Veterinarian Dr. Scarlett Magda, a Shinnecock Hills resident, has always been concerned with efforts to save endangered species all over the world.As a member of Veterinarians Without Borders, and a former executive director of the New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, Dr. Magda is well aware of the problems plaguing endangered species. Which is why, when she was approached earlier this year about joining a team dedicated to raising awareness about endangered mountain gorillas in Africa, the 31-year-old jumped at the opportunity.
Now, Dr. Magda is the producer of a film the group hopes will be shown at tourist hubs in both Africa and the United States to help educate tourists about the dangers that humans pose to gorillas in the wild.
“Everything we do has an impact, and once you start to tease it down, you realize how diseases are transmitted and how irresponsible human actions can increase the spread of those diseases,” Dr. Magda said in an interview this week. “That is my focus as a veterinarian, but you also want to let people know what they can do to help ease these problems.”
According to Dr. Magda, even relatively minor human ailments, like a common cold, can have deadly effects on the common mountain gorilla. Other diseases, like the human metapneumovirus (HMPV), can have serious effects on the population, and Dr. Magda noted that in 2009 in Rwanda, two wild mountain gorillas died from the respiratory disease after a human outbreak.
The goal of the project, according to Dr. Magda, is to create a 10- to 12-minute film outlining the issues pertaining to the gorillas and what humans can do to keep them safe. The movie will feature leaders from Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and will highlight how humans can safely view mountain gorillas either in the wild or on preserves, like the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where some of the documentary will be filmed.
According to primatologist Allison Hanes, another member of the film team, there are only an estimated 800 mountain gorillas left worldwide. Ms. Hanes, who has a master’s degree in primate conservation from Oxford Brookes University in England, said this week she first came up with the idea for the film during her graduate work. Having previously worked with Dr. Magda at a veterinary office in Manhattan, Ms. Hanes approached her about participating in the project during the most recent film festival in January.
During her research, which focused on the benefits of humans wearing masks when tracking gorillas to prevent the spread of diseases—she noted that even a common human cold can wipe out an entire family of gorillas—Ms. Hanes recommended that a new educational video be made for locals, tourists and researchers alike. Now, she is following up on her recommendation.
“It comes down to education and better preventative measures to protect the mountain gorillas,” she said. “A lot of tourists I spoke to thought that if there was a better video they would be more aware of what is going on and follow more precautions for safety.”
Ms. Hanes stressed that during trips in the mountains, humans are supposed to maintain at least 7 meters between themselves and the nearest gorilla. In the past, there has been direct contact between humans and the gorillas. Even with the 7 meters, she said, diseases and germs can be spread through sneezing, coughing or simply through sharing the same air.
For the film, which the group hopes to travel to Africa during the spring of 2014 to film, Ms. Hanes and Dr. Magda have teamed up with Dr. Mike Cranfield, the executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and filmmaker Billy Zeb Smith.
According to Dr. Magda, who first learned of the plight of the mountain gorilla while serving as the executive director for the New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival last year, the production of the film—including film permits for African locations—has been funded through private donations. However, the group still needs roughly $20,000 for travel expenses. Dr. Magda asks anyone interested in donating, or in learning more about the project, to contact her via email at Scarlett.Magda@gmail.com.
“I am very excited about this project,” Ms. Hanes said. “I think this will be an incredibly helpful tool that will benefit everyone, and I am excited to make it happen.”