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UC Davis Launches 'One Health' Care for Wild Mountain Gorillas and Human Neighbors

April 23, 2009

Photo: gorilla mother and child

Mountain gorillas, such as this mother and child, are susceptible to the "childhood" diseases of people, as well as most other infections. (See more gorilla photos: http://www.ucdavis.edu/spotlight/0409/gorilla_doctors.html.) (UC Davis Wildlife Health Center/courtesy photo)

The University of California, Davis, today launched a new "One Health" program to conserve the world's remaining 740 mountain gorillas by caring for not only the gorillas but also the people and the other animals that share their home in the forests of central Africa.

With $750,000 in funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, UC Davis will establish the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program in the School of Veterinary Medicine's Wildlife Health Center.

The new program will partner with the existing Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, begun in 1986, to continue improving gorilla health and survival by addressing human health, livestock health and agricultural issues.

"The concept of ‘One Health’ -- that human, animal and environmental health are inextricably linked and should be considered holistically -- is a core principle of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center," said wildlife veterinarian and center assistant director Kirsten Gilardi, who will lead the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program.

“We are proud to become partners with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, one of the few true, on-the-ground examples of One Health in action anywhere in the world."

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project's longtime director, veterinarian Michael Cranfield, will join the UC Davis staff while continuing to oversee the work of the project's seven veterinarians and 12 technicians and staff members in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The collaboration with UC Davis will help improve the health and welfare of the humans and animals living around the gorillas,” Cranfield said. “This in turn acts as a buffer to help prevent disease -- the gorillas’ leading cause of death -- from entering the park and affecting gorilla families.”

UC Davis will investigate disease threats facing mountain gorillas, help expand medical care for the humans working in and around the gorilla parks, and improve the health and well being of livestock to benefit the families who depend on them for nutrition and income.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project was established in 1986 by the Morris Animal Foundation at the request of primatologist Dian Fossey, who saw that the population was dwindling rapidly, in part due to sickness and injuries caused by poachers. The Morris foundation managed and funded the gorilla project for its first 20 years and has provided financial support since it became a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2005.

Combined with anti-poaching patrols and habitat-protection efforts of the Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese governments and other organizations, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project’s medical program has helped increase the number of mountain gorillas by 17 percent in the past 10 years, making the mountain gorilla the only wild great ape whose numbers are rising, not falling.

“Over the years, several faculty members here at UC Davis have been integral to the conservation of mountain gorillas, so it feels very fitting that UC Davis form this partnership with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project -- we couldn’t be more thrilled to further UC Davis’ legacy contributions to the conservation of this very special animal," said Bennie Osburn, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Mountain gorillas remain extremely vulnerable: They live in fragments of habitat surrounded by the densest human populations in Africa, Their forests are sometimes in war zones and are cut down for production of charcoal. And they fall victim to snares set by poachers for gorillas or other "bush-meat" animals, such as small antelope and monkeys.

Furthermore, because gorillas and humans are so closely related genetically, gorilla health is strongly influenced by the health of people working and living nearby, and even by ecotourists, who come within 20 feet of gorilla families. In particular, veterinarians worry that people could transmit illnesses, such as common colds or measles, to the gorillas.

The gorillas have an economic impact on the governments of Rwanda and Uganda and the communities that surround the parks in which the gorillas live. Gorilla ecotourism is a significant source of revenue, but the gorillas sometimes range outside park boundaries and raid farmers’ crops.

“The complexity of the issues surrounding mountain gorilla health and conservation spurred the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to seek new ties with an academic institution that could provide expertise in human medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture,” Gilardi said. "UC Davis was the perfect fit."

The move of the gorilla project to UC Davis had the full support and encouragement of its previous administrative home, The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

“The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project has truly made a difference for the gorillas and for their continued existence, while spreading important conservation messages,” said Don Hutchinson, interim president/CEO of The Maryland Zoo. “UC Davis now has the opportunity to expand the reach of MGVP and showcase the interconnectedness between animal and habitat conservation and the overall health of humans worldwide. This is a win-win situation for all involved.”

The Mountain Gorilla One Health Program will create expanded research opportunities for UC Davis veterinary, medical and graduate students both in Davis and in the gorillas’ habitat within Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The program will also allow veterinary staff and biologists from these countries to obtain advanced clinical and scientific training.

”Mountain gorillas are majestic and powerful creatures, susceptible to the same problems threatening the health of local communities and the globe,” said Wildlife Health Center director Jonna Mazet. “We are honored to contribute the university’s resources to this unique partnership aimed at saving the gorillas, their home and ourselves.”

About mountain gorillas

Except for four orphaned youngsters being prepared for release, there are no mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) living in captivity. (Gorillas commonly seen in zoos are Western lowland gorillas, Gorilla gorilla gorilla.) About 740 mountain gorillas remain in the wild, living in the Virunga Mountains where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo intersect. Because of the popularity of tourism treks to see the gorillas, and constant monitoring of 75 percent of the population by rangers and researchers, each gorilla receives on average 2,000 to 3,000 human visitors each year.

Mountain gorillas are susceptible to the "childhood" diseases of people, as well as most other infections. But they are a wild population and thus not vaccinated. If there was an outbreak of measles or influenza in the local community of people living near a gorilla park, it could spread to the gorillas. Some other serious diseases do not have vaccines and cannot be immunized against even if it were feasible.

In addition to diseases, threats to gorilla populations are habitat loss and poaching.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP Inc.) monitors the health of wild mountain gorillas, treats trauma and illness, researches significant issues in gorilla health and develops protocols and partnerships to support the One Health programs in the Virungas and environs. It works in close partnership with the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other gorilla conversation organizations to achieve mutual goals, and its work is shared to strengthen wildlife conservation efforts around the world. The MGVP depends upon grants and donations to conduct its operations.

About the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

The Wildlife Health Center is a Center of Excellence within the School of Veterinary Medicine, comprised of 13 epidemiologists, disease ecologists and ecosystem health clinicians and their staff working at the cutting edge of pathogen emergence and disease-tracking in ecosystems. It benefits from the expertise of 50 other participating UC Davis faculty members from many disciplines who are involved in the discovery and synthesis of information about emerging zoonotic diseases (those transmitted between people and animals) and ecosystem health. Its mission is to balance the needs of people, wildlife and the environment through research, education and service.

About UC Davis

For 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 31,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $500 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges -- Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science -- and advanced degrees from six professional schools -- Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

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