Mountain gorilla conservation depends on healthy local communities

The tropical mountain forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Adam Markham

The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda is one of the most biologically diverse forests in Africa. Bwindi is home to more than a third of the world’s mountain gorillas and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. The gorillas survive in a remnant of rich primeval forest that is now hemmed in by intensive cultivation and some of the highest density rural populations in Africa. In recent decades, intensive conservation efforts in the three countries where mountain gorillas occur – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda – have paid off and in 2018 mountain gorilla conservation status was upgraded from “critically endangered” to merely “endangered”. Revenue from tourists who pay to trek into these tropical mountain forests to see habituated gorilla groups at close quarters has supported conservation efforts, especially in Rwanda and Uganda, providing vital resources for national parks and their rangers. 

“Malaya”, the dominant silverback of the Mubare gorilla group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Photo courtesy of Adam Markham 

The global population of mountain gorillas now stands at just over 1000 individuals (up from less than 700 in 1994) but gorillas still face very significant threats, including habitat degradation, encroachment of people into the parks for poaching and firewood collection, and climate change. And because of the very close genetic relationship between gorillas and humans, a major risk factor for the gorillas is from diseases that can be transmitted by local villagers, farmers or tourists who come into close proximity with them.

Part of the success of gorilla conservation in Uganda in recent years can be attributed to efforts to improve the health of gorillas and of the people in communities surrounding the national park. One such program is the extraordinary work of a Ugandan non-profit – Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) – which was co-founded by veterinarian Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka in 2003. 

CTPH’s Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre in Buhoma, near the national park entrance, serves as a base for ongoing veterinary research into the health of Bwindi’s wild gorilla population, including analyzing fecal samples collected by rangers and volunteers in the park for signs of disease, and carrying out post-mortems of gorillas that die in the forest. Under Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka’s leadership, CTPH’s work has been recognized as a model population-health-environment (PHE) program. PHE programs recognize that conservation and development issues are inextricably linked, and they integrate community health, reproductive health and family planning with conservation and community outreach and education about the benefits of protecting wildlife and natural resources.

Village health volunteer Feredasi Nganwa (right), takes notes at a family planning consultation in her home. Photo courtesy of Adam Markham

CTPH is active in 53 of the communities around Bwindi, including in more than 30 of the 96 “front-line villages” where land cultivated for crops such as bananas, beans, yams and eucalyptus trees, directly abuts the national park. CTPH’s programs include educating villagers about hygiene, sanitation and disease prevention, thereby helping to reduce the prevalence of diseases such as scabies, tuberculosis and gastro-intestinal parasites which pose dangers to gorillas if passed on to them. CTPH has created and trained 125 Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) in communities around Bwindi. In addition to hygiene education, the VHCTs provide high-quality family planning outreach, supplies and services so that women and couples can make informed, voluntary choices about family size. Research overwhelmingly shows that smaller families enable parents to better educate and feed their children and reduces pressure on wildlife and the environment.

In addition to health programs for people and gorillas, CTPH is supporting Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) which bring financial services into villages for the first time and give residents, including women, the opportunity to access loans to initiate micro-scale business opportunities such as rearing goats or chickens to supplement incomes.

Samuel Karibwende, chairman of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative in his coffee garden at the edge of the Bwindi national park. Photo courtesy of Adam Markham

Most recently, CTPH has initiated a larger-scale social enterprise – Gorilla Conservation Coffee – with farmers in the Bwindi region. They helped create the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative, which in two years has grown to 85 farmers, with another 100 hoping to join. CTPH pays a premium for high quality Arabica beans, provides a reliable market for the product and trains farmers in sustainability and good farming practices. After just two years, Gorilla Conservation Coffee was ranked among the top 30 coffees for 2018 by Coffee Review – and 20% of the sales proceeds of this fast-growing enterprise go directly to pay for gorilla conservation and village health programs.

The gorillas of Bwindi remain in a precarious position, but dedicated conservation efforts by the Uganda Wildlife Authority along with non-profit organizations such as CTPH and the International Gorilla Conservation Program which focus on gorilla conservation and improving public health and livelihoods in the villages around the national park can give us huge optimism for the future of both the gorillas and the communities that interact with them. 

Last updated February 22, 2019

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