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Lessons in promoting human-wildlife coexistence

January 09, 2023
topics: Conservation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Uganda
tags: Africa, gorillas, health, Human-wildlife conflict, Uganda

"The health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment."

As the world faces an increase in the spread of zoonotic diseases, among them COVID-19, anthrax, Ebola and Marburg, a Ugandan organisation - Conservation Through Public Health - is championing a model of healthy and peaceful coexistence between humans and animals while promoting wildlife conservation. 

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, spoke to FairPlanet about the human-wildlife situation in Uganda and beyond, the breakthroughs and remaining challenges and the potential for scaling the method to other parts of the world. 

FairPlanet: What inspired the formation of Conservation Through Public Health?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: While working as the first veterinarian of Uganda Wildlife Authority, I led a team that investigated the first fatal outbreak among gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which caused the death of an infant; the other gorillas only recovered with treatment. We traced the outbreak to people living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park who have less than adequate hygiene and access to basic health care.

I realised that it was not possible to protect the remaining mountain gorillas without improving the health and wellbeing of their human neighbours, and that is how we started Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003.  

Can you tell us a bit about the kind of work the organisation carries out? 

The organisation trains rangers and gorilla guardians to monitors the health of gorillas, and built a Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre with funding from Tusk Trust, which analyses non-invasive fecal samples from gorillas, from livestock and from people who mix with gorillas to evaluate whether they are picking up disease from each other and treat them in a timely manner. 

We train community volunteers called Village Health and Conservation teams who are community health workers trained to promote conservation. They provide integrated conservation and health information and services to households on the boundary of BINP to help improve their health, wellbeing, sanitation and hygiene and reduce zoonotic disease transmission through timely referrals to the nearest health centres. 

They also promote family planning to help people have the number of children that they can manage and have less dependence on the first to meet their basic needs. The also promote nutrition and sustainable agriculture. 

The One health model 

One of the flagship models of CTPH is One Health. How does it work and how would you rate its success?

The One Health model recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. Humans and wildlife share zoonotic diseases, including scabies, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 [...] and common flu viruses, rabies, anthrax, Ebola and Marburg.

Through our work and research, we have been able to mitigate the spread of zoonotic diseases that are a threat to people, gorillas and livestock. Hence, through the One Health approach, we are helping to ensure that the health and wellbeing of both humans and animals is prioritised, promoting wildlife conservation, public health and preventing pandemics.

Our work has helped improve the health and wellbeing of the local community members living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and, in so doing, reduced the threat of disease transmission to the gorillas through the One Health approach.

What inspired you to focus on the human-wildlife interface and how has been the experience in ensuring coexistence of the two?

When people made mountain gorillas sick, I realised that it is not possible to protect the gorillas without improving the health of the people who they share their fragile habitat with. Most of the people in these communities are impoverished and it is through the support from NGOs like ours, local governments and other authorities that these people’s health and wellbeing could be changed for better.

When you improve the health of these communities, you move a step farther in conserving wildlife and their habitats. 

We have a seen a positive change in attitudes and perspectives in communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park due to the services and knowledge provided in health and conservation education.

As Vice President of the African Primatological Society, I am helping to build African leadership in primate conservation and research, which is something I feel is important to secure the future of wildlife. I am also a member of the Women for the Environment - Africa Leadership Council, which is mentoring women to realise their leadership potential in conservation and sustainable development - something else I am passionate about.

"When you improve the health of these communities, you move a step farther in conserving wildlife and their habitats."

Having been in the field of biodiversity conservation for some time, do you feel various players including governments, private sector and the international community have done enough to promote conservation? What more should be done?

I think the different stakeholders are working hard to promote conservation. On the other hand, we need more African, youth, women, and local community voices to influence and promote conservation.

These groups of people need to be more involved in planning and decision-making matters that affect their communities.

Can you name some key milestones since you started your conservation work?

I am proud to have contributed to the growth of the mountain gorilla population, which has almost doubled since I first started working with them 26 years ago from 650 to 1063.

This growth trend led to their IUCN status changing from critically endangered to endangered and is due to successful conservation efforts of the government, private sector, local communities, CTPH and other NGOs that have enabled veterinary care and tourism with meaningful engagement, resulting in tangible benefits to local communities and improved law enforcement, research and community health.

What would you identify as the major challenges in your work?

Some of the major challenges in our work is the emerging and remerging diseases, such as COVID-19, that are a threat to the existence of the endangered mountain gorillas and the local communities.

Gorillas share 98.4 percent DNA with human beings, making them highly susceptible to human diseases, hence the need to carry out routine health monitoring and behavior change communication through household visits to mitigate the spread of zoonotic diseases.

What is the potential of replicating your model to other regions, especially protected areas?

There is a very high potential for replicating our model to other regions because of its positive impact in tackling the health of humans and animals in biodiversity hotspots. We scaled up in other protected areas of Uganda and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and we plan to scale to other African countries.

In light of emerging zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, and as an expert, tell us about the link between public health, wildlife protection, and shared habitats. 

We implement a One Health model that improves the health of people, wildlife and livestock together and prevents habitat destruction, including deforestation and swamp reclamation that brings people in closer contact with wildlife, which also helps to address climate change. This includes reducing human-wildlife conflict through timely herding of gorillas from community land where they are likely to pick up human diseases, and education to prevent poaching and bush meat hunting. 

What future plans do you have with CTPH?

We plan to scale up the One Health approach to other areas in and outside Uganda, around protected areas, and wildlife rich habitats. We are also promoting responsible tourism to great apes across Africa, and launched a policy brief

I have written a book, Walking with Gorillas, a part memoir part charter, about my conservation journey that has been shaped by One Health. It is due to be published in February 2023 and available to be pre-ordered.

I would like this book to inspire people, particularly women and girls, to follow their passion and break societal boundaries.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Uganda
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health.
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health.
© Richard Bagyenyi (CTPH)
\'I led a team that investigated the first fatal outbreak among gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which caused the death of an infant; the other gorillas only recovered with treatment.\'
"I led a team that investigated the first fatal outbreak among gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which caused the death of an infant; the other gorillas only recovered with treatment."
© Richard Bagyenyi (CTPH)
\'The organisation trains rangers and gorilla guardians to monitors the health of gorillas, and built a Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre.\'
"The organisation trains rangers and gorilla guardians to monitors the health of gorillas, and built a Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre."
© Richard Bagyenyi (CTPH)
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