When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Uganda on March 21, 2020, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park staff were concerned about the resident apes.
According to veterinarian and Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) co-founder Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, protecting the gorilla population was vital for her organization when the COVID-19 pandemic was reported in Uganda.
“We were worried about the possibility of the gorillas catching the infection from area residents, people working at the park, or visitors,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.
She was making a presentation at the fifth annual science congress hosted by the Media for Environment, Science Health and Agriculture (MESHA) on May 24, 2022.
CTPH is a conservation organization founded 16 years ago. It is dedicated to the coexistence of the endangered mountain gorillas, other wildlife, humans, and livestock in Africa.
Currently, the global population of gorillas is less than 1,000.
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka explained that the risk of gorillas catching COVID-19 comes from the similarity between them and humans in genetic composition or DNA.
“The DNA of monkeys, apes and gorillas is quite similar to the human one. We share 98 percent of our genetic material with these primates, meaning that diseases can easily move across the species. This is why we had reports of gorillas catching COVID-19 in some other areas,” she explained.
COVID-19 is thought by some scientists to have crossed over from pangolins to humans through the consumption of bushmeat, although evidence for this theory is yet to be authoritatively established.
Humans can pass some diseases to animals, and also catch some infections from animals through contact, contamination of food and drinking water or consumption of animal products.
These types of infections are known as zoonotic diseases.
Humans and gorillas in the Bwindi region have not always peacefully coexisted.
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka attributes the conflict to the struggle for survival among the two species.
“Gorillas sometimes stray from the forest to feed in the banana plantations on community land, destroying the farmers’ livelihoods in the process,” she said.
The expert added that there were cases of scabies among gorillas that would sometimes stray onto community land while hunting for food.
“The animals pick up human diseases from dirty rags or clothes placed on scarecrows set up to scare birds and other intruders away from their farms,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka explained.
Scientists additionally identify poverty and the corresponding failure of children to attend school as a factor in the disease affecting the apes.
“Scabies is a disease associated with poor hygiene, and when children are not going to school, they too can easily pass it to the apes by crossing their paths,” said the expert.
Other dangerous organisms to the apes include Giardia, which causes giardiasis, and Cryptosporidium, which causes cryptosporidiosis.
“I have had a bout of giardiasis, which came with diarrhoea and vomiting. It was a scary experience that made me feel like I was dying,” she recounted.
Humans also encroach on gorilla territory while foraging for firewood.
“Farmers who lack food and firewood sometimes enter the forest to hunt and gather wood for fuel. This disturbs the gorillas’ habitat and creates more opportunities for disease transmission,” the veterinarian said.
Working with the park management, CTPH devised a system to protect the gorillas.
“We devised a social distancing protocol of seven metres between humans and the apes, in addition to enforcing a mask mandate and sanitization requirement,” she said.
The One Health collective rolled out vaccination education campaigns to encourage visitors to the park, staff and area residents to get the jab and protect themselves and the apes from the potentially fatal infection.
“CTPH successfully advocated for the park staff and conservation personnel working with great apes to be included in the priority groups to be vaccinated against COVID-19. From the example we provided by getting vaccinated, we were able to convince area residents to also get the shot,” said Dr Kalema- Zikusoka.
As a result of the measures, the park did not lose a single ape to COVID-19.
She has since co-authored an article with Prof Fabian Leendertz dubbed “Vaccinate in biodiversity hotspots to protect people and wildlife from each other”. The piece was published in the edition of Nature Magazine.
CTPH has trained about 270 community public health volunteers to safeguard gorilla and human health.
The community teams have been trained to safely chase stray gorillas back into forests if they are found foraging in villages.
As part of CTPH’s early warning system for disease outbreaks, team members also collect dung samples and report any visible signs observed.
CTPH is also marketing Gorilla Conservation Coffee to empower the local communities around the park.
“Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a locally grown but globally recognized coffee brand that supports farmers sharing habitats with gorillas,” says Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.
Farmers sharing a habitat with gorillas at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are benefiting from the sale of coffee.
CTPH has also boosted the local community’s efforts to achieve food security by providing fast-maturing seeds to farmers. The decision was driven by the need to address a resurgence of wildlife poaching.
The poaching, she said, was driven by the resource scarcity and food insecurity among the vulnerable communities living around the park.
“We provided fast growing seedlings to over 1,500 seedlings to address hunger and reduce poaching by vulnerable communities living around the gorilla’s habitat,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.
She told Scholar Media Africa that CTPH also supported a local tailor who had lost income in the wake of the pandemic to stay economically afloat by sewing and selling masks.
To strengthen community involvement in One Health programs, CTPH has set up village health and conservation teams at Virunga’s Mt Tshiabirimu and Mikeno sectors.
It has been a long but rewarding journey of engagement, consultation and cooperation with the local community that lives around the park.
The move has borne fruits, resulting in a drop in poaching and the adoption of water and sanitation measures, including a significant reduction in open defecation.
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka credits the people-friendly conservation model as the basis of the country’s success in protecting its gorilla population.
“Community involvement is key to environmental conservation programs. Without local participation, you cannot conserve wildlife or protect the environment,” says the veteran veterinarian.
Uganda’s population of gorillas continues to thrive, thanks to the One Health program targeting the residents living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Data published by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) shows that the gorilla population has grown from just 650 in 1997 to 1063 in 2022.
“Over the last 25 years, our gorilla population has nearly doubled. Our park is the only one that has been able to achieve this milestone in Africa. The other parks with gorilla populations are recording falling numbers,” says Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.
The environmental conservation group has also conducted a joint study with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and USAID Social Change and Behaviour Program, entitled “Harnessing Interpersonal Communication and Trusted Leadership to increase COVID-19 Vaccination Uptake in Hard-To-Reach Wildlife Communities in Uganda”.
“We are documenting the efforts we have made to sensitize the public on the need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of the efforts in conserving the gorilla population that is central to the tourist appeal of the park,” says the One Health and veterinary expert.
The celebrated veterinarian, who has won several international awards, including the Edinburgh Medal and the UN Planet Person of the Year Award, sees science as a reliable option to address society’s pressing health and environmental concerns.
“Science is life. We should not only practice it, but also talk, write and post about it. It should form part of our everyday conversations,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.
She firmly believes in teaching children One Health concepts to empower the young ones to incorporate them into their lifestyle, careers and businesses as adults.
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s passion for passing on the discipline to the younger generation is evident in her children, who have published articles on conservation and why it is vital for human and environmental health.
“I regularly talk to children and teens about One Health in Uganda and abroad via virtual and in-person sessions. Last year, my son Tende wrote an article for World Gorilla Day that was published in the Monitor newspaper,” she said.
“My other son has also published a book on conservation,” says the scientist, who is married to financial expert and CTPH co-founder Dr Lawrence Zikusoka.