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Dr Kinani’s penchant for rescuing Rwanda’s great apes from extinction

By Gilbert Mwijuke

As a schoolboy, one of Jean Felix Kinani’s favourite pastimes was visiting the zoo in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he grew up.

“My father always told me that ‘you should become a vet’,” says Kinani. “…and that’s partly why, when I completed high school, I joined the veterinary school at the University of Lubumbashi.”

But young Kinani’s dreams of becoming a veterinary doctor were almost shattered when he was forced to drop out of university when the First Congo War broke out in 1996, eventually sending DRC’s then president Mobutu Sese Seko packing.

Things moved from bad to worse when the war ended due to the resulting “friction” between Congolese and people of Rwandan origin. Kinani’s only feasible option was to move to neighbouring Senegal, from where he completed his bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine in November 2003 at the Cheikh Anta Diop University.

“Because I was moving from Belgian to the French system, it took me many more years to complete my course as I was required to start all over again. In total it took me nine years to complete my bachelor’s degree,” he recalls.

Upon completion of his education, Kinani moved to his motherland in Rwanda, where his family had already relocated to. On arrival, he was requested to work with the Ministry of Agriculture’s artificial insemination centre but Kinani declined because “I wanted to work with wild animals, especially mountain gorillas.”
Becoming a gorilla doctor
In 2004, Kinani got his preferred job at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinay Project, an organisation of vets that monitors the health of mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

When he first set foot on the Volcanoes National Park, mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif were teetering on the brink of extinction, with their numbers standing at a paltry 380.

Like many other endangered wild animals in Africa, conventional wisdom held that a tidal wave of poaching constituted the biggest threat to the existence of Virunga’s iconic mountain gorillas.

But this is also due to the fact that poaching is the most publicised problem because it produces grisly photographs of animals with severed heads and missing hands, attracting a lot of media attention. In fact, field observation showed Kinani that disease and injuries due to snare traps contributed even much more.

Poachers would often set snares in the park hoping to catch a small antelope for the pot. But because snares don’t discriminate, a gorilla would end up catching its hand in the wire and suffering terrible lacerations as it struggled to free itself. The resultant wounds would often cause infections and sometimes lead to death.

“Before, when a young gorilla was trapped by a snare, the older ones would just forcefully pull it off, which exposed the infant to serious injuries and loss of blood,” says Kinani.

The vet goes on: “Sometimes the trapped gorilla could spend days on the snare without anyone coming to its rescue. To solve this problem, we trained trackers who could rescue them as soon as they heard a gorilla screaming. They would then call us to work on those in need of lifesaving interventions, a move that saved the lives of many gorillas.”

Over the years, Dr Kinani and his team were able to easily respond to several life-threatening situations, especially gorillas caught in snares intended to trap other animals in the forest or those that suffered from life-threatening respiratory diseases.

Dr Kinani and his colleagues worked hard to prevent transmission of respiratory diseases from humans and other domestic animals to gorillas. Between 2006 and 2010, Kinani ran a programme whose role was to immunise not only humans but also dogs and cats living near the Volcanoes National Park.

“Because humans share 98 per cent DNA with mountain gorillas, these animals can be affected by most of the diseases that affect us. Diseases like rabies, measles, pneumonia and TB affect both humans and gorillas,” he offers.

To effectively monitor the health of mountain gorillas, Dr Kinani’s Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project set up a mountain gorilla clinic to treat wounded and sick captive gorillas and chimpanzees.

“Most of the gorillas we treated at the clinic were confiscated from poachers,” says Kinani, whose other roles at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinay Project included research and training trackers and young veterinarians.

Kinani shares most of his experiences in his book, “Respiratory disease among mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (2005- 2011)’’, which he wrote after completing his master’s degree in Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Management.
Conservation success
Together with his team, Kinani’s penchant for mountain gorilla conservation helped increase the endangered species’ numbers from 380 in 2003 to 480 as indicated by the fourth mountain gorilla census that was carried out in 2010 — a remarkable 24 per cent increase seven years later. Kinani himself was part of the team of field assessors who carried out the census.

According to a 2011 study, the increase in numbers of mountain gorillas owes much to Dr Kinani and his colleagues. After tracking numbers of mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif between 1967 and 2008, it was found that there was an annual population growth rate of 4.1 per cent for habituated gorillas and an annual decline of 0.7 per cent for the unhabituated ones.

“Veterinary interventions could account for up to 40 per cent of the difference in growth rates between habituated versus unhabituated gorillas, with the remaining difference likely arising from greater protection against poachers,” the study concluded.
As a researcher
During his time in the Virunga, Dr Kinani also researched on the behaviour of mountain gorillas. For instance, in 2013, he documented tool use by wild mountain gorillas when he observed the species using tools to eat food. The vet went on in 2015 to publish a report titled Tool Use for Food Acquisition in a Wild Mountain Gorilla in the American Journal of Primatology.
In 2013, Kinani also made another astonishing discovery when he observed a mountain gorilla drinking water for the first time. It was an interesting finding by Dr Kinani, seeing that mountain gorillas were — until then — not known to drink water.

But Kinani’s interest in mountain gorillas is not just because they are flashy, crowd-pleasers. According to him, “mountain gorillas are not only the pride of Rwanda but these wonderful creatures are also critical to our ecosystem.”

Even then, “I also treat chimpanzees, lions, elephants and several other wild animals,” he says, before quickly admitting that he is more interested in the more endangered great apes that reside in East and Central Africa: gorillas and chimpanzees.
The birth of OHAC
In 2015, after 11 years saving mountain gorillas through daily veterinary care, Kinani left the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and started his own conservation organisation, which he christened One Health Approach for Conservation (OHAC).

Now Kinani spends most of his time travelling to various countries in East and Central Africa advising others on setting up programmes similar to the ones he devised in the Virunga massif. Kinani also visits various universities in the Great Lakes Region to train the next generation of conservation scientists.

“My main focus is on One Health… For better management of most diseases, vets and medics need to work together,” he says.

For the uninitiated, the idea of “One Health” recognises that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are interconnected. It involves applying a coordinated, collaborative, multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to address potential or existing risks that originate at the animal-human-ecosystems interface.

Dr Kinani’s organisation focuses on research, training, consultancy and creating One Health and Conservation awareness. His main goal is to link conservation, health, development and poverty alleviation.

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