While working as a veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority in 1996, I led a team that managed the first scabies skin disease outbreak in mountain gorillas. An infant, Ruhara, had the most severe case in the group losing over 75% of his hair, becoming extremely thin, constantly crying, and was even too weak to hold onto his mother. After his death, a fresh post-mortem and laboratory diagnosis confirmed that Ruhara died of scabies.
We started to ask ourselves, “Where could the scabies have come from?” Research demonstrated that one of the most common skin diseases in low-income groups of people in Uganda is scabies.
Why? Because it is a disease of poor hygiene and crowded conditions. The puzzle was coming together: this particular gorilla group periodically foraged in communities gardens to raid their banana crops; add that to the fact that many of these communities living near protected parks are the most isolated and impoverished communities in Africa, with 200 to 300 people per square kilometer and limited access to the most basic healthcare, and you have the perfect breeding ground for scabies mites. We had our answer: humans were the host of the scabies mite for this gorilla family. It was clear that in these fragile areas where wildlife, people and livestock intersect, a decline in any of them affects the survival of the others: today this message is the backbone of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).
I want to make a difference in wildlife conservation, but I want to improve people’s lives, too. Over the years I’ve witnessed how CTPH’s educational workshops addressing issues like family planning and improving hygiene – acts as simple as washing your hands – can transform someone’s quality of life. In early 2000, we organized health education workshops with local communities about the risks of human and gorilla disease transmission with the aim of improving their health and hygiene. They saw the benefits of improving their health and hygiene not only for themselves, but also to protect a sustainable source of income from gorilla tourism. Before mountain gorilla tourism came along, these rural communities had very little hope of overcoming their poverty. Now, mud huts that were once selling local brew have been transformed into flourishing trading centers because of the traffic associated with tourism. It was clear that not only was poor health and hygiene affecting public health and wildlife conservation, but it was also affecting sustainable ecotourism. We realized that if this important source of income is to remain forever, both people and gorillas need to have adequate health care. This inspired us to establish Conservation Through Public Health.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
(Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is one of the leading conservationists and scientists working to save the critically endangered mountain gorillas of East Africa.)