Nourishing People, Protecting Mountain Gorillas

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Located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) is a primeval rainforest dating back over 25,000 years. This lush ecosystem is home to nearly half of the world’s remaining endangered mountain gorillas. As the most important stronghold for these rare apes, BINP is ordinarily a bustling draw, welcoming 40,000 annual visitors. But the COVID-19 crisis deprived the communities living around BINP of tourism revenue, increasing human encroachment into gorilla territory out of necessity. To address the community’s food insecurity and keep gorillas safe, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a new WCN Conservation Partner, deployed a lifeline to benefit BINP’s gorillas and neighboring villages.

CTPH’s mission is to protect mountain gorillas and promote human-wildlife coexistence by improving healthcare and community livelihoods in and around Africa’s protected areas.

There are only about 460 mountain gorillas living within BINP and several hundred thousand people living along the park’s borders. These communities are among Uganda’s most vulnerable, depending on the tourism industry to survive. When the pandemic reached them, many people lost their main sources of income and turned to bushmeat poaching as an inexpensive food source. While gorillas are not poaching targets here, the snares meant to catch smaller animals can threaten them all the same. In rare cases, conflict can occur when poachers unintentionally cross paths with gorillas, such as when a silverback named Rafiki was killed by a poacher in self-defense. But the greatest danger to gorillas posed by these incursions is the unwitting transmission of viruses, like COVID-19, to their already fragile population. As one of our closest genetic cousins, gorillas are highly susceptible to human viruses. To prevent human-gorilla contact and disease transmission, CTPH needed to discourage further bushmeat poaching by alleviating the food scarcity caused by the pandemic.

An infant mountain gorilla in BINP.

This aid came from CTPH’s Ready to Grow Gardens program, which boosts food security for BINP’s neighboring communities by providing them with perennial crop seedlings. Each grow kit distributed via the program includes ten packages of low maintenance seedlings that need little space to grow and are harvestable within one to four months. CTPH worked closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and local council chairpersons to not only curb poaching, but identify which residents were most likely to turn to poaching out of desperation. These were among the first to receive grow kits.

Hope Karire, a participant in the Ready to Grow Gardens program, in her cabbage patch.

Over 5,000 people from 1,000 households were part of the initial outreach in 2020. In mid-2021, WCN’s Emergency Relief Fund helped CTPH expand the program to another 500 households, encompassing about 2,500 people. By reducing hunger, CTPH simultaneously reduced pressure on mountain gorillas since people are now less likely to venture into the forest in search of food. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with household incomes rising as program beneficiaries sell surplus produce to other community members. Seeds are also being saved for future seasons, ensuring a continuous supply of food going forward.

Another program participant, Beatrice Kesande, in her bean garden.

Since unveiling the Ready to Grow Gardens program, bushmeat poaching has dwindled and no gorillas have contracted COVID-19 or been harmed by conflict. As the pandemic begins to subside, CTPH is hopeful that tourism will return to BINP and life returns to normal for both mountain gorillas and the communities who live beside their forest.

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