For Amy Bond, a school science project sparked a lifelong fascination with mountain gorillas. Today, she’s using the power of social media to ensure future generations have the same chance to fall in love with these majestic animals.
Amy is the Associate Director of Marketing & Communications for Gorilla Doctors, the only organisation in the world providing direct, life-saving veterinary care to both mountain and eastern lowland gorillas in the wild.
“When a gorilla in the wild is sick or injured, our veterinarians will go into the forest to save its life,” Amy explains.
Gorilla Doctors operate in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo to help animals under constant and significant threat from habitat loss, poaching and disease. While their head office is in the US, their veterinarians are all in-country nationals.
The organisation – founded at the request of legendary ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ author and conservationist Dian Fossey before her death in 1985 – takes a holistic ‘One Health’ approach to gorilla conservation. They provide park workers and their families with preventative health care; intervene when animals other than gorillas are ill or injured as a result of human causes; and conduct research on emerging infectious diseases.
“The ‘One Health’ approach is about recognising the interconnection between animals, people and the environment we all share,” Amy says. “The health of one impacts the health of all. You could say we’re living in a ‘One Health’ moment right now with the COVID-19 pandemic – the virus is believed to have originated with wildlife, and is now having a huge impact on human health. As human populations grow and people are interacting with wildlife more and more, we’re seeing more of that spillover.
“Because of our close genetic relationship, great apes, including gorillas, are often susceptible to human viruses. We don’t yet know that gorillas can be infected by COVID-19, but we’re operating from a place of caution and assuming that they could be – so it’s more critical than ever for us to monitor their health and keep track of any signs of illness, particularly of a respiratory nature.”
There’s an air of inevitability to Amy’s work with Gorilla Doctors. Each of her posts for the organisation’s social media channels are informed by a lifelong passion that can’t be faked.
“It all started in the seventh grade, when I was 12 years old,” she remembers. “I had to do a report on endangered species for my science class. The teacher passed around a fishbowl with little folded-up papers with animals on them, and I just happened to pull out the mountain gorilla. I remember I went to the school library and I opened this book that was filled with black-and-white photos of mountain gorillas – photos that Dian Fossey had probably taken – and I just fell in love. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to look like, exactly, but this is my life’.
“Super nerdy, right? What 12-year-old walks around carrying ‘Gorillas in the Mist’? The boys don’t want to ask you to the dance when you only want to talk about what’s happening in Rwanda, but I didn’t care.”
Amy eventually earned a master’s degree in Animal Behaviour, but after spending time in East Africa and seeing the connection between economic impoverishment and threats to wildlife, she left academia and decided to take a more “market-based” approach to solving social challenges. She went into marketing and communications, which eventually led to her role at Gorilla Doctors – the long way ‘round.
“It’s crazy, but I love how it all worked out,” she laughs.
Social media – particularly Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – has been a powerful tool for Gorilla Doctors, with content tending to fall into one of three pillars.
“The first, and most important, is keeping people updated on the specifics of our work,” Amy says. “When we do a health check with the group, or when we have to perform an intervention and provide treatment – whether that’s with medication via a dart, or we have to fully anaesthetise the animal and provide more hands-on treatment – we provide updates to our followers.
“The second, and I do consider this a conscious content pillar, is cute photos of baby gorillas. Sometimes you have to give everybody a break, you know? Those are the posts for when you just want to give everybody a reason to smile.
“The third type of post is when we connect our work to broader events that might be happening, like, for instance, World Wildlife Day – things that give you a specific reason to ask for a donation. Facebook and Instagram are amazing for donations. Because we’re a verified non-profit, they take no fee, and we get 100 per cent of whatever anyone gives on the platform.
“They make it very easy – you can add a ‘Donate’ link to your profile page, or you can add a ‘Donate’ button to a post. But I don’t do it too often, because I like to be respectful of our donors, and when we ask, I like to have a reason for asking. So I tend to theme it around things like World Wildlife Day or World Gorilla Day, and add that ‘Donate’ button to a post judiciously.
“As a non-profit, we rely so much on donations and people who support our work and believe in what we do. Social media is just an extraordinary tool to reach those people and engage them in our mission.”
While you might assume that photos of baby gorillas would be the best-performing pillar, Amy says that updates about the group’s work are particularly popular on Facebook.
“Many of our Facebook followers have been following us for a long time, or they might even have been to one of the eco-parks as a tourist. If we happen to have an update on a gorilla that is older, or somewhat iconic, that a lot of our followers are familiar with and feel a personal connection with, that will always get a lot of engagement.
“That’s one of the differences between the platforms for us – our base on Facebook tends to be made up of people who have been aware of our work for a long time, whereas our Instagram followers tend to be people who just love animals and love gorillas and love our feed. They don’t necessarily have a deep connection to our work. I think that comes later, as they get to know who we are.
“Our Instagram has grown tremendously – we have over 40 per cent more followers now than we did this time last year. But I can’t take much credit for that, because it’s the gorillas, right? I’m smart enough to post pictures of gorillas. That’s where my ‘genius’ ends.”
Thanks to Gorilla Doctors’ veterinarians in the field, Amy has a constant stream of fresh gorilla pics to post.
“Cameras are essential tools for health checks,” she says. “Our vets maintain the recommended best practice safe distance, wherever possible, of at least 10 metres to reduce the risk of any kind of disease transmission. So in order to do any kind of visual health checks, we need to take photos with a zoom lens. I benefit from that because most of our veterinarians are great photographers, and gorillas are amazing subjects.”
Despite only working half-time with the organisation, Amy is responsible for all of their social media content, and relies on Sked Social to schedule Instagram and Twitter content.
“Sked Social is an incredibly powerful tool for me, because it allows me to plan ahead and check those posts off my list of things to do,” she says. “I don’t have to think about them again, because I know they’re going to happen.
“It’s also important to me that the content doesn’t look scheduled; that the shape and form of the photos suit each individual platform. I’ll often upload a single image to Sked Social for Twitter and Instagram, and use the Photo Editor to optimise it for our Instagram feed.
“Sked Social makes hashtags so much easier, too. You can create a list of hashtags once called ‘General Hashtags’, and with two clicks, you can pre-populate the first comment on Instagram with those hashtags. You can go in and edit them if you want, of course, but being able to do it automatically saves me so much time. It’s one of my favourite features.
“I find Sked so simple and uncomplicated to use. It’s like having an assistant, which is great for me.”
When Gorilla Doctors began their work in 1986, there were only 250 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild. Today, there are 1,063 mountain gorillas – and they are the only great ape whose numbers are increasing in the wild.
“Dian Fossey believed mountain gorillas could be extinct in her lifetime,” Amy says. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen an extraordinary international collaborative conservation initiative, and they’ve bounced back.”
Gorilla Doctors’ work has been credited for half of the 4 per cent annual growth rate in habituated mountain gorillas (i.e. gorillas who accept the presence of a human observer). But while they’re proud of their work, they know they won’t be hanging up their gorilla stethoscopes anytime soon.
“In an ideal world, the gorillas wouldn’t need us,” Amy says. “But the numbers are still relatively small. They’re greatly improved, but a thousand individuals, on the entire planet, is still a very small number. So that population is still somewhat fragile, and the human population continues to grow, which puts pressure on the parks where the gorillas live.
“The healthier we can keep humans, the healthier we can keep gorillas – and vice versa.”