Protecting Gorillas and Helping People

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Written by Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Mountain gorillas are critically endangered. 400 of the estimated 880 individuals are found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, while the remainder are situated in the Virungas. Thanks to effective conservation efforts, the numbers of gorillas are steadily increasing.

Gorilla tourism began in 1992, and has significantly contributed to the conservation of the mountain gorilla by providing an economic incentive for protecting them. This is particularly important as some of the poorest people in Africa, who have one of the highest population growth rates in the world, surround the park. For most, tracking gorillas is a once in a lifetime experience so unsurprisingly Entebbe to Kihihi is one of the most popular routes for Aero Link Uganda Limited.

I started working with mountain gorillas as a veterinary student in 1994. I had been eagerly anticipating this opportunity since 1992 where I pursued a veterinary degree at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. Dr. Liz Macfie, who was heading an international NGO called International Gorilla Conservation Program, hosted me to examine parasites and bacteria in the gorillas’ faecal samples. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the national park, I contracted a nasty cold, and due to the tourism regulations, was not allowed to track the gorillas until I recovered.

Humans and Gorillas share 98.4% genetic material, so we can easily make each other sick. In 1994, there were no health centres nearby, so I was forced to recover naturally, which took five days. Upon recovery I fully understood the importance of reducing human to gorilla disease transmission, and later devoted my life’s work to this issue. Two years later in 1996, I was appointed the first veterinary officer for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, who felt it necessary to employ a veterinarian, following the expansion of gorilla tourism, which introduced a new threat of human disease.

Bwindi currently has 10 gorilla groups habituated for tourism and one gorilla group habituated for research. The habituation process takes two years, and once this happens they are followed every day for the rest of their lives, a considerable commitment for Uganda Wildlife Authority. Sadly, the group that I first tracked in 1994, Katendegyere, was disintegrated in 1998. In 1996 the only Katendegyere infant, Ruhara, died of scabies, which was eventually traced to communities living around the park. People and wild gorillas are unlikely to touch each other, so we suspect that this gorilla group contracted scabies when they left the park boundaries to forage on banana plants in community gardens and found dirty clothing on a scarecrow. Bwindi communities have limited access to health and other social services, and also bear the significant cost when gorillas and other wildlife destroy their crops.

In 2000 we held health education workshops with the local community on risks of human and gorilla disease transmission. The communities that benefited from tourism were willing to find solutions to prevent this happening again. Being new to community participatory methods, it was a turning point in my life. I realized that you could not protect the gorillas without considering the needs of the people they share this fragile habitat with.

In 2003 we decided to set up an NGO in Uganda and US, a non-profit organization called Conservation Through Public Health, which not only promotes wildlife conservation, but also improves community health. CTPH patron is her Royal Highness, Queen Sylvia of Buganda, who in 2005 became the first queen in the world to track mountain gorillas.

In 2013 we celebrated ten years of CTPH. Today CTPH promotes biodiversity conservation by enabling people, wildlife and livestock to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods in and around protected areas in Africa. CTPH works closely with Uganda Wildlife Authority to improve gorillas’ health.

Meanwhile, to improve community health, CTPH works closely with local government health centres and an NGO missionary hospital in the Kinkizi Diocese, Bwindi Community Hospital, originally built with funds from gorilla tourism.

With three integrated programs wildlife health (conservation), community health and alternative livelihoods, we have made strides in improving the quality of life in over 20,000 homes in Bwindi, one third of which are frequently visited by gorillas. Through a dedicated network of community volunteers called Village Health and Conservation Teams, essential health services and conservation education have been brought closer to the local population. Communities have now acquired hand-washing facilities, clean water storage containers and drying racks. Over half of the women are on modern family planning, which is above the national average of 30% and still rising. Furthermore, the number of people referred to local hospitals for suspected scabies, Tuberculosis and other infections has also greatly increased.

Most importantly gorillas are falling ill less often. As people’s lives improve, so does their attitude towards conservation. They are now significantly more willing to coexist with gorillas. This was demonstrated in 2012, when an older silverback gorilla, Ruhondeza, who headed the first group habituated for tourism, the Mubare group, became too old to keep up with the rest of the group. The communities tolerated and protected Ruhondeza in their land to live out his last few months.

With generous support from funders, we built a Gorilla Research Clinic in 2005, where faecal samples from gorillas, livestock and people who are sick, are examined to determine if they are sharing the same diseases. To improve the efficiency of our operations by increasing accuracy, and broadening our range of tests, we are raising funds for a larger Health and Gorilla Conservation Centre with more rooms for laboratory diagnosis, as well as providing a space for communities to be educated about conservation, public health and sustainable livelihoods. So far we have raised $66,000 for 2 laboratory rooms, and need $234,000 to complete the project.

Visit the Gorilla Research Clinic in Buhoma, donate towards our projects, volunteer with CTPH, and watch CTPH on CNN African Voices at

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Founder and CEO
Ashoka Fellow
Conservation Through Public Health
Plot 3 Mapeera Lane, Uringi Crescent
Entebbe, Uganda
P.O. Box 75298, Clock Towers,

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