Supporting Gorilla Doctors from the Ground Up in Africa
Written by Clara Kerley, KEEN Product Line Manager
Photographed by Skyler Bishop
"I want to help."
That’s what I told my husband and professional photographer, Skyler Bishop, who had just returned from a two-week trip in Rwanda and Uganda during which he had volunteered his photo and video services to support Gorilla Doctors. One of the greatest benefits KEEN employees have is 40 hours of annual paid service leave. I knew if there was a way I could help, I would have the time and support from KEEN to do what I could to support the Gorilla Doctors’ incredible conservation mission.
Little did I know this offer to volunteer would take us on a life-changing trip to East Africa this spring.
Because of all the difficult hiking the Gorilla Doctors do every day, they needed comfortable waterproof hiking boots that would be lightweight and nimble enough for the challenging conditions.
The Gorilla Doctors are dedicated to conserving wild mountain and eastern lowland (or Grauer's) gorillas through life-saving veterinary medicine. Their team of veterinarians is the only group providing these endangered animals with direct, hands-on care in the wild. This means that each year the Gorilla Doctors veterinarians are literally hiking thousands of miles into the forests to make sure all the gorillas are healthy.
Dr. Fred Nizeyimana, field veterinarian in Uganda, performs a visual health check of the two happy and healthy juvenile gorillas playing in the background. The veterinary care provided by Gorilla Doctors is credited with approximately half the extraordinary growth rate of the habituated gorilla population in the Virungas. The are literally “Saving a Species, One Gorilla at a Time.”
Nearly one year ago, I spoke to Dr. Mike Cranfield (Africa Director Emeritus) to see how I could help. Because of all the difficult hiking the Gorilla Doctors do every day, they needed comfortable waterproof hiking boots that would be lightweight and nimble enough for the challenging conditions.
When I first reached out to my colleagues at KEEN to investigate how we could support Gorilla Doctors, I was overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and eagerness to help. KEEN donated hundreds of pairs of performance socks to all the Gorilla Doctors staff and veterinarians. The KEEN Effect team also generously donated over 50 pairs of performance hiking boots, including the new Venture Mid WP hiker, to make sure all the Gorilla Doctors staff in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo had footwear that could contend with the wet and difficult terrain.
So, six months after I first spoke to Dr. Mike, we packed our bags and set off on the 33-hour journey from Portland to East Africa...
First stop: Musanze, Rwanda
Our first boot fitting was with the Rwanda Gorilla Doctors team, and it felt like we were celebrating 20 birthdays all at once. I’ve never seen so many happy faces or had so much fun fitting shoes! Regional Laboratory Technician Dr. Methode Bahizi (pictured above in the center) expressed his gratitude, noting how much everyone appreciated we made the trip all the way to Rwanda to actually fit everyone. I was surprised and honored by his kind words, but I couldn’t agree more at how much the impact of actually showing up and taking action can have.
Standing behind me is Dr. Kirsten Gilardi (Gorilla Doctors Executive Director), who helped me make sure I was able to fit everyone into the right size and was comfortable.
We discovered in the months leading up to the trip, that most of the Gorilla Doctors had never been properly fitted for a pair of performance hiking boots or knew their shoe size. It was so moving to see how a small act like providing new gear can brighten someone’s day.
Success! A team photo with the Rwandan Gorilla Doctors with their new KEEN boots!
Next stop: The DRC border
The next day, we made our way to Gisenyi, Rwanda, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, we met the Congolese Gorilla Doctors team to fit them with boots. Due to the sporadic but severe outbreaks of violence that targets civilians, and the instability due to armed group activity in the region, we were advised not to travel into the DRC and instead met them on the Rwandan side of the border. The challenges these brave and committed Gorilla Doctors face is profound and inspiring.
Final Destination: Uganda!
Dr. Fred Nizeyimana and Dr. Ricky Okello start checking out the gear – like kids in a candy shop!
With everyone properly fitting into new hiking boots, we set out early the next morning on a gorilla health check in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
As we hiked into the forest, we could see how the local farms extend right up to the border of the forests and the habitat of the mountain gorillas, emphasizing the importance of the Gorilla Doctors “One Health” approach – a belief that the health of one species is inextricably linked to that of its entire ecosystem, including humans and other animal species. In addition to providing life-saving care, the Gorilla Doctors' veterinary team further protects gorillas by supporting health programs for people and their animals living and working in and around gorilla habitat.
We and the Gorilla Doctors were escorted by armed park rangers, who help maintain safety within the forest and scare away unhabituated wildlife. We felt incredibly safe the entire time we were in the forest. About 90 minutes into our hike, a ranger suddenly had to discharge his firearm to scare away a small herd of forest buffaloes (known to be quite aggressive). I’m not sure if we or the buffaloes were more surprised!
About 2 hours after we set off on our hike, we made it to the gorillas. Visibility through the thick forest can very difficult, and as we approached the gorilla family, we could hear the silverbacks fighting before we could see them.
As we moved through the dense foliage, we came into a clearing and saw a magnificent male silverback gorilla.
It absolutely took my breath away! It’s difficult to describe how powerful an experience seeing these special animals in the wild really was – I felt like they were watching us just as much as we were watching them.
Dr. Fred takes photographs to help visually access and document the health of this silverback. Even the Gorilla Doctors need to keep their distance, unless a medical intervention is necessary. This is not only for the safety of the Gorilla Doctors, but because gorillas are highly susceptible to human diseases and are vulnerable to becoming sick.
Because of the Gorilla Doctors' work, the mountain gorilla population has now grown to over 1,004 individuals – the only great ape population in the wild whose numbers are known to be on the rise.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to actually be there in person to help outfit the Gorilla Doctors with gear that can help them achieve their conservation mission and inspire the next generation of wildlife conservationists.