BALTIMORE — The Maryland Zoo in the rolling fields of Druid Hill Park is far away from the mountain jungles in Africa, but it has become a surrogate home for a powerful primate species on the brink of extinction.
“We’ve got this very interesting opportunity to take these very interesting creatures and save them,” said Dr. Kim Hammond, a participant in the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which has moved its headquarters to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. “The reason Baltimore has [this project] is we know we can get the job done.”
The nonprofit program started 20 years ago and was inspired by famous gorilla researcher Dian Fossey. It has since become the heart of efforts to preserve the mountain gorilla population, which has dwindled to an estimated 750.
There are no adult mountain gorillas in captivity, but project members monitor the animals – with the help of professional trackers – in their native habitat of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo.
Though massive and powerful, the gorillas are constantly threatened by habitat loss, poachers, and illness. “We’re obviously very afraid of the possibility of a disease outbreak,” said Dr. Michael R. Cranfield, the project”s director and head of animal health, research and conservation at the Maryland Zoo. “If we see a greater number than usual of sick animals, it will raise the flags for us to get more veterinarians over there.”
The project operates on a roughly $700,000 budget used to fund research and send medical help when a gorilla is found to have a dangerous illness or injury. The zoo serves as a worldwide base for the project, housing much of its research data and specimens.
Dr. Hammond has also contributed $200,000 to fly field veterinarians from the gorillas’ native countries to Baltimore to study and practice veterinary medicine at his Falls Road Animal Hospital, a few miles from the zoo.
The veterinarians are coming in three separate pairs and stay for six weeks. The trips also include studying animal autopsies at the Johns Hopkins Comparative Medicine Department.
“Here, they can see a hundred cases a day, they can learn all that technological skill,” said Dr. Hammond, an internationally recognized veterinarian. “The goal is to get these guys trained [and] to give them an idea for what”s possible and follow up back in Africa.”
Yesterday, visiting veterinarians Jean Felix Kinani, 33, from Rwanda, and Jacques Iyanya, 49, from Congo, helped administer vaccinations and take samples from a Cocker Spaniel named Jesse at the animal hospital.
The dog looked nothing like a 400-pound mountain gorilla, but the internal systems are enough alike to help the veterinarians learn useful medical skills.
“We don’t have many samples of gorillas because we don’t see a gorilla every day,” Mr. Kinani said. “Here it’s possible to take samples of hundreds of animals each day.”
The veterinarians later observed three chimpanzees at the zoo for irregularities and learned how to transmit their findings to researchers through a handheld computer.
In April, they will go to California to learn proper tranquilizing and take-down techniques needed to treat gorillas.
“The interest for us is to see this new material and technology,” Dr. Iyanya said. “We [don’t] have it in our countries.”