How One Organization Saves Gorillas by Championing Public Health

Deep into the lush mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda reside some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, and they’re endangered. Habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, hunting, and preventable diseases have severely threatened the lives of these majestic animals, which have inhabited the forests there for thousands of years.

While working as the first full-time veterinarian for the Ugandan Wildlife Territory in the mid-90s, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikosoka realized that the diseases decimating the local gorilla population had a familiar carrier—the humans living in close proximity to ancient gorilla habitats. In response, she founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2002, which employs an integrative conservation strategy in which peer educators work with local communities to establish community-based public health programs. These programs tackle poor hygiene and human diseases that have the potential to threaten the health of gorillas in the same region. And the programs have proven to be extremely effective in restoration efforts: the population of mountain gorillas in the Bwindi and Virunga regions has increased from 700 in 2011 to over 1,000 today, making it the only species of great ape whose population is increasing.

About half of the world’s mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in western Uganda, which is where CTPH is headquartered. Historically, these animals have been considered critically endangered—in 2006, their total population was estimated to be just above 300. In founding CTPH, Dr. Gladys made a true “population connection” between the natural habitats of animals she was working to protect and the humans affecting those habitats. For example, endemic poverty throughout the region has resulted in high fertility rates amongst human populations that live near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which has increased the rate of contact between gorillas and humans. CTPH responded by setting up public health and education programs—including family planning education—in these communities. The organization has three “integrated strategic” programs to limit threats to critically endangered mountain gorillas: wildlife conservation, community health, and alternative livelihoods.

CTPH’s One Health and Population, Health and the Environment (PHE) approaches address some of the most critical environmental and public health concerns throughout Africa. This model seeks to understand the vital connections between population growth, access to healthcare, and environmental conservation, and works to integrate community-based social development programs with conservation education.

The community health models established by CTPH employ Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs), which are comprised of local community volunteers who are trained to provide services that promote good health-seeking behavior, hygiene practices, infectious disease prevention and control, family planning, nutrition, and conservation education to individual households.

I had the amazing opportunity to visit Bwindi and CTPH last month, and was able to see firsthand how important social development is to environmental conservation efforts. CTPH has recognized that environmental conservation is impossible without social development, and that everything—gorillas, humans, ecosystems—benefit from increased access to resources such as education, comprehensive healthcare, and economic opportunity. For example, CTPH’s social enterprise program, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, supports local coffee farmers through training and capacity building, and provides access to national and international markets. Through this program, coffee farmers acquire new livelihoods and strengthen local economies while simultaneously reducing the threat of habitat destruction for mountain gorillas.

During my stay at CTPH, I took a community tour of Buhoma, which is a small community in Bwindi that has recently adopted tourism as an important economic driver for the area. Daniel, my tour guide, walked with me through some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen: expansive tea fields that backed up to lush deciduous forests were lined with freshwater streams and made vibrant with the characteristic chirping of weaverbirds, which are prominent in the area. 

Buhoma, a small community in Bwindi. Tourism has recently become a main driver of the local economy, thanks to the efforts of CTPH. Photo c/o Hannah Evans.

During our walk, I asked Daniel, who was born and raised there, about the effects that CTPH has had on his community. We talked at length about the improvements that community development programs have afforded the area, and about the conservation efforts that have come through CTPH’s combined approach to health and alternative livelihoods. In particular, Daniel spoke about the positive effects that family planning has had in his community:

“CTPH volunteers move around the communities sensitizing people on the use of family planning, livelihood, and conservation. CTPH is the first organization to train community volunteers who provide family planning contraceptives at the village level… Now the community feels good about family planning because the people know that small families realize wealth and takes their children to school.”

Family planning has helped reduce the damaging effects of population pressures on the local environment, both in terms of economic development and ecosystem protection. Through the promotion of basic and reproductive healthcare, the community has benefited immensely. Daniel told me that community members in Buhoma are better educated, healthier, and increasingly connected to social enterprise, such as Gorilla Conservation Coffee, as a result of CTPH. And the incidence of preventable infection and disease amongst both humans and gorillas has declined — an accomplishment that Daniel believes is the biggest impact CTPH has had in his community.

CTPH’s mission seeks to understand and address the interconnected nature of conservation efforts throughout East Africa. In this context, the links between population growth, access to healthcare, and environmental conservation are clear, and suggest the need for dynamic solutions that incorporate community-led development initiatives into conservation strategies. Population Connection’s partnership with CTPH is a natural extension of our organizational mission, which seeks to highlight the connections between population, access to healthcare, and environmental conservation. Seeing a growing and effective model like CTPH’s on the ground making an enormous difference to both the humans and gorillas of Uganda made the “population connection” between resource preservation and human health incredibly clear to me. It was truly amazing to see this integrated strategy applied successfully through grassroots efforts. Thanks, CTPH!

Click here for more information on Population Connection’s partnership with CTPH.

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