The heartbeat of gorilla conservation is rooted in earning the support of the local communities that share a backyard with these critically endangered animals. Many of Uganda’s most isolated and impoverished families inhabit these areas – their lifestyles imposing an imminent threat to the survival of their gorilla neighbours and eventually, themselves. Land encroachment, competition for food, and the spread of zoonotic disease from gorilla to human to livestock are all grim everyday realities. To bring this idea full-circle, consider this: Uganda is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, ranks 154 out 0f 177 countries worldwide on the UN human development scale, and is home to half of the estimated 780 mountain gorillas in the world.
There are no mountain gorillas in captivity, they are only found in the Afromontane rainforests that stretch across the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda is home to an estimated half of them that live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mgahinga National Park.
Sharing 98.4% identical genetic makeup, humans are more similar to their furry friends than one might think, and disease can spread between wildlife, humans and livestock as a result of humans and gorillas living in such close proximity. Gorillas have not developed immunities to these illnesses, so even something as harmless to a human as the common flu can be fatal.
Notorious throughout the global community for being one of the most impoverished nations in the world, it is no surprise that Uganda is one of the 22 worst affected countries with Tuberculosis, contributing to 80% of the global burden. Other major threats to its local people and wildlife include dysentery, anthrax, measles, diarrhoea and the flu. For example, in 2004 and 2005, an anthrax outbreak resulted in the death of over 300 hippos representing 5% of the hippo population in Queen Elizabeth National Park, putting cattle and people at risk from contracting this fatal disease. District medical officials reported cases of people who ate the hippo meat and developed clinical signs, further demonstrating the connection between the health of animal and humans.
The 2002 scabies outbreak in gorillas was the impetus that propelled Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka to found Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) with other concerned Ugandans. CTPH is a non-profit, non-governmental organization with an innovative methodology that focuses on the interdependence of wildlife and human health in and around Africa’s protected areas. CTPH spearheads gorilla conservation with a multi-disciplinary approach which not only focuses on gorilla health, but human and livestock as well, for in areas where wildlife, people, and livestock intersect, a downturn in any one invariably affects the survival of the others. CTPH uses integrated wildlife conservation and community public health interventions to implement three strategic programs: Wildlife Health Monitoring, Human Public Health and Information, Education & Communication. As of July 2009, two pilot programs are being conducted in a forest habitat of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and a savannah habitat of Queen Elizabeth National Park, a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve.
CTPH’s approach is rooted in the prevention of zoonotic disease transmission, but also recognizes that many communities living near protected areas depend on livelihoods based upon the gorilla tourism industry, which in turn depends on the gorilla’s health and survival. Revenue from gorilla tourism is transforming villages into flourishing trading centres enabling a sustainable livelihood for some of the poorest people in all of Africa. In Uganda alone, gorilla tourism contributes more than 50% of tourism revenue for the country, benefiting the local communities directly through employment opportunities and revenue sharing programs, and indirectly through the increased demand for new local businesses such as accommodation, food, and crafts for tourists.