Mountain gorilla, Virunga National Park, DRC, Africa

Keeping apes and humans happy together the Ugandan way

OMBOKI MONAYO I omboki2725@gmail.com

Uganda’s population of gorillas continues to thrive, thanks to a One Health program targeting the residents living around Bwindi National Park.

“Over the last 25 years, our gorilla population has doubled. Our park is the only one that has been able to achieve this milestone in Africa. The other parks with gorilla populations are recording falling numbers,” says Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of the Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

The Ugandan veterinarian is also the founder of CTPH, an organization dedicated to the coexistence of endangered mountain gorillas, other wildlife, humans, and livestock in Africa.

According to the veterinarian, protecting the gorilla population was key for her organization when the COVID-19 pandemic was reported in Uganda.

She explained that the measures were necessitated by the similarity shared by humans and primates.

“The DNA of monkeys, apes and gorillas is quite similar to the human one. We share 98 percent of our genetic material with these primates, meaning that diseases can easily move across the species. This is why we had reports of gorillas catching COVID-19 in some other areas,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.

She said there were cases of scabies among gorillas that would sometimes stray onto community land.

“After studying the incidences, we found that the apes were coming into contact with children’s clothing that was infected with the pathogens. Scabies is a disease associated with poor hygiene, and when children are not going to school, they can easily pass it to the apes by crossing their paths,” said the expert.

She made the remarks while making a presentation on One Health approaches to conservation at the Fifth MESHA African Conference of Science Journalists held last week.

 

The celebrated veterinarian has won several international awards, among them the Edinburgh Medal and the UN Planet Pesron of the Year Award, believes the scientific way is the proven option for dealing with societal concerns.

“Science is life. We should not only practice it, but also talks, write and post about it,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka

She added that the project to protect the gorillas had been in place long before the pandemic, adding that it took intensive engagement with the local community to accomplish its goals.

“We had to talk to the locals and educate them on the importance of conserving the gorilla population that was attracting tourists to the area. We also helped them draft income-sharing proposals with the park management,” said Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.

As a result of successful negotiation with park management, the locals are enjoying 20 percent of the park entry fees, among other benefits.

The veterinarian firmly believes that the One Health message is not too heavy or complicated for teens and children.

“We can spread the One Health message to the young people and children through talks in school, wildlife clubs and even the newspaper pullouts designed for children. It is never too early to start talking to them about the need to stay healthy while conserving the natural life around us,” she said.

Working with the park management, CTPH devised a system to protect the gorillas.

“We devised a social distancing protocol of seven metres between humans and the apes, in addition to enforcing a mask mandate and sanitization requirement,” she said.

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