Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on Gorillas at Bwindi

Categories: Journal no. 61, Diseases, People & Gorillas, Uganda, Bwindi, Mountain Gorilla

At the Gorilla Conservation Café, Entebbe (© Challenges Group)

We founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003 to prevent zoonotic diseases being transmitted between people and wildlife following scabies skin disease outbreaks in the then critically endangered mountain gorillas, which resulted in the death of an infant and sickness in the two gorilla groups that only recovered with Ivermectin treatment. The scabies was eventually traced to people living around the park who have less than adequate access to basic health services. I realised then that you cannot conserve the gorillas without also improving the health of the people with whom they share their fragile habitat.

CTPH has three strategic programs that are integrated: wildlife health and conservation, community health and alternative livelihoods. This includes a Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre built with support from Tusk Trust, to regularly analyse samples from gorillas, people and livestock to detect and prevent diseases that they could be sharing with each other. Working with the Ministry of Health (MOH) we created Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) and when the MOH Village Health Team structure came to Bwindi, existing Village Health Teams were trained as VHCTs. They educate their communities about the importance of gorillas and the forest, and how to prevent zoonotic diseases that can spread between people and animals. They also promote good hygiene and sanitation including hand washing tippy taps at every home and referring suspect cases of scabies, TB, HIV and other diseases to the nearest health centres. VHCTs also promote family planning, nutrition and sustainable agriculture to enable people to adequately look after their families.

CTPH works with Gorilla Guardians, who are community volunteers from the Human and Gorilla Conflict Resolution team trained by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) to safely herd gorillas that forage on community land for banana plants and eucalyptus trees back to the national park. CTPH also trains the park rangers in gorilla health monitoring and how to manage tourists when they visit the gorillas to prevent a disruption in behaviour and zoonotic disease transmission. The onset of the COVID-19 crisis prompted CTPH to use these already established structures addressing the interface between humans and wildlife over the past 15 years to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in endangered mountain gorillas and the local communities with whom they share their fragile habitat.

Though Uganda had run out of surgical masks at the beginning of the pandemic, during the COVID-19 National Disease taskforce meetings at the MOH, the US health protection agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised CTPH that cloth masks with lining would work almost as well as surgical masks to protect transmission from humans to the gorillas. We brought together all the conservation partners including IGCP who provided cloth masks for the park staff made by a local enterprise, Ride 4 a Woman, Max Planck Institute who donated surgical masks, and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project - Gorilla Doctors - and Bwindi Community Hospital who provided technical expertise to train the park staff on how to prevent COVID-19 from people to gorillas and among themselves.

We worked closely with UWA to train the park staff to enforce the already existing gorilla viewing rules of maintaining the 7-metre distance, which UWA later increased to 10 metres, and added new rules, notably the mandatory wearing of masks, hand washing and disinfection and taking of temperatures before visiting the gorillas. We also developed posters on preventing COVID-19 between people and gorillas with support from Solidaridad. With funding from the Arcus Foundation, 270 Village Health and Conservation Teams and 119 Gorilla Guardians were trained to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between people and from people to gorillas as well as being given cloth masks, soap, hand sanitizers and posters.

In addition to lockdowns in most countries, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a suspension of primate tourism in Uganda to protect the great apes from human disease and to prevent spread of the virus among people. In the absence of gorilla tourism, the park staff still have to check on the gorillas every day to make sure that they are healthy and safe from poachers. Although not usually hunted in Uganda, gorillas can accidentally get caught in snares set for duiker and bush pigs or come into other harmful contact with poachers. With the loss of tourism, many people lost an income and are not able to feed their families, driving them back to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to meet the needs of their families.

In 2016, CTPH started a Gorilla Conservation Coffee ( social enterprise to give farmers a steady market and above market prices for good coffee, reducing their need to enter the park to look for food and fuel wood to feed their families. A donation from every coffee bag sold supports the community health, gorilla health and conservation education programs of CTPH providing sustainable financing for conservation. The coffee harvesting season began in March and we felt compelled to continue buying the farmers' coffee even if our main customers were no longer able to travel to Uganda as tourists. We were, therefore, delighted to be introduced to Moneyrow Beans, our first UK distributor, who wanted to buy premium and specialty coffee that can protect the gorillas. The coffee was transported on cargo planes from Uganda and is now being sold in the UK, enabling people to support the gorillas without having to visit them.

Tragically, the pandemic led to the shocking and untimely death of the lead silverback of the Nkuringo gorilla group in June, just two months after primate tourism was suspended. Rafiki was speared when he ran into a hungry poacher who was checking on snares he had set for duiker and bush pigs to feed his family and sell in the local market. There has not been a poaching of gorillas since 2011, when Mizano, a playful adult male blackback gorilla from Habinyanja gorilla group, was killed by a poacher in the same way. The poacher who killed Rafiki came from Nteko parish where CTPH has programmes, leading us to intensify our efforts to bring benefits to all members of the Bwindi community.

This close encounter also put the gorillas at risk from human disease. As a result, CTPH resumed an activity that was not considered to be essential, supporting reformed poachers with group livestock projects to discourage them from going back to the park, and encourage other community members not to poach. The reformed poachers were also provided with cloth masks with support from The Gorilla Organization.

CTPH also started a new emergency food relief program to provide fast growing seedlings to vulnerable community members to address hunger brought about by the lack of tourists and other factors affecting the economy during the pandemic. It also encourages them to go back to sustainable farming methods that they had abandoned to earn a living through the tourism industry. With support from the European Union and the IUCN Save the Species fund, we started a new emergency food relief program to address hunger by providing vulnerable local communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with fast growing food crop seedlings that will be planted sustainably using soil and water conservation to meet basic needs for the family and help to prevent them from entering the park to poach.

The pandemic is still raging on with over 84 million cases and 1.7 million deaths worldwide. Until a vaccine is found, travel is unlikely to return to previous levels. As part of adjusting to the new norm, CTPH is supporting local communities to earn a living and feed their families in the absence of tourism, with the hope that even when tourism returns, local communities will have become resilient enough to meet their basic family needs through sustainable farming and non-tourism dependent livelihood options. To further mitigate the impact of the pandemic, CTPH received additional funding from IUCN Save the Species Fund, the European Union and the British High Commission to conduct follow up training of the VHCTs, HUGOs (Human-Gorilla Conflict Resolution) and park staff. CTPH also received funding from IUCN to test gorillas and people for COVID-19 who are interacting closely with gorillas, both inside and outside the park. IUCN is also enabling CTPH to support UWA's gorilla monitoring and law enforcement efforts with GPS recorders and camera traps.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for CTPH to work with IGCP and other stakeholders to advocate for more responsible tourism to great apes in Africa through an Africa CSO Biodiversity Alliance policy brief to governments, donors and tour companies with a call to adopt IUCN guidelines. The policy brief also emphasised the need to support community health and hygiene and non-tourism dependent livelihoods of people sharing habitats with great apes.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka