Trying to get a meeting with Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is no mean feat. She is one of Africa’s leading scientists and conservationists and she’s in huge demand. Her mission to promote conservation through human public health is something that is becoming increasingly more important as people and animals are forced to live in closer proximity as habitats shrink. She believes that by improving primary health care services for local people who live next to wildlife, the risk of disease transmission between animals and us will be reduced. One species benefiting from her expertise are the mountain gorillas of East Africa.
“When we held workshops with the local communities on the risks of human and gorilla disease transmission, people who benefited from tourism were willing to listen to us and wanted to improve their health and hygiene to protect the gorillas – they are a sustainable source of income from eco-tourism.”
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered and there are only around 782 surviving in the wild and four in captivity (World Wildlife Fund, WWF). Their numbers are split between the Virunga volcanic mountain range (480) − which spans the border area of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) − and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda (302). We share 98 per cent of our DNA with these animals making disease transmissions highly likely.
“Bwindi Impentetrable National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains nearly half of the world’s mountain gorilla population, more than 40 per cent of tourism comes from Bwindi.
“Health centres in these areas are placed far away from the park and with a high population growth rate this is a problem. If people are not treated they make each other sick and they can make the gorillas sick.”
In 2002 Dr Kalema- Zikusoka founded the international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) after realising that zoonotic diseases were a real threat from tuberculosis to scabies.
“While working as the first veterinary officer for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, I led a team that investigated the first scabies skin disease outbreak in mountain gorillas. The gorillas were not part of the tourist group, they had contracted scabies from going into people’s gardens.
“We have the 5-7 metre rule which means that no one actually touches the gorilla, but the animals don’t observe this rule. People were putting up scarecrows in their gardens and the gorillas were touching them.
“Scarecrows are usually dressed in the dirtiest clothes and direct contact with the scarecrows meant the disease spread through the group and through the park. This was an example of local interaction between people and wildlife in Bwindi.
“So it’s very important to protect wildlife and community health and livelihood in Africa’s protected areas.”
Sixty-six per cent of the communities in that area live in semi-permanent housing. There is defecation near the borders of the park, rubbish heaps are not covered properly and hygiene is poor. Dr Kalema- Zikusoka aims to raise awareness within the communities about how best to minimise disease. She and her team are also talking directly with traditional healers to get their support.
“It’s instrumental to promote conservation to these people (traditional healers). We encourage them to plant their herbs outside the forest to avoid them going deep into the park. Most people will go to see their traditional healer when they are sick. So by talking to them, the healers will now refer people who have TB and HIV to us or health centres.”
Injection rates and better use of contraception is improving, she added: “People used to have around 10 children per family but now people are starting to have less. The contraception level is around 32 per cent. Governmental health centres are still under-staffed as well as other services. But 78 per cent of injections are being given by volunteers are Depot Centres so the community volunteer network is working well.”
Training is given to all volunteers to give them motivation she says and the majority of the volunteers are women. Dr Kalema- Zikusoka is hoping to eventually work with communities in east and central Africa.
“Health is a basic benefit which attributes to conservation organisations. Hygiene and sanitation are a direct interface between environmental health and environmental conservation. It reduces the direct threat to biodiversity, cross species disease transmission and high population rates.”
A recent video of a mountain gorilla group which entered the campsite in Bwindi where a tourist was groomed has received millions of hits worldwide. It’s an incident that has Dr Kalema-Zikusoka concerned.
“We have to sensitize tour operators and tourists about the dangers of cross species disease transmission and behavioural disturbance before they arrive Uganda, what happened was a disgrace.
“We really need to highlight and discourage such incidents happening again in the future. Eco-tourism has to be a benefit.”
At the moment there are ten habituated groups: nine for tourism and one specifically for research. A respiratory disease that infected and killed a gorilla from Rwanda was later traced to South Africa and it’s thought that the disease could only have come from a human being.
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says the problem with habituation is that the gorillas are now coming into the communities as well as tourist sites more frequently.
“Ranger guide training is being explored to change their behaviour and stop them getting close to people. We are advising that no more groups of gorillas are habituated, it’s important for the survival of the species.”
Notes: Dr Kalema-Zikusoka worked as Veterinary Officer of the Uganda Wildlife Authority from 1996 to 2000. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Veterinary Medicine from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London in 1995. Her Masters is in Specialised Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University and North Carolina Zoological Park in USA (2003). She is the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).