Today, 24th September, is World Gorilla Day and I welcome a personal guest blog from dear friend Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. Gladys is a Ugandan veterinarian and founder of Conservation Through Public Health, an organisation dedicated to the coexistence of endangered mountain gorillas, other wildlife, humans and farmed animals in Africa. She was Uganda’s first wildlife veterinary officer and was the star of the BBC documentary, Gladys the African Vet. In 2009 she won the Whitley Gold Award for her conservation work.
In the legacy of the late Dian Fossey, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has become one of the leading conservationists and scientists working to save the endangered mountain gorillas of East Africa and I am honoured that she has agreed to write my guest blog for this month.
As the world battles the devastating effects of COVID-19, I would like to draw attention on this important day, and to reflect on how the pandemic has affected gorillas with whom we share 98.4% of our DNA. All four gorilla subspecies are endangered or critically endangered; their survival threatened by human activities and intensive agriculture that lead to habitat loss, poaching, bushmeat trade and disease. These include mountain gorillas and eastern lowland gorillas found in east and central Africa and western lowland and cross river gorillas found in central and west Africa.
My first encounter with mountain gorillas was in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in 1994 when conducting research as a veterinary student at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. I was struck by the incredible gentleness of these majestic giants; weighing 150–200 kg and 5–6 feet tall and felt a deep connection. At that time, there were only about 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild and gorilla tourism had only recently begun in Uganda to generate revenue to protect the wildlife. There was an air of hope amongst the Bwindi local communities, whose only source of meaningful employment before tourism in this remote and marginalized part of Uganda had been as out growers for the nearby Kayonza tea factory, an intensive agriculture operation that encroached on the natural forest habitat of the gorillas and other forest wildlife.
In 1996, I was hired by the Uganda Wildlife Authority as their first veterinary officer because they were concerned that the influx of tourists may bring a fatal flu, like COVID-19, that could wipe out this small population of gorillas. Thanks to successful conservation efforts, mountain gorilla numbers have almost doubled and currently number 1063, which led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change their status from critically endangered to endangered in 2018.
Whereas other gorilla subspecies are mainly threatened by intensive farming practices leading to habitat loss, bush meat trade and poaching; with increasing tourism, the main threat to mountain gorillas is disease from close contact with humans. We established Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003 after I led a team that investigated a fatal skin disease outbreak in the Bwindi mountain gorillas. This outbreak was traced to people living around the park, who had inadequate access to basic health care and sanitation. The gorillas became exposed to the disease when they foraged in community gardens, just outside the park’s boundary. I realized then that you cannot protect the gorillas without simultaneously addressing the health and wellbeing of the local people who increasingly share their fragile habitat.
For some time, revenue from gorilla tourism successfully supported alternative livelihoods and conservation programs, leading to a decline in poaching and illegal forest entry. However, when tourism suddenly stopped in 2020 due to global lockdowns, people who relied on tourism income to feed their families suddenly found themselves without employment or income. In desperation, they turned back to the forest for survival. Poaching of duikers and bush pigs increased dramatically and a silverback gorilla became a tragic victim of spearing by a hungry bush meat poacher. Recognizing the need to act fast to prevent a return to previous levels of poaching, we identified the most vulnerable people in the local communities and supported them with “Ready to Grow” gardens comprising fast-growing seedlings to meet their short-term nutritional needs. We also trained community members in agronomic best practices, using good soil and water conservation methods — in line with their traditional farming practices — to help meet their longer-term nutritional needs.
As tourism returns, we are teaching these local communities sustainable agriculture practices to help reduce the destruction of the forest. It is hoped this will in turn reduce pressure on the gorillas’ fragile habitat and increase community resilience. We train Village Health and Conservation Teams to teach other community members good hygiene and sanitation and how to prevent and control zoonotic diseases between people and gorillas. They also promote voluntary family planning because we know manageable family sizes are less dependent on the forest to meet their basic needs.
In addition, we address the threat of disease by encouraging tourists to visit gorillas in a responsible manner. This includes wearing protective face masks, maintaining a social distance of 10 meters and having good hygiene, as well as boot disinfection and temperature taking before entering the forest. We are training park staff who guide tourists, Gorilla Guardians (volunteers from the community who herd gorillas back to the forest when they range in community land) and Village Health and Conservation Teams to sensitize people on the dangers of eating bush meat and coming into too close contact with gorillas.
To reduce poaching, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) also works closely with coffee farmers who we support to help maintain a steady market and fair price. We achieve this by training them to grow coffee using sustainable agricultural methods, which results in a greater yield and a higher quality of coffee. We then offer above market prices for their premium and specialty coffee, which is sold to tourists and conscious consumers who wish to support gorillas and purchase ethical, sustainable quality products. During this pandemic, international sales of coffee have enabled Bwindi farmers to earn a living in the absence of tourism, helping to mitigate the threats to mountain gorillas.
Our call to action this World Gorilla Day is to reduce zoonotic disease transmission and poaching through:
- supporting the health and wellbeing of communities who share a habitat with endangered gorillas
- developing a culture of responsible tourism when viewing gorillas, and
- promoting responsible consumption by buying ethically sourced products, such as Gorilla Conservation Coffee.