By Kerry Wolfe
In Uganda, a symbiotic relationship between humans and gorillas is crucial to the survival of both. Fifty percent of revenue from the tourism industry is generated through gorilla tourism alone, yet these animals have become critically endangered largely due to the spread of disease from human to animal.
Gorillas share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans, and over the past 10 years — due to deforestation and a rapidly expanding human population — have been forced to share their habitat with their homosapien neighbors. This has put gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo at risk for contracting communicable diseases. Treatable diseases ““ such as the flu ““ can become fatal once transferred from humans to the gorilla population, which has not developed immunities to these maladies.
Enter Conservation Through Public Health, a nonprofit organization located in the mist-shrouded mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, that is working to control the spread of disease between humans, wildlife and livestock while educating the local people about the economic, social and physical benefits of healthcare.
“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, diarrhea 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,” reports CTPH.
In 2002, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded CTPH after witnessing the devastating effects of a scabies outbreak on the gorilla population in East Africa. A leading conservationist, Kalema-Zikusoka began advocating for gorilla conservation by promoting community-based healthcare initiatives and creating public awareness about the benefits of good health and hygiene.
Rachel Winnik Yavinsky, policy associate for the Population Reference Bureau’s International Programs wrote on the PRB’s blog for Population, Heath and the Environment (PHE) that during a recent visit to the CTPH’s Gorilla Research Clinic in Bwindi she “was particularly impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of CTPH’s Community Conservation and Health Volunteers. She goes on to say that these “men and women were elected from 29 local villages to be educated in conservation and hygiene practices, as well as family planning counseling and service delivery.” Yavinsky was “especially inspired at a volunteer meeting where she spoke with Milliam, the wife of a traditional healer and a family planning and PHE champion. Milliam had seven children before she learned about family planning. Now she is a community conservation and health worker, and has talked to her daughters about having two children each so that they can afford to send them all to school. ”
CTPH is aware that in order to protect the gorillas, they must first convince the local people to get on board. Most of the communities that live in close proximity to gorilla habitats are impoverished and in desperate need of a steady source of income. Through initiatives like the volunteer program, CTPH educates the people on how to capitalize on the gorillas’ presence in the area through sustainable and ethical jobs in the tourism industry while simotaneously bringing awareness to the importance of good health practices.
“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
About Kerry Wolfe
Kerry is a sophomore at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she’s working towards a BA in magazine journalism. She loves to travel, and plans to spend her career exploring the world and writing about the people and places she encounters. Kerry’s also a huge animal lover, and the only thing she loves more than visiting a new place is spending time with her horse.
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