By Tiziana Trotta
Among the voluminous science books that clutter the shelves of her office in Entebbe, Uganda, veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka keeps a yellowed copy ofNo profit for dummies. It goes back to his student days, when he began to outline the idea that to prevent the extinction of the gorilla population in the country, it was necessary to take care of the health of the humans who live near the natural parks. The basic notions learned from the book were later embodied in the founding of Conservation Through Public Health, an organization that tries to alleviate the negative aspects of the impact of tourism on primates, at the same time as It deals with the empowerment of the inhabitants of rural areas.
The expert, one of the few women in the country who is dedicated to these endangered apes, has chaired the organization since its birth in 2003. It was another woman, the American zoologist Dian Fossey, who helped ignite her passion. by primates, although her interest in fauna was awakened in her already during a childhood in which she was surrounded by cats and dogs. At the age of 17, Kalema-Zikusoka began to dedicate herself to volunteer activities in nature and today that she is 47, she continues to devote herself to the study of apes.
The visit as a companion of a group of children to the National Park of Queen Elizabeth marked a before and after in his life. "I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but there I realized that I wanted to dedicate myself to wildlife. At that time gorilla tourism was not so developed and they could only be seen in one area. I really wanted to find them, but they were not accessible" he remembers with a smile.
As she received university training in England and the United States, real jobs were added to that first volunteer job. The proposals came almost by chance, through letters, when the use of email in the country was not yet so widespread.
The first time he saw a gorilla it was "amazing," he says. "My job was to collect samples of their stool for analysis. As soon as they gave me the job, I had the flu and couldn't get close to them for the first few days. Can you believe it? I was so frustrated, being there, so close , after so long wanting to see you. " When he was finally able to do it, he confesses that it was not so easy to achieve it, because gorillas were not used to the presence of humans. Today, however, the development of tourism has contributed to the fact that primates are less afraid of men.
Uganda is often cited as an example of successful wildlife conservation. Currently, some 880 mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park –in the south-west of the country– and Virunga –whose territory stretches between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The population has been growing in recent years, since threats to the species have been reduced, as well as poaching, and rural communities are increasingly involved in its conservation, according to the veterinarian. The end of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo also played in favor of the prosperity of the species in the Virunga park, an area that is also embroiled in controversy over oil exploration that can endanger the species.
Tourism is another crucial factor for gorilla conservation. In 2015, Uganda welcomed some 1.3 million travelers, according to data from the World Tourism Organization. Visitors to Bwindi have soared from 1,300 a year in the early 1990s to 20,000 today. Each tourist pays 600 dollars for a permit - of which 10 goes to local communities living around the protected areas - in addition to another 40 to access the reserves. This high cost, Kalema-Zikusoka maintains, is also due to the fact that only five of the 12 natural parks and three reserves in the country generate economic benefits, which are used to conserve fauna throughout the territory.
Tourism has become one of the main sources of income in the country, directly employing some 200,000 people and generating opportunities in a country where the youth unemployment rate exceeds 80%, according to the latest estimates by the World Bank. However, it represents a double-edged sword for gorillas and, on some occasions, it has even raised controversy over the treatment reserved for local communities, such as the Batwa pygmies, who two decades ago were removed from their lands for the development of this industry.
"Gorillas would not have survived without tourism and it has been proven that where locals benefit from this activity, poaching has been reduced," maintains the founder of Conservation Through Public Health. The vet does not hide that there are also negative aspects. "The gorillas have lost their fear of humans. They think that everyone is good and they approach them, even hunters, or they leave the parks, steal bananas from trees or destroy properties." The consequence that worries him the most is that they expose themselves to risks of common diseases among men such as flu, scabies, tuberculosis, diarrhea. Still, he argues, it has been necessary to "sacrifice" half of the Bwindi population to get used to tourists for the good of the entire species.
Tourists are not the only ones who can transmit diseases to gorillas. "Working as a veterinarian in the Ugandan national parks, one day I came across an outbreak of something that looked like scabies that I had never seen in the species. The link was clear: it was also the most common skin disease in the villages nearby, due to the poverty and poor hygiene of the population, "Kalema-Zikusoka emphasizes. Hence the germ idea of your organization. Thus began the first hygiene programs among rural communities, which were later extended to the study of the interaction between tuberculosis and wildlife.
Conservation Through Public Health, a pioneering organization in this kind of approach, works through health workers who visit remote villages to discuss hygiene, HIV and promote family planning. "We realized that it was more effective to address them with these issues and how they would translate into an improvement in their economic conditions and, in parallel, in the conservation of wildlife, rather than explaining the importance of safeguarding animals", assures the president of the institution.
Communities that get involved in the activities also receive incentives such as goats and cows, while small growers can join the project of a new coffee brand, which could not be called anything other than Gorilla Conservation Coffee.
Programs underway in the Bwindi park region potentially serve the needs of a population of 20,000, at the same time that a project has just started in and around Virunga, which aims to reach the same number of beneficiaries.
"It has not taken much effort to ask them to be part of our activities. Their trust in the institutions that support us has also increased, because they feel that they care about them," observes the veterinarian. For the expert, it is also evident that the communities in which they work are more tolerant of animals. "I remember the case of a village that adopted an older gorilla, who had left his group because he could no longer follow them in their daily movements and had settled among the men. The locals closed one eye when he stole bananas or caused some damage and when He died, after a few months, everyone went to pay him a last tribute. "