Network News: Integrating wildlife conservation and human health in Uganda

August 22, 2016

SOURCE: CTPH

This month we feature an update on a new program of our fellow Population & Sustainability Network member, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an NGO improving the lives of the people and wildlife in East Africa. Gladys Kalema Zikusooka, the founder and chief executive of CTPH, writes about her experiences in Uganda, a country with significant barriers to unrestricted access to family planning, and where UN medium variant projections are for the population to quintuple by the end of the century.

 

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The first time I ever went to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park I was 24 years old, as veterinary student. The rainforest was lush and beautiful—unlike anything I had ever seen. And deep within that forest resides a gentle giant—the Mountain Gorilla. After my first encounter with the gorillas I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to their conservation and I have never looked back.

My first job was working as a veterinarian with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) at Bwindi. It was there that I experienced first hand how fragile the balance between wildlife and human health is. In 1996, I led the first team managing the scabies skin disease outbreak in the gorillas. I’ll never forget seeing Ruhara, an infant gorilla, become so weak from the disease that he couldn’t even hold onto his mother. After his death from scabies I began to ask myself how it could have been prevented. Scabies is a disease of poor hygiene and crowded conditions. The rural communities around Bwindi are some of the poorest and most population dense communities in Uganda. I knew then that poor health is a strain on both the communities and gorillas alike.

Driven by my love for wildlife and conservation and my passion to improve the health of my fellow Ugandans, I founded Conservation Through Public Health in 2003. CTPH has an innovative methodology that focuses on the integration of wildlife and human health and conservation. Our mission is to promote biodiversity conservation by enabling people, wildlife and livestock to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods. We are spearheading gorilla conservation through a multi-disciplinary population, health and environment approach because we know that these challenges are all inextricably linked.

We have worked with communities around Bwindi for years training Village Health Teams (VHTs) to integrate conservation and sustainable livelihoods into their public health outreach. Through training, communities learn about conservation and how public health including disease transmission and family planning can affect the environment and wildlife. Thus VHTs add conservation to their work and are transformed into Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs). Furthermore, we provide VHCTs with capital to start Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) through a group project that generates income and allows them to provide loans to community members so that they can continue working in a sustainable way.

One of the projects supporting this VHCT approach is funded by The Global Development Network, which awarded CTPH the Japanese Most Innovative Development Project Award. This award has enabled CTPH to scale the VHCT and VSLA approach to another district around Bwindi, and resulted in additional funding to scale this integrated approach to Mt. Elgon National Park in Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya, and the Virunga Mountains in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With this approach, we aim to try and transform the lives of the people and wildlife at this additional project area.

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I recently returned from Mt. Elgon where my team visited three districts and trained more than 80 VHTs in our innovative program to become VHCTs. Communities in Mt. Elgon have similar needs for family planning and improved hygiene and sanitation as those in the Bwindi region. They also live near a national park where they continue to access resources from the park illegally. That drove our need to bring the integrated approach to human and wildlife Health and conservation to these communities because we know they can really benefit from learning more about the interconnectedness of their health and conservation.

In our Mt. Elgon program we are also trying something new—we want the government to take up more responsibility of the program so we are working more closely with district health and natural resource officers as well as Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). This will benefit communities in creating a sustainable program run by the government that will continue well after donor funding ends. Furthermore, by involving UWA in the program it opened up a much-needed dialogue between them and the VHCTs. UWA and communities around Mt. Elgon have clashed over land use in and around the park for a long time, sometimes leading to violence and loss of lives. It is our expectation that through this program VHCTs will begin to bridge the gap between their own communities and UWA, eventually leading to peaceful relations and better understanding of how communities and UWA can work together to conserve the park and improve livelihoods.

CTPH began as a need to protect the health of people and gorillas. Through our hard work and dedication we have taken our vision and have begun to spread this to other communities living around protected areas in Africa. I am excited to see the future that we are able to build in Bwindi, Mt. Elgon and beyond.

You can read more about CTPH’s work on their website: http://www.ctph.org/