A trip to the Volcanoes National Park with Elisabeth Nyirakaragire is yet another long but quite gratifying trekking experience.
As we brave the morning cold weather, she sparks a conversation of what exactly we were going to embark on.
Shortly, we set off together with a team of ranger trackers, walk through a thick steep jungle surrounded by twittering voices of birds and muffled crackling sounds of tree species.
Some of the trackers are holding machetes, helping to clear the way for Nyirakaragire as we follow her journey into the park where she is set to meet the gorillas in a particular family.
This particular gorilla group is called Umubano, loosely translated as friendship. The group is made up of 13 mountain gorillas.
The conversation that Nyirakaragire had earlier sparked was giving us a sneak peek into the journey of evaluating the health conditions of each individual gorilla in the group we were visiting.
“This exercise is called gorilla health monitoring. We basically conduct routine health checks of the gorillas,” she tells me as we start embarking on a journey through the jungle.
Equipped with a set of tools – a camera, a notebook and a pen, she leads the way.
After about 20 minutes into the jungle, the first gorilla, Ntakibazo, one of the dominant male silverbacks in the group, is seen feeding on trees.
Nyirakaragire pauses and gets closer, observes carefully, takes couple of pictures with her camera and jots down some notes.
We ask her what she was specifically observing from Ntakibazo. Her response was prompt. There was a set of parameters that she was looking at that show whether a gorilla is healthy or not.
“Ntakibazo is busy taking breakfast, which means its feeding ability is good. His belly has become larger and it doesn’t bear any grave physical problem like injury,” she tells me as I majestically observe the gorilla feeding.
We continue the trip and as we admire the beauty of the diverse habitat of these endangered mountain gorillas, a group of three other members of Umubano family are seen from a distance separately munching from large tall trees.
Nyirakaragire spends sometime observing the gorillas the same way she did with Ntakibazo. The fact that the three gorillas were able to climb trees was another sign that they were in good shape, she says.
“When they are sick, they cannot be able to climb and feed on tall trees,” she says.
After nearly 40 minutes, we meet Ijabo, a six-year old gorilla, also called a juvenile in veterinary terms.
He, too, was busy feeding on leaves, despite having a physical disability on one of his legs which he developed during the second day of his birth.
After more than an hour, checking on every individual in the group and looking at all the parameters – feeding ability, playing, napping and body conditions like injuries and skin hair, she concludes that they are all healthy.
Nyirakaragire has been doing this job for 32 years now, making her the first and the oldest veterinarian for mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Today, she is 56 years old, fit, passionate and determined to spend the next few years taking care of the mountain gorillas.
“The first time I entered the park as a veterinary assistant was not easy. I was with field trackers and it was during the rainy season. When I went back I told my supervisor that I was not going back,” she narrates.
When she told the supervisor how hard the job was, Nyirakaragire was encouraged to keep going by her supervisor who also promised her that it was within a few days before she familiarized with gorillas. At that time she had finished monitoring Group 13, now Agashya Group.
But as she continued observing the friendly behavior of gorillas, the mother of three was able to fall in love with the endangered primates.
The vet was hired by the Office of Rwanda Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) as a veterinary assistant, working alongside the very first Gorilla Doctor, Dr. James Foster.
Dr. Foster taught her about gorilla diseases and behavior, and how the manifestation and exhibition of illness differs between wild and domestic animals.
When Nyirakaragire began her job in 1987, the mountain gorilla population of the Virunga Massif was estimated to include only 240 individuals, with 4 habituated tourist groups.
Today, there are an estimated 1000 gorillas in the Virunga Massif with 12 habituated tourist groups.
This population increase is particularly significant in that mountain gorillas are the only great ape species increasing in number.
Clearly, Nyirakaragire is a proud vet, the fact that she has contributed to the survival and the growth of the mountain gorillas, whose status has recently changed from being “critically endangered” to just “endangered” species.
“I am very happy to see the population of the gorillas increasing through our veterinary interventions. I am happy to contribute to gorilla conservation and nature in general,” she notes.
This journey, however, did not come easy as she had to persevere through the civil unrest of the 1990’s when most of the park staff worked for a long time without pay, and a time when poaching activities were at its highest level.
By Julius Bizimungu