While the last 700 mountain gorillas in the world live under constant threat in central Africa, their guardians are headquartered continents away in Baltimore.
The director of a team of "gorilla doctors" who is based at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore will speak Wednesday in Columbia on working in the wild to rescue the species from the brink of extinction.
Dr. Michael Cranfield will give a free presentation on the mission of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to provide treatment for the powerful primates in their natural habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"This [situation] is the perfect storm - highly endangered great apes, susceptible to nearly 100 percent of human illnesses, existing in a tight habitat with 800 people per square kilometer living in unhygienic conditions right outside their parks," said Cranfield, who will speak at the Central Library.
"We have an ethical responsibility not only to the gorillas, to whom we are so closely related, but to the millions of people whose livelihoods tie into these animals' sustainability," he said.
MGVP was founded in 1986 by the Colorado-based Morris Animal Foundation after the much-publicized murder of renowned primatologist Dian Fossey the previous year. Gorillas in the Mist, a 1988 film based on Fossey's book by the same name, brought the scientist's story into the mainstream.
Cranfield, 57 and a Toronto native, took the helm of MGVP in 1998. During his tenure, there has been a 17 percent increase in the population of mountain gorillas and the number of veterinarians in the program jumped from two to seven, he said.
While he said these strides are heartening, so many factors that could threaten the primates' existence remain out of the group's control, such as an outbreak of the often fatal Ebola virus.
The veterinarian credits the group's advances to a concept called One Health, which he said has become a buzzword among animal conservationists.
For MGVP, this model translates into monitoring all health risks to mountain gorillas. These include trauma from in-fighting, human and livestock diseases, habitat loss due to deforestation, and poachers' snares, he said.
In this way, the project widens its grasp on all factors contributing to potential decline, he said, adding that the One Health model they began developing in 2000 can also be applied to other highly endangered species.
"People ask why we do this work," Cranfield said. "It's because each individual's genetic makeup is so important to such a small population as this that the death of a few makes a fairly large difference."
"It may be the most important work I have ever done," he said.
That is saying a lot for a career that has spanned nearly 30 years. After earning his degree and completing a residency in zoological medicine and pathology at Ontario Veterinary College in Canada, he came to Baltimore in 1982.
"I cannot say enough about my association with the Maryland Zoo and working in the medically rich scientific community of Baltimore," he said.
Yet Cranfield left his longtime position as the zoo's director of animal health, research and conservation in February to become senior veterinarian at the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California-Davis, where the Mountain Gorilla One Health program was established in April.
Despite this change, he will also serve as clinical and conservation consultant to the Maryland Zoo, and continue to run MGVP and carry out his work from the zoo.
"We stay in touch with our vets in Africa through Skype [an online Web communication site], so it really doesn't matter these days where you are located," said the Butler resident, who noted that his main responsibility as director lies in policy-making.
Yet despite that emphasis, Cranfield still takes a hands-on approach and travels to Africa four times a year to help monitor and provide care for the mountain gorillas, which receive bimonthly visits from MGVP doctors.
He just returned 10 days ago from a monthlong trip to Africa, where he was joined for two weeks by Dr. Kim Hammond, an MGVP board member, veterinary surgeon and CEO of Falls Road Animal Hospital.
The longtime associates work well together because they "trust one another 100 percent," said Hammond. "The primates' habitat is in a very dicey area, and working there requires a no-mistake operation."
But the work of MGVP extends well beyond concern for the primates' plight, he said.
"It's gotten to the point for me that the mountain gorillas are the portals to helping people," Hammond said. "You can't convince a person who's starving that they need to save gorillas. You've got to work with the people first."
Natalie Schroeter, a 23-year-old veterinary technician at Falls Road Animal Hospital, accompanied Hammond and Cranfield on their recent trip.