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Caring for those ‘just like us’: Q&A with vet and great ape advocate Rick Quinn

Mountain gorilla, mother and infant, Amahoro group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Image by Rick Quinn.

  • Veterinarian Rick Quinn is the founder of Docs4GreatApes, a charitable organization that supports health care for great apes while also helping the communities surrounding them and the environment they share.
  • His new book, with an introduction by Jane Goodall, chronicles the lessons he learned about ape conservation in Africa and Asia, accompanied by his own photos of gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and orangutans; all proceeds go back into supporting his foundation’s work.
  • He emphasizes the importance of community well-being and empowerment as part of effective conservation, pointing to initiatives where building trust and creating goodwill led to communities becoming willing partners in gorilla conservation.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Quinn discusses his new book, his discomfort with the kind of selfie tourism that puts great apes at potential risk, the COVID-19 pandemic, and his role as an activist veterinarian.

Veterinary ophthalmologist and avid wildlife photographer Rick Quinn describes himself as “an ordinary veterinarian who has a practice, and thought everything was completely satisfying, and then fell into the opportunity to go and give lectures to veterinarians on the other side of the world.”

That opportunity — to travel to East Africa to share his knowledge of veterinary eye care with the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda and with students at Uganda’s Makerere University — turned out to be the first step in a journey that ultimately led Quinn across seven African countries as well as to Indonesia to photograph great apes in the wild.

Quinn, second from right, wading through waist-high flooded forest en route to the Mondika Research Center, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Djéké Triangle, Congo Republic. Image by Rick Quinn.

Along the way, as he met with veterinarians and conservationists caring for and protecting apes, he came to a realization: “I could do a lot more than teach them about eye problems,” he says.

This prompted Quinn to found a charitable organization, Docs4GreatApes, which aims to help take care of the health of great apes, the people who surround them, and the environment they share.

It also motivated Quinn to turn his hand to writing. Newly available in bookstores and online, and featuring an introduction by Jane Goodall, Quinn’s book, Just Like Us: A Veterinarian’s Visual Memoir of Our Vanishing Great Ape Relatives, chronicles his travels in Africa and Asia and the lessons he learned about apes and ape conservation, accompanied by his own photographs of gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and orangutans. The book is intended to raise both awareness and funds: Quinn donated the cost of printing, so all proceeds will go back into supporting the foundation’s work.

Mongabay spoke with Quinn by phone and email to learn more about his work, his book and Docs4GreatApes. The following interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Adult male Bornean orangutan, Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo, Indonesia. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: As an ophthalmologist, naturally eyes and eye health is a prominent theme running throughout the book. One passage that struck me was your description of having a sense of connection looking into the eyes of an ape that you don’t get with the domestic animals you treat. And then, of course, you’ve chosen “Just like Us” as the title for the book. Can you tell me a little more about that connection and commonality you’ve found, and how it has shaped your understanding of great ape conservation? 

Rick Quinn: Looking into the eyes of an individual great ape, the connection is immediate and oddly familiar. There is an awareness, a curiosity that extends both ways — much beyond the cautious “sizing -up” I experience from my animal patients. Their interactions as a group — moms cuddling babies, juveniles wrestling together, rowdy adolescents — are easily recognizable as our own. With those behavioral patterns repeating in each of the great ape species, it is not difficult to see that we are very closely related. Shaping our conservation efforts around a better understanding of great apes would make it seem quite natural to protect those just like us — perhaps an unspoken directive from a not-too-distant last common ancestor.

Inganda and Inguka, twin male infant western lowland gorillas, part of the Makunda group in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: How do you think your background as a veterinarian has shaped your approach to activism? And what kinds of responses do you get from other veterinarians when you discuss your foundation’s work?

Rick Quinn: Great apes are in rapid decline. The reasons are many; almost all involve human activity. They include infectious diseases, destruction of suitable habitat from oil extraction, deforestation and the mining of surface minerals, and bushmeat hunting. It is complicated by the very slow reproductive rate of our great ape relatives.

Veterinarians are trained to diagnose and manage problems in several species, both in individuals and in populations. We understand the environment as it relates to health, disease surveillance and zoonoses, diseases that can affect both animals and humans. The risks are very high when critically endangered great ape populations are surrounded by high rural human population densities. Or when cultural traditions exist, including the eating of great apes, that just might facilitate the spread of a pathogen such as the Ebola virus and wipe out 5,000 western lowland gorillas in one outbreak.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no single government will ever have the perfect plan to move forward. Veterinarians spend much of their career making “square pegs fit into round holes.” Adapting well-established treatments, instruments or procedures designed for human patients for our animal patients is a daily challenge. This experience as a veterinarian has enabled me to find small and large ways to make a difference, to deviate to a different path when necessary, to reach out to people for help and, importantly, to celebrate small victories. Once made aware of the issues, my veterinary colleagues instinctively roll up their sleeves and wish to help — they have been very supportive.

Adult female bonobo in the Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: In the book, you discuss some of your own self-questioning about the difference between your trips to photograph apes versus the selfie-seeking tourist. What do you see as the differences? And what outcomes would make you feel like your decision to pursue and publish these photographs has been enough to outweigh any of the potential risks apes face when in close quarters with humans?

Rick Quinn: Early in my journey, long before the plan to write Just Like Us, I noticed how friends and relatives responded to the images of great apes that I would share from my most recent adventure. Much more powerful than facts and figures, the images created a connection between the great ape and the viewers, who were moved to learn more.

Although my adventures began with tourist-based opportunities, over the seven years it took to gather the stories and images, I soon began accompanying working research teams as a guest of different wildlife NGOs. On the earlier trips, however, I was surprised to witness what fellow tourists would do to get the “perfect shot,” clearly violating any minimum distance requirements and often in a very unnatural feeding station setup to attract the overly habituated great apes. I understood the financial benefits of the tourist trade on conservation efforts, including providing employment for the local economy. I worried that diseases could be spread from the overly habituated semi-wild population to the truly wild population with potential devastating consequences.

Trying hard not to judge — the selfie-seeking tourists had as much right as did I to be in their company — I enjoyed the opportunity at a self-imposed, respectful distance. Those images have been an integral part of increasing the awareness of the plight of critically endangered great apes. The many that followed were under much more regulated, and difficult, conditions with very little impact on the animals being observed and studied. My hope would be that by viewing the images and understanding the issues, would-be visitors might be more inclined to proceed in a responsible manner.

Mother and juvenile male chimpanzees, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: Throughout your book, you note in various ways that wildlife conservation comes down to human aid. Can you explain what you mean by that, and how you are trying to make that work in practice?

Rick Quinn: Any meaningful and sustainable conservation plan will require a holistic approach that considers not only the health of the endangered wildlife, but the health of the environment and the well- being of the people in the communities surrounding those populations. Successful plans have sought the input of local stakeholders and genuinely considered the needs, traditions and opportunities for people in the area.

One of Docs4GreatApes’ early projects in Africa, the VirungaOne Initiative, focused on providing continuous professional development for the nurses who are offering human care in the 14 community health care centers within Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. In partnership with the Gorilla Doctors, who provide care for the critically endangered mountain and Grauer’s gorillas in the region, the initiative served to build trust and create goodwill. The community, in turn, were willing partners in gorilla conservation. To date, 55 nurses proudly display their certificate of completion of the week-long training course we designed and delivered, after extensive consultation with the stakeholders in the area, in primary eye care.

Bornean orangutan, adult female and infant, Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo, Indonesia. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed any of your thinking about approaches to ape conservation?

Rick Quinn: Local and international travel restrictions have prevented any recent visits, however, I am aware of two specific concerns: the absence of tourist revenue and the constant threat of viral transmission from rangers and researchers working close to habituated great apes.

The local economies of many regions have come to rely on the influx of tourist dollars. The worldwide decrease in travel and the decision to close or restrict gorilla and chimpanzee viewing opportunities has resulted in an increase in poaching activity. Although restricting access helps protect the great apes from exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the financial hardships it creates are driving many locals to resort to the very activities that great ape ecotourism was designed to steer them away from: poaching for food and commerce.

As closely related species so genetically similar to humans, great apes are also susceptible to the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. There have been cases of COVID-19 in trackers, rangers and researchers in close proximity to habituated groups. Although I remain convinced that the habituation of many of these populations is part of the solution to saving these iconic species, this current pandemic certainly illustrates the double-edged sword that is ecotourism. At the very least, I hope that it eventually leads to more stringent regulations and measures to prevent accidental exposure of naive great ape populations to infectious agents that could easily wipe out an entire population.

Members of the Pablo group of mountain gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Image by Rick Quinn.

Mongabay: What is next for you, and for Docs4GreatApes?

Rick Quinn: African countries have created national parks and sanctuaries in an effort to conserve biodiversity. Many national parks operate without a focus on health — a critical component in the conservation of wildlife and wild places. Launched in 2019 by Docs4GreatApes, the Wildlife ConserVet Education Project provides scholarships for deserving veterinarians to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to work as wildlife field veterinarians or in disease surveillance for emerging pandemics.

Over the last two years, we have gained the support of veterinarians and the interest of like-minded wildlife charities. We are increasing our efforts to sustainably build veterinary capacity in the region. The ConserVet program is now administered by a consortium of wildlife organizations with the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada as the lead charity. We have partnered with organizations that already have a presence on the ground in Africa; by leveraging their infrastructure, we can join forces to advance our cause.

ConserVet is currently funding two, year-long internships in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within the next year, we will be helping to introduce wildlife medicine within undergraduate veterinary programs by funding externships to encourage interested students to consider a career with wildlife. Docs4GreatApes has helped fund three veterinarians from Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo who completed their master’s degree in wildlife medicine and health management. We are making plans to sponsor others.

Juvenile male bonobo, Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image by Rick Quinn.

Banner image: Mountain gorilla, mother and infant, by Rick Quinn.

Clarification: The summary of this article was updated to clarify that Docs4GreatApes supports efforts to care for the health of great apes, but does not directly provide care.

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