02 May Uganda: Corona protection for gorillas
This is Bwindi, one of the last rainforests in Uganda. Impenetrable, that’s what the people call it here. Bwindi is home to mountain gorillas. Their species is threatened: the forests offer less and less protection. The danger for them increases because humans are getting closer – and with them possibly also the corona virus.
The mountain gorillas are given special protection
With Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian, we are on the way to the mountain gorillas. Virus prevention is a must here – for everyone. “They are already so few – that’s why we have to do everything for them: keep a distance of ten meters, wear a mask, disinfect hands when we get closer to the gorillas,” says Gladys.
‘Animal welfare through public health’ – this is the name of the organization that it founded almost 20 years ago. The goal: to maintain the health of people and livestock in the region so that everyone, including the gorillas, is protected. Because: There are only around 1,000 mountain gorillas left in two neighboring territories in East Africa – and only here, not in zoos, for example. “I feel a special connection to them. It’s unbelievable. Even though I’ve seen them so often, it’s always magical,” says the wildlife doctor.
A baby boom with five births in just six weeks had given Gladys and her colleagues hope last year. But hope can be deceptive – especially now, so Gladys: “We humans have 98 percent of the same genetic material as mountain gorillas. That is why we can easily infect them. If you cough or sneeze on them, they can easily get Covid-19 or another Got respiratory illness from you. ”
The fate of the gorillas and humans is closely related
Years ago, research on dead mountain gorillas had shown how easy this is. One in four of them had succumbed to respiratory diseases. It was mainly tourists who brought in the diseases. The wildlife doctor is worried: “Covid-19 can wipe out a whole species. Because gorillas don’t know how to keep a social distance. We have an ethical obligation to protect them – because we have destroyed their habitat.”
Take fecal samples, check for parasites or viruses. It’s about animal welfare, but also about the people next door: “The gorillas are economically important for this area, because they have helped many people escape poverty. There is no longer any reason to go into the forest to hunt and so on To be able to feed the family. Or to cut trees for firewood. Because the community benefits a lot from tourism. ”
To keep it that way, Gladys helps organize village meetings around the park. Family planning or education are issues. But above all, health care. Gladys recalls: “Gorillas once got scabies when they left the park and went to the banana plantations. They got infected on the dirty clothes of a scarecrow. The baby gorillas died, the rest of them could be saved with medication Then it became clear to me: You cannot protect the gorillas without improving the health of the people next door. ”
Without tourism, important money is missing
But tourist money is also needed to help the population. Their number is controlled and severely limited in Bwindi. Visiting the gorillas is correspondingly expensive. But now hardly anyone comes – and therefore no money either. “All animal welfare efforts have come to a standstill due to a pandemic that is preventing travel. People are now realizing that such diseases are a major problem – for animal welfare as well as human health and tourism,” explains Gladys.
It has long been about more than just the survival of the mountain gorillas, says the researcher. It is about a secure future for all life.
Author: Norbert Hahn / ARD Studio Nairobi