Conservation & the coronavirus: Paramount public health


Welcome to the ‘Conservation & the coronavirus’ blog series! In this series we hear from a variety of Darwin and Darwin Plus projects who share candid stories on how Covid-19 has impacted fieldwork and conservation efforts and how projects have offered a helping hand to communities to combat Covid-19 from the Falklands Islands to Uganda.

In this first post we hear from a project in Uganda which is helping to spread awareness on Covid-19 preventative measures to protect the mountain gorilla population of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Conservation through a public health approach

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the intrinsic and inseparable links between people, wildlife and ecosystems. For Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), whose work is at the intersect of humans and wildlife, Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the importance of work around the prevention and management of zoonotic disease, central to the organisation’s work. Despite restrictions introduced to curb the spread of the disease, CTPH was granted an exemption from the travel restrictions by the Government of Uganda who recognised the centrality of CTPH’s work to the mitigation of the spread, particularly in and around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) where there is major concern for the risk that Covid-19 poses to the endangered Mountain Gorillas.

The Mountain Gorilla population in Bwindi represents 43% of the global total. If the virus were to spread to these gorillas, it could have devastating impacts on the survival of the species which has only recently started to show positive growth. Mountain Gorillas also face threats posed by harmful human activity which has only increased as tourism, on which many people relied for income and employment, has come to a complete standstill. As poverty rises, more people are entering the forest illegally to meet their basic needs. This was highlighted by the devastating death in June 2020 of Rafiki, a lead silverback Gorilla in Bwindi, who was killed by a poacher allegedly hunting for bush meat. Prior to Rafiki’s death, BINP had not lost a Gorilla to poaching for nine years. Through community volunteer cadres, Village Health and Conservation Teams, whom CTPH trained on Covid-19 prevention measures, have shared information on how to prevent infection amongst the community and the gorilla population. Community sensitisation has included information on hygiene, mask wearing, proper handwashing, human waste management and the dangers of hunting and eating bush meat. Village Health and Conservation Teams have also been trained in recognising Covid-19 symptoms, referring patients and contract tracing. CTPH has trained all people who enter the forest, including wildlife rangers, on measures to prevent the spread of infection and has supported procurement of infrared thermometers for use at entry points. In addition, gorilla guardians and wildlife rangers have been trained to monitor gorilla health and identify symptoms which may signal that Covid-19 has affected the gorilla population.

Project leader Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka demonstrating how to use a thermometer, Credit – CTPH

Supporting community members, particularly in this time of greater need, is central to CTPH’s approach to conservation. CTPH’s social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, provides vital income for farmers and reformed poachers around Bwindi who previously relied on tourism, subsistence farming and forest resources to feed their families. Gorilla Conservation Coffee negotiates international coffee prices above the local market price for quality raw coffee which is sold to conscious consumers in Uganda and globally. With a secure income, coffee farmers reduce dependence on natural resources and hunting to meet family needs, contributing to reduced habitat destruction and improved biodiversity conservation. With the loss of tourists in Uganda who constituted a large part of the domestic market, Gorilla Conservation Coffee has recently turned to external markets, including engaging in a partnership with its first UK distributor, Moneyrow Beans.

Vicky Weddell from Moneyrow Beans, distributor of Gorilla Conservation Coffee in the UK, Credit – Vicky Weddell

CTPH continues to fundraise to support other key areas including Covid-19 research, park surveillance and supporting at risk community members with food crop gardens to alleviate hunger amongst the poorest community members who are most likely to turn to poaching in the absence of support. With the rapidly-changing landscape being moulded by the pandemic, CTPH remains committed to its mission of biodiversity conservation by enabling people, gorillas and other wildlife to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods, as its central focus on preventing and controlling disease transmission becomes ever more pertinent.

For more information on project 23-023 led by Conservation Through Public Health working in Uganda please click here. The full article for this project and many others can be found in the joint edition of the September 2020 newsletter here.


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