange of pathogens that is dangerous to both humans and the animals.
The national parks where the animals roam strictly limit the number of tourists that are allowed to see the gorillas. The aim is to balance the need for tourism income with protecting the health of the gorillas.
Photo by Innocent Rwego.
“What we know about pathogens in wild primates is still very limited,” says Gillespie. His lab will assess parasite loads from the fecal samples. A lab at the Lincoln Park Zoo will do the stress hormone analyses.
“The aim is to get a broad-brush understanding of whether the overall health of the animals is changing,” Gillespie says.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is headquartered at Zoo Atlanta, and also runs the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. The center was started by the late Dian Fossey in 1967, and has built up a 40-year database of gorilla life, behavior and habitat.
The health-monitoring project melds Karisoke’s ongoing behavioral research with biological analysis.
Does exposure to tourists increase the stress levels of mountain gorilla groups? Do the parasitic loads of gorillas change in relation to stress? How do weather changes affect their immune responses?
“We’re trying to identify key stress sources for the gorillas, and the potential impact of these stressors on their health for the long-term,” Gillespie says. “We want to provide useful data to help influence policy.”
Watch the BBC Worldwide video, below, to get an idea of what it's like to hike in search of mountain gorillas:
Eckardt was a natural choice to work on the field component of the project, based at Karisoke. A native of Germany, Eckardt stayed at Karisoke from 2004 to 2008 as a research assistant and dissertation student. Her study focused on the relationship between mountain gorilla mothers and their offspring.
She recalls when a 28-month-old female became separated from her mother and the rest of the group, perhaps because the group was startled by poachers and had to flee.
The young gorilla spent almost three days alone in the forest, in cold temperatures, before she found her way back to the group. “She was traumatized and she couldn’t walk very well,” Eckardt says. The mother refused to respond to the returning infant and the infant died that night.
“The physical challenge is not the hardest part of the job,” Eckardt says, explaining that, as a scientist, she must stay detached as she observes such behavior and let nature take its course.
A wild view of 'Planet of the Apes'
Gorilla vet tracks microbes for global health