28 Oct What helps people also protects gorillas
About 460 mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Rainforest in southwestern Uganda. In order to save them from extinction, conservationists also take care of the people in the region. This serves the acceptance of the great apes and keeps them healthy.
Narrow slopes wind their way up to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, an ancient, cloud-shrouded mountain rainforest, home to the rare mountain gorilla. The animals live exclusively in the three neighboring countries of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A total of 1063 mountain gorillas were counted in 2018, 459 of them in Bwindi Forest. The World Conservation Union downgraded the status of the animals at the time: Mountain gorillas are no longer “threatened with extinction”, but only “critically endangered”. This was celebrated worldwide as a success in species protection, and Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is also involved.
“The next counts are coming up soon, we hope that the trend will continue,” says the veterinarian and native Ugandan. dr Gladys, as she is commonly known, founded the non-governmental organization CTPH in 2003. The acronym stands for Conservation Through Public Health. The basic idea of Kalema-Zikusoka and her co-founders: mountain gorillas can only be protected in the long term if the people around the park are also healthy.
An approach that has been gaining popularity since the pandemic at the latest and now bears the pleasing name “One Health”. As a pioneer, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has already received several awards, and in 2021 she received the United Nations’ highest environmental award for her commitment.
When gorilla tourism picked up speed in Uganda in 1996, the Ugandan wildlife authority hired the vet. There were concerns that tourists could infect the rare animals with the flu, which has happened in other national parks and has been deadly. “Gorillas are closely related to us, they share more than 98 percent of their genome with us. That’s why we can easily make each other sick,” explains Kalema-Zikusoka.
She had her aha experience at the very beginning of her employment, when a group of gorillas contracted scabies and a young animal died. The group affected was one of two “habituated” groups at the time, i.e. gorillas that had been accustomed to humans in order to be able to show them to tourists. Since they had lost their fear of people, they dared to leave the park and go into the fields of the surrounding communities. Bananas grow everywhere there, a staple food in Uganda and, much to the chagrin of the small farmers, also very popular with gorillas. The animals probably got infected by the old clothes of a scarecrow, which was actually supposed to scare them away. Since they had never come into contact with itch mites before, the gorillas reacted violently.
“That was a turning point in my life because I realized that I also have to take care of people’s health,” the vet recalls. CTPH today has 30 employees and 270 volunteers from the communities CTPH trains. Each village helper looks after around 40 households and advises them on topics such as hygiene, family planning, sustainable agriculture and nature conservation.
Helpers chase gorillas into the forest
The village helpers give tips on how to properly cultivate the soil on the very steep fields around Bwindi so that it does not erode. “If the harvest is bad, people tend to go poaching,” explains Kalema-Zikusoka. Although gorillas are not prey, they injure themselves in the snare traps. CTPH also motivates people to grow coffee, a so-called “cash crop”, i.e. a crop that brings in money instead of calories. “We buy the coffee from them above the market price and market it as ‘Gorilla Conservation Coffee’.”
If a family has problems with stealing gorillas, the village helper notifies the human-gorilla conflict team, which chases the animals back into the forest. CTPH also tests fecal samples from villagers, farm animals and gorillas for specific parasites each month and treats them if necessary.
“People no longer have the feeling that they are only caring for the gorillas,” says the veterinarian. In a country like Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world, this is an essential prerequisite for successful nature conservation: people often live off the crops from their fields, often there is no running water, no electricity, no garbage disposal, and the nearest hospital is far away away.
The current “Living Planet Report” by the environmental organization WWF also states: Nature conservation does not work without the support of local communities.
The primatologist Martha Robbins from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who has been researching the social behavior of the Bwindi gorillas for 25 years, attributes the success, especially in the protection of the mountain gorillas, to “maximum nature conservation measures”: “The habituated gorilla groups are visited daily, they receive veterinary treatment if necessary, poaching is punished, there are community projects and intensive tourism.”
“The gorillas are a tourist magnet. That’s why the question always hangs in the air: “When will we habituate another group of gorillas?”
Tourists contribute to gorilla protection in two ways: Locals who benefit from tourism appreciate gorillas and are more willing to tolerate their campaigns. The animals attract tourists, and that creates jobs: the rangers and porters who accompany the tourists when visiting the gorillas come from the neighboring communities, and the numerous tourist lodges also employ local people.
In addition, the tourists finance the operation of the Bwindi National Park, and a small part of the fees also benefits the local communities. If you want to spend an hour with the mountain gorillas, you pay 700 US dollars for the permit in Uganda. The probability of encountering them is extremely high because the park rangers know exactly where they are.
The time with the mountain gorillas also touches rational minds. The shared evolutionary history is unmistakable: the cubs eyeing viewers curiously and frolicking with each other, teasing their dozing mothers, who play with them affectionately and eventually rebuke them in exasperation; the adolescent who sits on the tree and pees down on the spectators, and the silverback who takes a nap undisturbed and only occasionally grumbles to remind himself. Anyone who observes gorillas also looks back into the past, to the origin of human development.
The demand is high: “The gorillas are a tourist magnet. That’s why the question always hangs in the air: ‘When will we habituate another group of gorillas?’», says Kalema-Zikusoka. In order not to disturb the natural behavior of the great apes, visits to a group of gorillas are limited to one hour per day. Until about ten years ago, only six people were allowed per gorilla group. But the pressure on the wildlife authorities became so great that they either had to accommodate another group or increase the number of tourists per group.
So far, Covid-19 has been avoided
Today, eight tourists are allowed per day – and 22 out of an estimated 50 groups of gorillas living in Bwindi Forest are habituated. The mountain gorillas therefore generate over 120,000 US dollars per day. According to the veterinarian, it is not always easy to reconcile economic interests with protecting the gorillas.
Wild groups of gorillas still live inside the national park. “We absolutely need these undisturbed groups,” emphasizes Kalema-Zikusoka. In the event of an outbreak of disease among the habituated gorillas, these animals would not be affected because the groups hardly interact. Influenza and Covid-19 cases have so far been avoided. Rangers, porters and tourists must wear a mask when they are near the animals and keep a distance of ten meters – but the reality is that the gorillas often approach themselves and one or the other ranger turns a blind eye in expectation of a larger tip .
In theory, the current Ebola outbreak in Uganda is also a danger to the animals. In the past, thousands of great apes have fallen victim to the disease. “With the security measures implemented in Bwindi National Park, however, this is unlikely, since Ebola transmission requires direct physical contact with bodily fluids,” says Robbins.
It is uncertain whether the mountain gorillas will be able to reproduce further in the future: “It is wonderful news that the number of mountain gorillas is increasing,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, but the reality is that their habitat is limited. In fact, Bwindi National Park is a 320 km 2 forest island in a sea of banana plantations where gorillas are not welcome.
CTPH would like to expand the national park and buy land for it. The government is open to the idea, but it’s a sensitive issue. “How do you do that without people feeling that their land is being taken away from them?” asks Kalema-Zikusoka. Money is not always an adequate substitute for land. It worked in neighboring Rwanda, where the gorilla sanctuary in the Virunga volcanoes was expanded. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka hopes to follow the same path for Bwindi.