Mountain gorilla conservation through public health, Uganda

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, a non-profit organisation working to protect the mountain gorillas of Bwindi, a remote and densely forested area in south west Uganda that is the only major stronghold of the species outside Rwanda. CTPH is unique, and works to prevent the spread of disease from wild animals to humans, and vice versa, by improving primary healthcare for people and animals in and around protected areas in Africa.

Gladys first learned about Uganda’s gorillas as a teenage wildlife advocate in Kampala where her passion for animals led to her starting a wildlife club at her school, setting up bird feeders and nature areas in its grounds, and organised trips to the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Her interest was fuelled further when she won a scholarship to train at the Royal Veterinary College in London and heard lectures about Africa’s great apes and their conservation needs. At 25, she became Uganda’s first wildlife veterinary officer with a brief that included protecting the health of gorillas in Bwindi where ecotourism was rising and increasing the level of contact between gorillas and people.

There, Gladys proved that crossinfection is possible when in 1996 and again in 2000 she traced an outbreak of scabies in the mountain gorillas to the local community where access to healthcare and health education was extremely limited.

Today, CTPH is addressing the issue by galvanising local people to adopt better health and hygiene approaches which benefit them and the gorillas, and enthusing them to help with surveys and monitoring through community-led outreach and education. She is helping
the community to improve facilities to attract ecotourists and ensure that tourists themselves do not bring disease to the gorillas.

The next step of her work is to develop house visits in order to contact the people living in the most remote homes bordering the park, and the 500 or so people who see gorillas most often. Many challenges remain. In March this year, concerns were raised about virulent new strains of diseases, such as polio, entering Uganda prompting a mass new vaccination programme. The good news is that Gladys and her team are now prepared to respond to crises. She is working to train local people in gorilla health monitoring, cultivating a winning attitude to conservation and public health in local communities.

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