UC Davis joins fight to save African gorillas

April 23, 2009 5:54:28 PM PDT
UC Davis is joining the fight to save African gorillas. It's a battle that has been underway for decades. They are facing extinction from human-like diseases,and the loss of their habitat.

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They're so familiar and yet so different. The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have become ambassadors for environmental responsibility in the past two decades.

"I often refer to them as giant vegetarians within a salad bowl," says Dr. Mike Cranfield, DVM, a gorilla researcher.

As part of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Dr. Cranfield has made his career by studying this most fragile population. Only 740 gorillas remain, after becoming victims of human disregard and encroachment.

On Thursday, Dr. Cranfield helped announce a new partnership between his project and all the resources of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

"In 10 years I hope this is the best model of conservation in the world," says Dr. Cranfield.

It is really a bit of an experiment; the theory that to save a species, we must look at its complete environment including the surrounding people and wildlife. This matters even more with Mountain Gorillas because genetically they are 98 percent the same as humans, sharing many of the same diseases.

"Like Alzheimer's, degenerative diseases of the heart," says UC Davis researcher Dr. Linda Lowenstein, DVM.

As Dr. Lowenstein would say, just look at the slides. With this new agreement, her research acquires newfound clout, a little heft for combining science with what she regards as a moral imperative.

"Gorillas are our history, our ancestors, they're our relatives," says Dr. Lowenstein.

In truth, unless we visit these creatures in Africa, most of us will never see the results of this work -- not directly, anyway. But if you think of it as a larger experiment for a world of life facing man-made challenges, it has possibilities.

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