If you're trying to find the answer to the age-old question, "What does an 800-pound gorilla eat?" you should probably ask Dr. Mike Cranfield, director of Animal Health, Research and Conservation at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and Executive Director of the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP).
But be prepared to learn a bit more about gorillas than you may have wanted to know. Cranfield will tell you the answer (wild gorillas eat a strictly vegetarian diet that is high in fiber)—and then toss in an unexpected detail.
"One of the most incredible things about gorillas, I've found, is that they have, like, long, sustained flatulence that never ceases to amaze everybody that is there," Cranfield explains.
"I mean, tourists are just like . . . " he trails off, mimicking a wide-eyed, slack-jawed tourist. "Sometimes you will hear them before you see them."
Amusing flatulence tales aside, the realities facing the vulnerable mountain gorilla populations of East-Central Africa are dire and immediate.
A subspecies of the more common western and eastern lowland gorillas, they are threatened by disease, habitat destruction, and poaching. Today, the number of mountain gorillas stands at roughly 700, spread throughout two parks straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But with villages encircling both parks, and scant national resources available for conservation initiatives, the subspecies is teetering on the brink of extinction.
And this is where Dr. Mike Cranfield comes in.
As Executive Director of MGVP, Cranfield, a small, wiry, and seemingly tireless Canadian, is in charge of an organization that is trying to forge a new model for sustaining endangered wildlife populations without having to resort to a captive breeding program. The group's basic mission is to sustain the mountain gorilla population through medical intervention. This means that MGVP teams consisting of American and African vets, scientists, and guides will hike into the rainforests of East-Central Africa periodically to monitor the gorillas, and treat them when the primates are threatened by an ailment or injury. It is one of the few wildlife conservation organizations in the world that treats its patients in the wild.
"When you're working with a wild population that is large, then you let nature take its course because that [sick] individual is not going to affect the population. But when there's only 700 left, then you have to intervene more often," explains Cranfield on a chilly February morning, having just returned from one of his quarterly sojourns to Africa.
Recently, MGVP has expanded its reach, entering the businesses of training, education, and research as well. To help in these endeavors, Cranfield has recruited several local institutions, including the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University, and even the Falls Road Animal Hospital, making Baltimore the unlikely—but very busy—stateside base of MGVP.
"I think that Baltimore is a good place for [MGVP] because we have a lot of [opportunities] for collaborations with Hopkins and the NIH [National Institutes of Health], and a lot of high-powered scientific institutions," Cranfield notes. "Some of the best people in the world are around here, and they are keen to apply their trade to helping endangered species."
Falls Road Animal Hospital owner (and MGVP board member) Dr. Kim Hammond is also the financier of the organization's veterinary intern program. Hammond only half-jokingly says he sees himself as Robin to Cranfield's Batman.
"He's out there running around, saving the world. I just make sure he has gas in the car," he laughs. "He's an unusual human being. Strongest man I ever met. He's the only the guy I've met who can work day in and day out and still play ice hockey from 12 to 3 a.m., because that's the only time he can get on the ice. He's kind of the Richard Attenborough of the zoo world: dignified, smart, and he manages people with respect.
"Did he tell you he won an award?" Hammond asks suddenly.
Well, no, he didn't. (The Zoo's PR staff helpfully pointed out that Cranfield recently won the prestigious Dr. Emil P. Dolensek Award from the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.)
"It's like the Nobel Prize," Hammond says of the award, clearly exasperated with his friend's modesty. "They don't give it away every year. They only give it away when they find somebody worthy."
Dr. Cranfield is typically humble about his award, calling it "neat."
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project family tree looks like this: Three Hopkins doctors serve on the organization's advisory committee, and the university's labs are often used for sample analyses; the Maryland Zoo provides technical and staff support, as well as overhead administrative and accounting aid; and Falls Road Animal Hospital funds a training program, where African veterinary students can intern at the Baltimore County 24-hour clinic and acquire experience with modern veterinary practices.
This tree has grown from the work of Cranfield, who has been with the Maryland Zoo for the past 25 years, and MGVP since 1998. A native of Ontario, Canada, Cranfield was hired as the Zoo's head vet in 1982, charged with caring for the Zoo's 1,500 animals—none of which are, oddly, gorillas.
Now, there's a good reason for that, says Cranfield. "Long before I got involved with the gorilla project, the zoo decided that chimpanzees needed more good work in zoos, and that we would have them as our great ape representative," he explains. Plus, there are no mountain gorillas in captivity anywhere. The gorillas seen in zoos are the more common lowland gorillas.
Not that he's complaining, mind you. In fact, Cranfield would rather see these "truly magnificent animals" in the wild than in captivity, hence his intensified interest in conservation projects.
With three conservation programs already up and running (African black footed penguins, Panamanian golden frogs, and bog turtles), Cranfield has lately transitioned out of his role as head vet, leaving the majority of medical care to the Zoo's three other clinicians. Instead, he now spends much of his time writing grant proposals, coordinating logistics, and visiting the programs on the ground.
Since assuming the helm of MGVP (after its previous executive director died of a heart attack in the field in 1997), Cranfield has expanded the organization's activities: Under his guidance, MGVP began to take a broader approach to its work. The number of field veterinarians increased from three to seven—and, perhaps more importantly, the organization adopted a governing philosophy called "One Health."
The "One Health" philosophy is based upon the idea that everything in an ecosystem is inextricably linked. Therefore, the health of one species is directly related to the health of other species. This means that if the gorillas are to be saved, the organization's programs should address their cohabitants as well.
"We had to start looking after the [MGVP] employees like we would here at the Zoo, and start looking after other animals that came in contact with the gorillas, like cattle, and stuff like that," Cranfield explains. This translates into vaccinations for the surrounding population, and interventions when a viral or bacterial outbreak threatens any species in the ecosystem. This happened last year with an outbreak of rabies in the feral dog and human populations on the Rwandan side of one of the parks.
Unfortunately, as MGVP's philosophy expanded, its finances stagnated. Almost since its inception, MGVP had been a subsidiary of the Morris Animal Foundation, which performs health studies for companion animals and wildlife. "Well, [MGVP] was more than a study," Cranfield acknowledges. "This was a program, and it was really hard to fit it in. They had a million dollars a year that they would give to health studies for wildlife, and we were taking almost half of it and still growing. They would go, 'We want to give you the money but [...] we have to sponsor some of these other programs too.'"
Last year, Morris and MGVP amicably agreed to part; Morris will still fund MGVP, at a decreasing level, for the next five years.
And luckily, MGVP had a place to crash. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, fresh off its own financial problems, was eager to partner with MGVP as part of its revitalized approach to its conservation initiatives. Although the Zoo does not provide much in the way of funding, it does provide MGVP with a base of operations, as well as help with accounting and record keeping.
"I really think it's an amazing project," enthuses Maryland Zoo President Billie Grieb, who will see the program in action on a visit to Rwanda with some of the Zoo's top donors this May. "I think it is a prototype for all other projects that are institutes and doing conservation work because of the 'One Health' approach. Plus, Mike is here, and we really wanted to support him."
While MGVP still has a long way to go before it can claim the spending power of some of the field's big names, like the Wildlife Conservation Society or World Wildlife Foundation, it spent more than it ever has in 2006 ($639,235) and Cranfield is continually applying for grants.
Falls Road Animal Hospital's Hammond pulls no punches when describing the financial state of MGVP. "We are in a free fall financially," he says. "We're constantly sending out [applications for] grants. The Zoo is a bunch of really, really caring people who are really good at what they do, but we can't ask them to take on the financial burden. But the Zoo provides an incredible environment. It's a place to call home."
Precarious though its finances may be, MGVP has an embarrassment of riches in other ways. Top scientific minds from Hopkins; Tufts; Mississippi State University; and the University of California, Davis participate in the project with Dr. Cranfield.
And all that brainpower is focused on the gorillas. Will the lab results on an aging female gorilla explain why her milk is drying up, causing her babies to be underweight and malnourished with severely diminished chances of survival? Will other tests revealwhy some gorilla group members acquired facial lesions, while others did not? How many gorillas will be lost to disease or poaching this year?
And, most critically, will mountain gorillas, as a species, make it? "It could all change very quickly," Cranfield admits. "If there is [political] unrest in [the countries] and the people coming in want to . . . they could destroy the gorillas very quickly."