While working as the first full time veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority in 1996, I led a team that managed the first reported disease outbreak in Bwindi mountain gorillas – a fatal scabies skin disease outbreak. An 8 month old infant, Ruhara, was the most severely affected in the group losing over 75% of his hair, becoming extremely thin, constantly crying and was even too weak to hold onto his mother. He eventually succumbed to his illness and, after his death, a fresh post-mortem and laboratory diagnosis confirmed that Ruhara died of scabies. Fortunately his mother, brother and father recovered after treatment with an anti-parasitic called Ivermectin.
We started to ask ourselves, “Where could the scabies have come from?” Research demonstrated that one of the most common skin diseases in low-income groups of people in Uganda is scabies.
Why? Because it is a disease of poor hygiene and crowded conditions. The puzzle was coming together: this gorilla group periodically foraged in community gardens to raid banana crops of people living near protected areas—some of the poorest and most impoverished people in Uganda—and it was the perfect breeding ground for scabies mites. We had our answer: humans were the host of the scabies mite for this gorilla family. It was clear that in these fragile areas where wildlife, people and livestock intersect, a decline in any of them affects the survival of the others.
I want to make a difference in wildlife conservation, but I want to improve people’s lives, too. Over the years I’ve witnessed how CTPH’s educational workshops addressing issues like family planning and improving hygiene—acts as simple as washing your hands—can transform someone’s quality of life. In early 2000, we organized health education workshops with local communities about the risks of human and gorilla disease transmission with the aim of improving their health and hygiene to prevent another human-related disease outbreak. They saw the benefits of improving their health and hygiene not only for themselves, but also to protect a sustainable source of income from gorilla tourism. 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 tourism. It was clear that not only was poor health and hygiene affecting public health and wildlife conservation, but it was also affecting sustainable development.
Today, we realize how wildlife, humans and ecosystems are all interconnected. We began with a mission to protect the critically endangered mountain gorilla and are now growing to more protected areas in Africa to ensure that gorilla conservation continues by working directly with local communities, government partners and international stakeholders.
We are expanding our impact through training other organizations to implement the CTPH model where they work and advocating for other organizations to adopt our systems changing idea that integrates health with conservation to achieve sustainable development. We are protecting precious wildlife and habitats and transforming community health to create more resilient and sustainable communities in Africa.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka