Not Far Enough: Chris Whittier ’92

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Stories of kidnapped mountain gorillas are so common in Rwanda—and so often false—that Chris Whittier immediately dismissed the call he received one afternoon in October alerting him of a possible orphan. But as the field veterinarian for the Morris Animal Foundation’s Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP)—one of a small handful of groups working to protect hundreds of the endangered primates living in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—Whittier quickly realized that authorities this time had indeed recovered a young female gorilla who’d been snatched by poachers after they’d killed her mother.

Although he knew that no mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity, Whittier joined a team drawn from the three gorilla-conservation groups to try to save this one. The group named the gorilla Mvuyekure (“I’ve come far” in Kinyarwandan) and immediately quarantined the animal. The team feared that Mvuyekure, who appeared to be two and a half years old, might have picked up a human ailment that she’d then spread to other gorillas once she was reintroduced into the wild. But a plan to isolate her was quickly abandoned when Whittier and others realized that the loneliness and sadness that seemed to overtake her might literally kill her.

Instead, an outdoor cage was set up at the MGVP clinic at the edge of Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda. Whittier and three other volunteers took turns feeding Mvuyekure, cleaning her cage, and spending the night with her. By the beginning of December, Whittier says, the team concluded that she was disease- free and that it was time to try to reintroduce her into a gorilla group. Whittier and his colleagues chose a group whose dominant silverback male had shown a gentle touch with babies in the past. As soon as the silverback encountered Mvuyekure, however, he began pummeling and biting her. One bite tore a hole in her intestine, which Whittier repaired the next day at the clinic in his home. A few weeks later the team tried a different group, which had a younger and more docile silverback. The result was the same.

Then in what was supposed to be a temporary solution, the team decided to settle Mvuyekure by herself. Rangers would observe her to prevent wild dogs or other gorillas from attacking her, but otherwise she would be left alone. But within a few weeks the young gorilla had frozen to death. Whittier, who has since returned to the United States to complete his Ph.D. in epidemiology at North Carolina State University, says that despite the tragic ending Mvuyekure’s case does represent a small step forward in the care of mountain gorillas. “There are a lot of people,” he says, “who didn’t think a mountain gorilla could survive out of the park for over a week, but she thrived in the three months we had her in captivity.”

Click here for more on theMorris Animal Foundation’s Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

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May / June 2003