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Creative Wildlife Conservation Through Public Health

by Sandra Ramani

Resolving a public health issue between people and endangered primates. 

Set on the edge of the Rift Valley, southwest Uganda’s lush, mist-covered Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is currently home to almost half the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas—a population that, happily, is increasing with each census. The outlook wasn’t quite so good in 2002, however, when a scabies outbreak began affecting large swaths of the area’s primates.

While investigating the situation for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, veterinarian Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka made a significant connection: Knowing that the mountain gorillas share 98.4 percent of their genetic makeup with humans, she traced the scabies to the villages that surround the forest, where factors like poor hygiene, contaminated water and lack of proper sewage and trash disposal were causing the spread of diseases from residents to the naturally curious gorillas that share their habitat. “It became clear that wildlife conservation is also very much a public health issue,” she remembers, adding that land encroachment, competition for food and unmonitored livestock grazing can also contribute to what she calls “human-gorilla conflict.”

Teaming up with fellow concerned Ugandans, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a nonprofit, nongovernment agency that focuses on the intersection—and interdependence—of wildlife, human and livestock in and around Africa’s protected areas (ctph.org). In Bwindi, CTPH takes a multipronged approach with educational initiatives, research, human health and family planning services, and wildlife health monitoring; among the teams of volunteers are over a dozen members of the Batwa (pygmy) tribe, which for centuries shared the forest with the gorillas. “When we help improve the health of their communities and herds, people are much more open to learning about conservation,” the doctor notes.

Top: Mountain Gorilla; Bottom: Conservation Through Public Health Researchers

With gorilla-based travel making up over 50 percent of the entire tourism revenue for Uganda today—and a significant portion of that directly benefiting the park-adjacent villages—tourism plays a key part in CTPH’s efforts, too. Travelers visiting Bwindi for the unforgettable gorilla trekking experiences can stop by the CTPH Research Clinic (upgraded in 2015) to meet with experts and learn more about the programs; the extra-passionate can visit schools to see the education programs in action, and even volunteer to help with tracking and research.

Or, you could buy some local coffee or tea. After noticing that gorillas don’t care for coffee berries or tea leaves, CTPH is working with local farmers to sustainably plant fields of both along the edges of the villages to create natural barriers, and is buying the resulting crops from them at above-market rate prices. Launched at the end of 2016 in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature, and available at shops and lodges around Uganda, Gorilla Conservation Coffee also donates a portion of its proceeds to help the residents of Bwindi—both human and primate.

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