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Gorillas in the Mountains

Silverback mountain gorilla in Uganda
Silverback mountain gorilla in Uganda

Hundreds of years ago, human diseases, snares, spears or guns did not seriously threaten mountain gorillas. Thousands of mountain gorillas lived in the cool highland forests of east-central Africa. But acre-by-acre, farmers cut down the forests for farmland. Mountain gorillas were pushed higher and higher up the misty mountains.

Scientists did not know about mountain gorillas until 1902, when German captain Robert von Beringe shot two in the Virunga Mountains. The mountain gorilla’s scientific name is Gorilla beringei beringei, after von Beringe.

Biologically, humans are very close to great apes–so close that we share 98.4 percent of our genes with chimpanzees and bonobos and 97.7 percent of our genes with gorillas. So close that a chimpanzee or a bonobo could give you a blood transfusion–or you could give blood to them. And the closer two species are, the easier it is for them to share common diseases.

Scientists think that the virus that causes AIDS originated in chimpanzees and infected humans when a chimp was butchered and eaten raw. Scientists believe chimpanzees have died from human diseases like polio, scabies, measles, influenza and pneumonia.

In 1988, a strange disease struck mountain gorillas in Rwanda; six gorillas died. Veterinarians examined the dead gorillas. They found evidence of measles in tissue and blood samples. Should the remaining gorillas be given a human measles vaccine? There was a risk. But if veterinarians did nothing, the Virunga’s mountain gorillas might be wiped out. 65 gorillas were vaccinated with a dart gun. Thankfully, the human measles vaccine worked on the gorillas. None of the vaccinated gorillas became sick and the infections stopped. It was now clear to scientists that human disease could threaten the gorilla’s survival.

A 2002-2003 census found that there were about 700 mountain gorillas. By contrast, in 1989 there were only about 625 mountain gorillas. Captive gorillas are lost forever to those who need them most: their fellow gorillas struggling to survive in the wild. Read Gorilla Doctors by Pamela S. Turner or view the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website. THE END

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