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Ugandan Conservationist Links Human and Wildlife Health


In Uganda, a conservationist is teaching members of poor rural communities that they have more in common with the neighboring wildlife than they think. She says, for example, that disease can be transferred between people and animals. And she says well-kept wildlife sanctuaries can provide an income for the community. Voice of America reporter Peterson Ssendi in Kampala profiles veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and the work of her group, “Conservation Through Public Health.”

Kalema-Zikusoka says one of the goals of her group is to help rural communities to change some of their traditional views of wildlife,

“Most Africans think that wildlife is dangerous, harmful and detrimental to the development of the country. Some people think that wildlife should be eaten, and the national parks are just a waste [and] that pastures should be used [only] to graze cattle.”

Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is based in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The park is in southwestern Uganda on the edge of the western Rift Valley near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kalema-Zikusoka says her group works with villagers to develop the tourism potential of healthy and well cared for animals. For example, tourists in Uganda will often pay up to $500 to view gorillas for one hour. In fact, she says half of the revenue for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the country’s wildlife management agency, comes from mountain gorilla eco-tourism.

On the other hand, illness among wildlife deters tourism and can spread disease. Animals may infect each other. Conservation Through Public Health discovered last year that mountain gorillas may be susceptible to goat parasites.

Disease may also be transmitted between animals and humans.

Kalema-Zikusoka says many people are surprised to hear there's a link between themselves and the animals moving through their villages or eating their crops.

She says, “When I give workshops or lectures to the public, I find that most Ugandans are concerned that gorillas are dangerous, and I often have to convince them that they are actually “gentle giants”. I also find that many people are surprised and amused that people can actually make gorillas sick, they always think that animals are the only ones that can make people sick and not the other way round.”

One of those illnesses is scabies, which jumped from villagers to gorillas a few years ago in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Other illnesses suspected of spreading from people to animals in recent years include measles, polio and intestinal parasites.

WORKING TO PREVENT TUBERCULOSIS

One of the most common diseases to spread between human communities and neighboring wildlife is tuberculosis. It can spread through the air from buffalo to cows. From cow milk, TB infects people.

Kalema-Zikusoka says it’s easier to prevent TB than to treat it. For that reason, the CTPH Field Clinic for Mountain Gorillas and Other Animal Species in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park monitors local wildlife.

It also regularly tests the feces of both wildlife and livestock and compares the results with human samples taken by medical hospitals. The tests act as an early warning system that can detect TB and other illnesses before they spread.

Kalema-Zikusoka says it’s easier to treat TB infections in people than in animals. She explains that people infected by the disease require eight months of daily medication – an effort supported by her group Conservation Through Public Health. In a program called Community Based Direct Observation (CBDOTS), a neighbor ensures that the infected person takes the daily treatment. But she says that’s impossible with gorillas, who would not tolerate the daily contact required to eradicate the disease.

Conservation through Public Health is also working to educate communities about preventing other illnesses, including Ebola, a deadly hemorrhagic disease spread through touching the blood and eating the meat of an infected animal. She says Ugandans do not usually eat uncooked bush meat but that neighbors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo do.

Kalema-Zikusoka says “In Central Africa, it is the culture for people to eat bush meat, so when they find dead gorillas they eat them and many families have been wiped out in this way because of Ebola. Prior attempts to educate these communities met with resistance because they thought that they had been bewitched. But NGOs are working hard to educate them. International Conservation and Education Fund (INCEF) teaches local people to make locally relevant educational videos for themselves. CTPH wants to partner with INCEF to be able to use this approach for education.”

CTPH also uses community drama workshops and volunteers to teach communities about family health, hygiene and conservation.

It takes a number of measures to help develop rural economies.

Kalema-Zikusoka says CTPH and other NGOs that promote conservation or conduct research build field stations that provide local employment and educational opportunities.

CTPH field station at Bwindi’s tourist site in Buhoma offers animal management training to park rangers and members of the Human/Gorilla Conflict Resolution Team. It includes a group of local people trained by the Uganda Wildlife Authority to chase straying gorillas back to the park. Through a partnership with Makerere University, it also offers computer training to build skills for tourism-related employment and services, such as e-commerce.

Kalema-Zikuosoka’s work is not all study, but also offers a sense of adventure, “The most dangerous situation I have ever been in is having to run away from a limping elephant that we were treating for bullet wounds. We decided to jump out of the man truck and walk towards the elephant to get easier access. When we were about 30 meters away she sensed us and started running after us. All I remember is running away as fast as my feet could carry me. I run faster than the park ranger and German vet, Dr. Siefert even though I was carrying a dart gun! Luckily the elephant stopped and we were able to get back to the man truck and successfully dart her from the vehicle.“

GETTING STARTED

Kalema-Zikusoka traces her passion for wildlife conservation to her parents who allowed her to have many pets as a child. They also instilled in her a sense of what she calls “nationalism” – a desire to do something positive for her country. Her father was a government minister shortly after independence, and her mother was a member of parliament for Kiboga district.

Her education includes a Bachelor in Veterinary Medicine from the University of London, and a Masters degree in specialized veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University in the US. Before founding Conservation Through Public Health, she worked for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, where she set up the agency’s first functioning veterinary unit in 30 years.

She’s on the board of the Uganda Wildlife Education Trust and is one of 16 Ugandan fellows of Ashoka, a Washington-based organization that recognizes and encourages those who excel in development issues through innovative approaches to social change.

This year, the international scientific magazine, The Seed, named Kalema-Zikusoka as one of eight “revolutionary minds” who are using their research to effect global change. In September, the Ugandan Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry recognized her and seven other women for Outstanding Contribution to the Promotion of Tourism and Empowerment of Women in Uganda.

And in May this year, she’ll go to California to receive the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Conservation Medal. The medal is annually awarded to those who have greatly contributed to the preservation of wildlife and habitats, or of endangered species.

Past recipients have included well such well known conservationists and activists as Dr. Jane Goodall, Edward O. Wilson, Ian Player and Prince Phillip of Great Britain.

Kalema-Zikusoka hopes that within 10 years, she’ll be working with communities in neighboring countries with similar problems. The message she wants to get out is that supporting conservation also promotes human health and reduces poverty. She says her greatest joy is seeing improvements in animal health and change in the way communities relate to wildlife – moving from being competitors to protectors.

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