INTERVIEW: Conservationist Gladys Kalema talks tourism and the pandemic

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Gladys Kalema

Dr. Glady’s Kalema has worked in conservation for over two decades and started out at Uganda Wildlife Authority where she set up the first veterinary unit. Brian Atuhaire engaged her in an interview.

Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, welcome to the conversation. Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is known for its work on gorillas. For how long have you worked in this field? And what makes you going daily? Are there some difficult days and what are the challenges?

I have worked in the conservation field since 1996 when I set up the first veterinary unit at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government agency mandated to manage wildlife in Uganda and became Uganda’s first wildlife vet. I was hired because gorilla tourism had just begun to the critically endangered mountain gorillas and UWA was concerned that tourists could make gorillas sick with a fatal respiratory disease like COVID-19.

One of the first issues I dealt with in the mountain gorillas in Bwindi was an outbreak of scabies, a fatal skin disease where a baby gorilla died and the rest of the gorillas in the group only recovered with treatment of Ivermectin anti-parasitic. The gorillas contracted this disease from community members living on the outskirts of the park when they foraged outside the national park in community land.

The people living around the park have very little access to basic healthcare and hygiene levels are low. They put out dirty clothing on scarecrows, which the gorillas most likely touched, and got infected with the scabies mites. It was then that I realized that, in order to protect the health of the gorillas, we had to improve the health of the people with who they share their habitat, which became known as a One Health approach.

We set up Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003 to address the challenges of diseases passing between people, wildlife, and livestock through improving the health of people and animals, helping to address the basic human need for healthcare. Conservation is rooted in earning the support of local communities that share a backyard with wild animals. We also support improved livelihoods to help people become less reliant on natural resources to meet their basic needs of food and fuelwood.

Many families living at the fringes of protected areas in Africa are already some of the most impoverished, and land encroachment, habitat destruction, competition for food, and the spread of zoonotic disease between people, wildlife, and livestock all pose imminent threats to the survival of wildlife, of natural habitats, and to these communities themselves.

My passion for conservation, desire to alleviate suffering in animals and improve the well-being of people keeps me going. I started this conservation journey when I revived the wildlife club in my final year when I was in senior six at Kibuli Secondary School. After graduating from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, in 1996, I began working at Uganda National Parks, which later became UWA. At the time Dr. Josephine Afema working at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre and I were the only two full-time wildlife veterinary doctors in Uganda and we were both females. I am blessed to have a mother who has encouraged me throughout my career path and embedded in me a sense of self-belief.

Did Covid affect you adversely? How?

I don’t think there is anyone around the World who has been spared the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At CTPH, we have had to re-align our activities to focus on preventing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 infection amongst people in the communities in which we work, as well as from people to the closely genetically related endangered mountain gorillas. This has required us to look for new funding.

We have also had to re-think how we work on a day-to-day basis, including embracing more remote work, following strict SOPs when working at the office or in the field. We were grateful that the Government of Uganda and the Ministry of Health recognized CTPH staff as essential workers preventing the spread of COVID-19 amongst people and to the gorillas so we were able to continue operating and implementing activities during the lockdowns, which has been critical to sustaining our efforts to protect both people and the gorillas.

The main customers of Gorilla Conservation Coffee that was founded in 2015 by CTPH, to support farmers living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park were gorilla trekking tourists, and with the collapse of tourism, we started operating at a much greater loss. We tried to overcome this challenge by finding new markets for coffee in the UK and other countries.

Covid-19 brought down tourism. Did it have the same effect on conservation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many detrimental effects on conservation. It led to an increase in poaching in many protected areas. Around Bwindi, many people were heavily dependent on tourism for income and employment. With the crash of tourism, people – already impoverished – were plunged into further poverty and desperation. Without an income, many people had to turn to rely on natural resources to meet their basic needs of food and fuelwood for their families.

The killing of Rafiki, lead silverback of Nkuringo gorilla group, in June 2020, by a poverty-stricken bush meat poacher who had entered the forest to hunt for bush pigs to feed his family, tragically highlighted the impacts of COVID-19 on conservation. Prior to Rafiki’s killing, we had not lost a gorilla to poaching for 9 years.

On a different note, our One Health approach has gained a lot of recognition as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the critical importance of preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases. Our work includes training park staff, Gorilla Guardians and community health workers who do conservation work – Village Health and Conservation Teams on prevention of COVID-19 among people and from people to gorillas; and testing gorillas and people for COVID-19, including park staff, community members who enter the park and those who interact with the gorillas outside the park. We are also supporting vaccination awareness to reduce the risk of COVID spread among people and gorillas.

We are very grateful to our donors, including Saint Andrews Prize for the Environment, Arcus Foundation, The British High Commission, IUCN, Tusk Trust, Wildlife Conservation Network, and the Darwin Initiative, for supporting our One Health approach to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You also work with communities on reproductive health and birth control. How does birth control help conservation? Many people lack access to family planning – despite wanting to manage the number spacing of births.

Birth control helps conservation by reducing poverty and hunger in communities that live around protected areas and wildlife-rich habitats. If families are better able to balance the family budget by having fewer children to feed, they are less likely to enter the park for food and fuelwood and are better able to send their children to school, enabling them to break the cycle of poverty.

We train Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) to incorporate family planning into their routine household visits so that appropriate and voluntary family planning methods are more accessible and available to those who want them. High population growth and density places greater pressure on natural resources and increases competition for food and land – creating opportunities for human-wildlife conflict and increasing the likelihood of land encroachment of protected areas, poaching, and illegal entry into protected areas and heightening the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

What impacts has the pandemic had on this initiative.

We have continued to offer voluntary family planning through our Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) who have been following strict SOPs during their household visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (including regular hand washing, sanitizing, and mask-wearing). People have been able to get three monthly interval contraceptive injections in the comfort of the home of a VHCT who also distribute other methods of family planning including pills, condoms and refer community members for longer-term methods including implants and Intrauterine Devices (IUDs).

Did households with the stay-home campaign remain faithful to these methods?

We have tried as much as possible to enable households to remain faithful to these methods even during the stay-at-home campaign. Our programs have continued as planned during lockdown periods as we were granted permission from the Ministry of Health to continue implementing our activities so those who wanted family planning methods were still able to access them through our VHCTs.

What initiatives has CTPH done to maintain people adjacent to the park during the lockdown?

In response to the increasing poverty and hunger around Bwindi, we launched a ‘Ready To Grow’ Gardens Program’ where we distributed food crop seedlings to 1,002 of the most vulnerable households amongst the community members who live around the park. Following the success of the pilot phase of the project, we plan to distribute to 5,000 more homes surrounding the park and are fundraising to be able to do so.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise established by CTPH, buys premium Arabica coffee from Bwindi farmers at a premium above market price, helping to ensure the coffee farmers receive a livable income which reduces their dependence on natural resources to meet basic family needs for food and fuelwood, thereby helping to protect the mountain gorillas and their fragile habitat. USD $1.50 of each kilogram of roasted branded coffee sold is donated to support CTPH’s non-profit work improving community health, gorilla health, and conservation education among local communities. During the lockdowns with the cessation of tourism, we had to look for markets outside Uganda to continue sustaining the coffee farmers.

The local communities that you engage mostly are not educated; they do not have the technology and the gadgets that we use in communication during the pandemic. How did you keep them engaged during the lockdown?

We trained and worked closely with Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) who visit households in their villages and, through peer-to-peer social behavior change communication, promote improved health, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, family planning, infectious disease prevention, and control and also refer patients for further care if they suspect that they have infectious diseases such as TB, HIV, Scabies, COVID-19, and diarrhea.

VHCTs also promote sustainable agriculture as well as conservation of the gorillas and their habitat including building awareness of the benefits of gorillas and reporting homes that are regularly visited by gorillas to help reduce human and wildlife conflict.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been able to train them on mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 amongst people and from people to gorillas and other wildlife. VHCTs are the medium of communication in communities like Bwindi where we do not have advanced means of communication.

What initiatives has CTPH put in place to salvage the effects of the pandemic? How are the communities reacting to the new initiatives?

We are very grateful to donors who have enabled us to carry out training for VHCTs on the mitigation of COVID-19, its spread amongst people and from people to gorillas. This includes enforcing COVID SOPs mainly mask-wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene – frequently washing hands with soap and using hand sanitizers, boot disinfection while in the forest, and vaccination education.

We have been able to train Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers in Bwindi on practicing responsible tourism during the pandemic working closely with UWA, International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project – Gorilla Doctors, and Max Planck Institute.

We have gone beyond Uganda to advocate for more responsible tourism to the great apes. With funding from Darwin Initiative, we worked with the University of Exeter and Robert Koch Institute to create educational materials and training packs for great ape tourism sites in Africa to reduce the transmission risk of diseases including COVID-19. The training focused on empowering ranger guides to educate national and international tourists about the great ape viewing rules before, during, and after gorilla tracking with an emphasis on minimizing the heightened risk of disease transmission between people and great apes in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included the development of a website, www.protectgreatapesfromdisease.com

Through the Africa Biodiversity CSO Alliance (ACBA) which we joined in 2020, CTPH coauthored a policy brief with International Gorilla Conservation Programme (ICCP) on the importance of conducting responsible tourism to the Great Apes.

CTPH sits on the National Disease Taskforce of the Ministry of Health, where we advocated for priority testing and vaccination of park staff and conservation personnel working with gorillas and chimpanzees. Mountain gorillas are highly susceptible to COVID-19, one way to protect them from this disease is to ensure that communities in biodiversity hotspots like Bwindi are vaccinated. In regards to this, in partnership with the One Health Platform, USAID/SBCA, Ministry of Health, and UWA, we carried out audience consultations on the COVID-19 vaccine at Queen Elizabeth National Park to develop appropriate messages for communities living in close proximity to wildlife with potential to benefit from tourism. The Ministry of Health plans to roll out a campaign to the public on the benefits of vaccination. CTPH requested that the messages in the campaign can also target people that interact with wildlife so that they can understand the purpose of vaccination to protect themselves and wildlife.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee that supports local coffee farmers in Bwindi is a critical initiative during the pandemic when other sources of income and employment have disappeared. We have been able to find markets for coffee outside Uganda – where we were mostly dependent on tourism for coffee sales. This has enabled us to keep supporting the farmers around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, reducing the risk of them entering the park to poach. They have been amongst the few community members who have been able to earn a living during the pandemic. The international distributors include moneyrowbeans.com in the UK, Kenya (safari lounge.co.), USA (gccoffeeusa.com), Australia (hilda.com.au), and New Zealand (gccoffee.co.nz).

What are the ideas of the future in conservation in case of such pandemics?

We need to embrace the One Health movement that has gained recognition because of this pandemic. The One Health approach emphasizes the interconnection of the health of humans, animals, and the environment.

There is a need to increase research to identify pathways of transmission and increase understanding around zoonotic disease transmission and spill-over events to prevent predict and prevent pandemics.

There is also a great need to sensitize communities on the dangers of eating bush meat and closing down wet live animal markets, which lead to transmission of diseases from animals to people.

This interview is produced with the financial support of the PCLG Small grants initiative. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Conservation through public health and African Initiative on Food Security and Environment (AIFE-Uganda)


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