Responding to COVID-19 through a One Health approach to gorilla conservation in Uganda

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Because of their similar genetic makeup, gorillas and humans are able to transmit many diseases between one another. In the 1990s and early 2000s, fatal scabies outbreaks in critically endangered mountain gorillas were traced back to the local human community that suffered from inadequate health services. In response, we founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit focused on preventing zoonotic disease transmission from animals to humans and vice-versa.

At CTPH, we subscribe to the idea of One Health. Like Human and Planetary Health – One Health acknowledges the inherent interdependence of human, animal, and ecosystem health and requires a multi-sectoral approach in order to protect both humans and animals from disease. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, our greatest concern was the spread of disease from tourists to the gorillas, as well as from the local human population when gorillas forage on their land. We built upon CTPH’s One Health model to respond to the pandemic, and joined the Uganda Ministry of Health COVID-19 Taskforce that is guiding the national response to also protect great apes during the pandemic.

Because of their similar genetics, gorillas are likely able to contract the novel coronavirus. This is not only dangerous for the vulnerably endangered gorilla population in Uganda, but if gorillas were to contract the virus and it were to mutate, it would present a new threat to humans, as the mutated virus could possibly transfer back to the human population.

Working closely with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project/Gorilla Doctors, Max Planck Institute and Bwindi Community Hospital, CTPH trained park rangers and porters to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between people and from people to gorillas using cloth masks made by a local enterprise, Ride for a Woman. Gorilla viewing rules were upgraded to introduce mandatory wearing of face masks, hand washing, disinfection, taking of temperatures, and the viewing distance increased from 7 to 10 meters.

Rangere Simon Mbabazi marking a gorilla fecal sample. Rangers and visitors now wear masks when near the gorillas to prevent transmission to the endangered gorilla population.

The economic effects of the pandemic are also impacting local communities, resulting in a subsequent impact on wildlife. The suspension of tourism in Uganda led to the tragic death of a lead silverback gorilla, speared by an impoverished, hungry poacher hunting duiker and bush pigs to feed his family. This close encounter also put the gorillas at risk from human disease.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee pays a premium of $0.50 per kilo above the market price to coffee farmers living next door to the gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Supporting local farmers helps to protect the critically endangered gorillas and their fragile habitat. Gorilla Conservation Coffee makes a special effort to support women coffee farmers, helping to provide opportunities for women’s economic empowerment, disrupt male financial dominance and break ingrained stereotypes in the communities.

To address hunger brought about by the lack of tourism income, CTPH re-engaged reformed poachers with group livestock projects and started a new program distributing fast growing seedlings to vulnerable community members. Nevertheless, CTPH’s Gorilla Conservation Coffee social enterprise continued providing an income for coffee farmers with support from Moneyrow Beans and Pangols, our first distributors in the UK and US.

Travel is unlikely to resume to previous levels until a vaccine is found. CTPH is beginning to conduct COVID-19 testing of gorillas and those who interact with them, as well as continue raising funds to support UWA and Bwindi local communities in this critical time.

To Learn more, please visit and or follow them on Twitter at @CTPHuganda and @GCCoffee1.

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