Forensic specialists from the University of Indianapolis are lending their expertise to an international effort to study and preserve Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas.
The work is taking place in the volcanic mountains of northwestern Rwanda, where zoologist Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame lived among the massive primates and brought them to the world’s attention.
Mountain gorillas have special significance to the people of Rwanda, which is home to more than half the estimated 700 that still survive in the wild. The species is a cultural icon and pillar of a promising tourism industry in a nation recovering from civil war, valued so highly that conservationists, veterinarians and trackers know the individual gorillas by name and bury them when they die.
Within those remains, scientists say, is a wealth of information that could help save these compelling creatures from extinction and contribute to the understanding of human evolution.
UIndy Professor Stephen Nawrocki and graduate student Amandine Eriksen journeyed to Rwanda in 2008 and are returning this summer, along with other U.S. scientists who are assisting the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks in creating a repository where skeletal remains of mountain gorillas will be carefully maintained for research on diet, disease, stress and other factors affecting their health and survival.
The project involves surprising parallels to the work that takes place at UIndy’s Archeology & Forensics Laboratory, where forensic anthropologist Nawrocki and his students analyze unidentified remains for law enforcement agencies around the Midwest. Among other high-profile cases, Nawrocki played key roles in investigating the Herb Baumeister serial murders in the 1990s and the disappearance of Indiana University student Jill Behrman, whose remains were found in 2003.
The Rwanda project is master’s thesis material for Eriksen, who spent seven weeks last summer cleaning and cataloging the skeletons of about 70 mountain gorillas, most of which had died since 1995.
“I think we were really instrumental there,” says the 26-year-old, who is leaving in late June for another five weeks in Rwanda. “We also worked with the local people on how to handle the skeletons properly.”
Many of the skeletons had been collected and stored in boxes for analysis, but the remains of three that were buried in the wild had to be located, exhumed and brought back to the makeshift laboratory in Rwanda where Eriksen worked. This summer, the research team plans to excavate more gorilla burials and prepare the skeletons for further study.
“This is the stuff that we do,” says Nawrocki, who joined the Rwanda effort last year for about two weeks and plans to make a similar trip this summer. “We’re also interested in issues of preservation and erosion. We’ll look at the soils, the rainfall and the terrain and think about how this might have affected the quality of the bones.”
UIndy’s involvement came at the request of the project’s U.S. coordinator, Dr. Shannon C. McFarlin, an anthropologist and research associate with the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Seeking assistance in the recovery and preservation of the skeletal remains, she contacted a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution, who referred her to Nawrocki and the UIndy lab.
Sensing an opportunity for a student, Nawrocki posed the possibility to Eriksen, whose skill and versatility made her a logical choice.
“She’s got the experience,” he says. “She’s good in the field and the lab.”
Eriksen also has examined older gorilla skeletons at the Smithsonian and will be able to compare the two populations in her thesis.
McFarlin says the UIndy representatives have been critical to the success of the effort in Rwanda.
“Stephen and Amandine were able to use many of the same techniques they employ in forensic cases,” McFarlin said. “Their expertise will be invaluable in understanding how different burial environments and time intervals have affected the condition of these skeletal remains over time.”
Directing the project with McFarlin are Dr. Antoine Mudakikwa, chief veterinarian for the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks, which owns the skeletal collection; and Dr. Timothy Bromage, a professor with New York University’s College of Dentistry. Other contributors include representatives of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda. Major funding has been provided by the Leakey Foundation and the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Exploration and Research.
Photos from the Rwandan gorilla project may be viewed at www.uindy.edu/news.