BALTIMORE – For most veterinarians, working firsthand with gorillas in the wild is the stuff of movies. But for Michael Cranfield, director of animal health, research and conservation at the Maryland Zoo and director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, it is about saving a species on the brink of extinction.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project is a nonprofit program that began more than 20 years ago by renowned gorilla researcher Dian Fossey to preserve the mountain gorilla population in their native habitats of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Project members, along with professional trekkers, monitor the animals in the wild and report any illnesses or unusual behaviors to the organization’s headquarters.

According to Cranfield, the number of gorillas in the wild has dwindled to 750 as a result of poaching, habitat loss and illness. He assumed leadership of the program in 1998, after the organization’s previous director died of a heart attack in Rwanda.

That’s when he brought the program to Baltimore as an affiliate of the Maryland Zoo.

“Basically, it has become a Baltimore conservation program,” Cranfield said.

With the help of Dr. Kim Hammond, owner of Baltimore-based Falls Road Animal Hospital, the project’s newest initiative involves flying in field veterinarians from Africa to train them in different areas of veterinary medicine at Hammond’s animal hospital. They also study primate autopsies at the Johns Hopkins Comparative Medicines Department.

Through this training, the vets are given practical experience in treating animals’ illnesses — training that Cranfield said they would not be able to get in their home countries. The ultimate goal is that when they return to Africa, they have a better understanding of recognizing and treating illnesses in the wild and become ambassadors for conservation efforts. Currently, two vets are studying in Baltimore: John Felix Kanani. From Rwanda, and Jacques Iyanya, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“This is a worldwide, international project and Mike Cranfield has successfully negotiated the care and maintenance of these gorillas and centers it all in Baltimore at the Maryland Zoo,” said Hammond, who has contributed about $200,000 of his personal funds to bring the overseas vets to Baltimore. “It’s all about taking the initiative.”

The project’s annual budget is roughly $700,000. Funding comes from the private sector, the program’s founding organization and other foundations that raise money for conservation.

More about the program

Benard Ssebidi, who trained with Kim Hammond and Michael Cranfield earlier this year, has secured a training position with the renowned program EnviroVet, a rigorous field-training course in the United States. Through this program, Hammond and Cranfield expect Ssebidi to make an even bigger impact for the gorillas in his native country of Uganda.