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Veronica Vecellio: Coming Full Circle in Gorilla Conservation

April 18, 2012

Veronica Vecellio: Coming Full Circle in Gorilla Conservation

Veronica Vecellio in the fieldAs a visitor entering the Karisoke Research Center for the first time, you can be sure to be welcomed with a broad smile, outstretched arms, and a warm “Hello, I am Veronica Vecellio,” in an endearing Italian accent. The Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Gorilla Program coordinator has a knack for putting people at ease and enchanting them with her wealth of gorilla stories and knowledge.

“As a child, I always dreamed of working in Africa one day,” says Vecellio. “I was so inspired when I saw the film ‘Gorillas In the Mist’ as a young girl.” That dream led her to live and work with great apes in a myriad of African countries over the last decade, building up a solid foundation that would give rise to her integral position at Karisoke.

History in gorilla habituation

At the close of 2001, Vecellio was close to completing her master’s degree in biology and would soon be graduating cum laude from the University of Rome. The 24-year-old aspiring primatologist traveled to the Central African Republic (CAR) to finish her master’s thesis on the ranging and feeding of western lowland gorillas. She spent a year tailing gorilla groups and working towards habituating the region’s gorillas for the World Wildlife Fund’s Dzanga-Sangha Project at the Bai-Hokou camp.

After a brief stint in Italy for thesis write-up and graduation, Vecellio was hired for a bonobo feeding ecology project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She dedicated two years to her work in the Salonga National Park, where she established a new research camp and carried out data collection for Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

The following year took her southwest from the CAR to the coastal country of Gabon. In 2003 and 2004 Vecellio worked as a field assistant for the Zoological Society of London and the environmental organization ECOFAC (Conservation et Utilisation Rationnelle des Ecosystemes Forestiers en Afrique Central). The project’s primary objective: habituating western lowland gorillas in Lope National Park.

Vecellio was happy and fulfilled by this work, but it was not without its perils. One terrifying day in the forest changed everything for the young Italian researcher. Habituation was in a very early stage in this region at the time and the teams would follow a gorilla group, keeping contact no matter what reaction they might cause. That day, Vecellio was trekking with a tracker, Joel. “The group’s silverback was particularly upset. Perhaps a female was injured or pregnant, I don’t know what was going on – it was just a bad day,” reflects Vecellio. The silverback let out an explosive alarm scream toward the human observers and launched into his first charge. The pair decided to wait 20 minutes and let the group travel on a bit before approaching again.

Unfortunately, when they set off again, they quickly came upon the massive, agitated silverback, hidden behind the vegetation. In one powerful and aggressive motion, he picked up the tracker and threw him. Joel immediately lost consciousness. The big male then turned on Vecellio, grabbing her by the foot and pulling her towards him. He proceeded to bite down on her right calf, his canine teeth easily slicing through her rubber boots. The silverback continued to stand over her in his tense strut stance for several minutes. Adrenaline had kicked in and Vecellio was not aware that she had been bitten until she saw the blood on his teeth. Once the silverback moved on and she attempted to stand up, Vecellio realized that she couldn’t use her leg. She crawled over to her tracker and, confirming that he was still alive, used his radio to call down to camp. After an hour of trekking, their rescuers reached the injured pair and carried them out. Thankfully, a medical doctor was staying at the camp at that particular time, and she was able to clean the wound and stabilize the researcher while she awaited her medical evacuation to Libreville.

After three months of healing in her homeland, Vecellio was walking fine and the forests of Africa were calling to her again. She traveled back to the CAR where she tried again to work with non-habituated lowland gorillas, but found that she was still too shaken by the incident and only stayed for three months. Hoping to slowly build her confidence back, she moved to habituating little monkeys, but found the work did not inspire her; her true love would always be the gorillas. Again, Vecellio returned to Italy, and after four months contacted Karisoke’s former director, Dr. Katie Fawcett, about a research assistant position that had opened up. She was reassured that the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park were very well habituated and Fawcett encouraged her to continue her work with her beloved great apes.

To the top at Karisoke

Veronica with Felix Ndagijimana in 2006Luckily, Vecellio was able to begin her work at the Karisoke Research Center with former research assistant, now Karisoke director, Felix Ndagijimana. Knowing his new partner’s experience and justifiable hesitation, Ndagijimana took her to Titus’s group on her first day in the field. Titus was well known as a remarkably gentle and benevolent silverback. Vecellio says that her “best times in the field were with Titus. When Tigress Film Production came to do ‘Titus the Gorilla King,’ it made me so proud that they would be showcasing one of my most favorite gorillas. He was such a special guy and really helped me to rebuild my trust with gorillas.”

Ndagijimana and Vecellio spent three months training in the field together and forged a bond that would carry them through many years of working side by side at the Karisoke Research Center. The two former research assistants now hold the two highest positions at Karisoke and are able to successfully steer the massive Karisoke ship because of their combined years of experience in the field.

Vecellio possesses an intimate knowledge of each of the 123 mountain gorillas that Karisoke monitors. Name a gorilla off the top of your head and the Italian researcher can rattle off a series of significant dates relevant to that individual, provide you with a detailed family history and can entertain you with an anecdote she witnessed at some point in her eight years of field work in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Vecellio was promoted to the position of Karisoke’s Gorilla Program coordinator in June 2007. Vecellio now coordinates all of the mountain gorilla research and protection activities and manages the massive amounts of data coming in from the field – not an easy task. After collecting behavioral data for three and a half years, in June 2009 she began training new researchers and building Karisoke’s team of Rwandan research assistants.

Veronica Vecellio“When I first came to Karisoke, I already knew all of the Karisoke gorilla families, knew many of their stories. But when I came to Rwanda, I was able to put faces to their names, and increase my knowledge of the newer generation of mountain gorillas,” says Vecellio. “The Karisoke gorillas had always been a source of inspiration during my other experiences in Africa. Dian Fossey’s model of observing behaviors in the wild has always been with me.”

Vecellio was recently interviewed by CNN correspondent Errol Barnett and was featured on CNN International’s “Inside Africa” in April.
Jessica Burbridge, Field Communications Officer