Studying Stress in Rwanda’s Gorillas

A view of the mountains.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International office and guest house is located in Musanze District, just 30 minutes from Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. It’s a well-run facility—with a lab for endocrinology. I stayed there with Zoo Atlanta post-doctoral fellow Winnie Eckhart, who was trained to do fecal-hormone extractions in Lincoln Park Zoo’s endocrinology lab.

We’re now using this field method to study the relationship between gorilla stress levels, environmental pressures (such as harsh climate conditions—there are some cold temperatures up in the mountains!) and potential tourist pressures. We hope to evaluate how the latter two factors impact the health of the region’s famous gorillas. To kick things off, we worked with Rose, the lab technician, going through the fecal hormone extraction protocol to ensure the methods were being conducted correctly. I have to say I was really impressed with Rose’s technical skills and enthusiasm for the lab procedures!

Rose showed a great grasp of the procedures in the endocrinology lab!

I was also really impressed with Rwanda. It’s a beautiful country, with picturesque volcanoes and mountains with steep slopes. It’s obvious that the people take such great pride in their community. In fact, in Kigali there are monthly clean-ups and repairs that all citizens participate in. The roads are in much better condition than Tanzania and even Chicago!

Kigali was a beautiful city.

One other note: I have to admit it was difficult for me to be around so many domestic dogs in Tanzania and not be able to pet them. Most of the dogs we encountered at vaccination day and with Anna Czupryna’s research project were working dogs, not pets. They mostly serve as guards to protect the household and/or livestock. Well, when I got to Rwanda, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International house had some “guard” dogs that are mostly treated as pets. So the dogs here reaped the benefits of my dog deprivation. I even took one for a walk on the leash. I found it very normal, but the members of the community may not have.

The dogs received some extra attention while I was there!

Rachel Santymire Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology.

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