Aug. 7, 2007 -- The rare and endangered mountain gorilla is considered the gentle giant of the African jungle.
So, the discovery last week of four slaughtered gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo was devastating to those who protect them.
A male silverback and three females were found shot to death, leaving a 5-month-old baby orphaned.
"It is certainly devastating, absolutely devastating, when you work every day climbing the mountains, treating the animals so you can get these numbers up and something like this happens, which seems to be pretty meaningless," said Mike Cranfield, director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas are left in the world, and they are found in just two areas, the organization reports.
Besides the DRC, the animals live in a mountain range that spans three countries, including Rwanda and Uganda.
Half a world away, the animals' fates actually may lie with the efforts of those in the United States. The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project does its work in the gorilla's natural habitat in Africa, but it is affiliated with the Maryland zoo.
"Our mission statement is to go in and help the gorillas' health when it is man-induced or a life-threatening situation," Cranfield said.
Even famed animal enthusiast Jack Hanna, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, is aboard the project. He said its importance is immeasurable.
"They have done a tremendous job," he said. "They really risk their lives going up there on a daily basis, checking these gorillas for colds, for injuries, for snares, the snares that get hooked on their hands."
The group has a rotating team of veterinarians working with local trackers and rangers. Between them, they have knowledge of almost every gorilla. They name them, know their families and histories. And when they are sick, they brave difficult terrain to bring the primates help.
"We do all the work on the side of the mountain so the animal can be back with their group that evening," Cranfield said.
Due to the recent killings, the group has taken on the role of surrogate parent. The project's orphanage now is home to 10 youngsters, which is the most the facility has ever had. They will keep them between six to eight years, until the gorillas can be reintegrated with an adult family.
The gorillas' champions believe that with so few left, every life is precious.
"If these animals go into extinction, somebody is going to be sitting back 50 years form now, saying, 'Why didn't we do something about this?' It speaks very, very poorly of mankind to allow these things to happen," Hanna said.