What’s poop got to do with community conservation?

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Human-wildlife conflict continues to threaten wildlife survival in many protected areas in Uganda. These conflicts often result in the death of animals and degradation of their habitat by the people who live around the protected areas. Human-gorilla conflicts are a common problem in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

Communities live on the bordePhoto: Ryoma Otsukar of Bwindi and often gorillas will venture out of the park into neighboring villages to forage in community land. To tackle this problem, the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) created Human-Gorilla Conflict Resolution Teams (HUGOs) made up of community volunteers in 1998. When gorillas come to forage, HUGOs have been trained to safely chase the gorillas back into the park successfully reducing risks to gorillas and humans in the process.

Through research, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) found out that there was a missing gap in fecal sample collection whenever gorillas foraged in community land. Gorillas carry pathogens (parasites, bacteria and other disease causing organisms) that can be threatening to humans and vice versa. As a result, there was a need for recruitment of more HUGOs and train them in sample collection. In 2007, CTPH trained the first set of HUGOs in collecting fecal samples from night nests, from gorillas foraging in peoples’ gardens and from fresh gorilla trails. They were also trained in recognizing clinical signs in gorillas.

HUGOs play a critical role in CTPH’s work by promoting protection of mountain gorillas in their communities and reducing the risks of disease transmission between humans, gorillas and livestock. They have been instrumental in alerting CTPH and UWA when gorillas come on to community land. This is part of an early warning system to detect potential disease outbreaks through monitoring and fecal sample collection and analysis in our gorilla clinic.

Between 27th and 30th September 2016, CTPH visited HUGO teams in Kanungu and Kisoro Districts in the Northern and Southern sectors of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. CTPH conducted a refresher training to improve the capacity of HUGOs in reducing threats to the mountain gorillas and their habitat through gorilla health monitoring and more effective management of the human-gorilla conflicts, thanks to the generous funding from Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and American World Jewish Service (AJWS). The four days’ training was attended by HUGO members from Nteko, Rubuguri, Iremeera, Bujengwe and Mukono parishes; UWA staff; and CTPH staff—Dr. Dianah Nalwanga, Program Manager; Stephen Rubanga, Chief Veterinary Technician and Field Program Coordinator; Alex Ngabirano, Community Health Field Officer; Shaban Senyange, Impact and Learning Coordinator; Amy Roll, Advocacy and Partnerships Coordinator and our volunteer and researcher Ryoma Otsuka from Kyoto University, Japan.

During the training, UWA representative and Community Conservation Warden Ms. Aulea thanked the volunteers for their continued support and encouraged them to learn as much as they can from the HUGO program. Becoming exemplary leaders in their communities will require the volunteers putting in to practice the lessons learned and sharing these with their communities from safe reduction of human-gorilla conflict to improving hygiene and sanitation within their homes and communities.

Throughout the training, one of the HUGO members Francis Tukwasibwe who lives in Mushorero Village, Bujengwe Parish was quick to participate and respond to questions posed by CTPH. He is not new to CTPH programs—for nearly eight years he has volunteered on a Village Health and Conservation Team (VHCT), one of the first trained by CTPH in Bwindi. He has valued everything CTPH has taught about conservation and health believing that family planning is a key to helping his community live within their means. He has been delivering Depo Provera to women in his village, ensuring their access to long-term contraceptive methods to better plan when and how many children they and their husband want to have. When asked why he chose to volunteer both as a VHCT and HUGO he responded that he has “learned a lot from CTPH on the importance of family planning” and through this education has realized that it is his responsibility to “take care of the environment.” This includes conserving the mountain gorillas and their habitat because they are as much part of his community’s livelihood as they livestock they are raising through income generating projects.

Francis Tukwasibwe is both a VHCT and HUGO volunteer working to protect the endangered mountain gorilla by improving access to family planning in his community.

HUGOs additionally updated CTPH on their Village Savings and Loan Associations discussing the successes and challenges of their livestock income generating projects. Sadly, some of the HUGOs’ projects were wiped out over the years. CTPH is committed to helping HUGOs continue these projects as they provide a sustainable source of income for the volunteers after project funding ends.

Volunteers are essential to creating sustainable communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We look forward to the continued partnership with 109 HUGO volunteers we trained in our efforts to conserve and protect the mountain gorilla’s home while reducing the risk of disease transmission for improved lives of rural communities in Uganda.

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