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Science
GORILLAS ARE MY PATIENTS
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100 Years Since the Discovery of Mountain Gorillas
Tuesday 1 April 2003, 11.00-11.30am

The mountain gorillas of Central Africa are some of the most famous animals in the world. They live in the remote forests where Uganda, Rwanda and Congo meet. They are few in number and constantly under threat from poaching and habitat destruction.

Male Gorilla ©Mike Cranfield
Male Gorilla ©Mike Cranfield
This is a violent and often dangerous part of the world. Recent years have seen calm return after the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and the murder of a party of gorilla watchers in Uganda in 1999. Today, increasing numbers of tourists are returning to the forests to glimpse these breathtaking animals. Most of the gorillas visited by tourist groups are habituated. They are so used to humans that they show little fear when confronted by a gang of excited camera snappers. Its a huge thrill for wildlife enthusiasts to get so close to such rare animals, but all the attention they are getting has had one unexpected side effect - disease. Humans and gorillas are so closely related that harmful germs can easily pass from one to the other. Gorillas can pick up colds, flu - or worse - from inquisitive tourists. They have no immunity and such diseases are potential killers in the primate world. And it is not just the tourists. As locals move further into the forest in search of firewood or game, they also bring disease from themselves, and the animals they keep. Scabies and polio have both been found in wild ape populations. Neither is thought to be natural.

To combat the threat a team of highly specialised vets have set up the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary project in Rwanda. They have the tricky task of ensuring that the last remaining mountain gorillas remain fit and well. Presenter Jim Clarke joins the vets and park rangers as they patrol the forests looking for patients. How do they control the spread of infection in such a huge area? And just what does it take to vaccinate a fully grown male silverback gorilla? The project also attempts to convince sceptical local farmers that looking after the gorillas' interests is good for the apes - and good for them. But in a land hungry country like Rwanda, how well are they persuaded? And he talks to the park managers who have the unenviable task of turning away tourists who they suspect may have colds the gorillas may me susceptible to - no matter how much they have paid to make their once in a lifetime visit.

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