We share 98.4 per cent of genetic material with gorillas. Like us, they are great apes. So studying them often means human and veterinary medicine are intertwined.
The similarity means we can share diseases. Human populations can transmit illnesses to the gorilla populations and vice versa. In Bwindi Impenetrable Park this is especially likely as the forest has a hard edge. There are gorilla groups that frequently venture from the park into people’s gardens at its outskirts – local communities that were likely built on the gorillas’ old home range.
One of the first cases I had to deal with was a bad scabies outbreak. When it began, the gorillas were losing hair and developing white, scaly skin. A doctor of human medicine told me that scabies is the most common skin disease in Uganda. We administered the scabies medicine and the gorillas were cured.
We lost a baby gorilla to the outbreak. It lost almost all of its hair by the time the mother dropped it, which was the day after the treatment. Normally gorillas will hold onto their dead babies for a week until they rot before dropping them. But this baby had been so sick that her mother let go quite quickly. It meant that we were able to get a really good post mortem because it was a fresh sample. We were able to find lots of mites that were still alive. It was a difficult moment but it was reassuring to know we had treated the other animals with the right medicine.
To keep the gorillas healthy, the human population must be healthy. We set up CTPH to provide healthcare to the local communities to try and keep the park healthy. We help create volunteer networks that educate and encourage locals to maintain their health and hygiene. Meanwhile, we engage with traditional healers, who are locally respected, to help to refer likely HIV and TB patients.
“In some ways the gorillas are in less danger because people are becoming more used to them. However, the new worry is foreign diseases from tourists that the gorillas are not immune to”
We started looking at poverty as a determinant of health. Our studies have revealed a lot of indicators of poverty: the number of temporary homes, the lack of separate area for animals, lack of kitchen spaces. What people noticed was that these communities are really poor, especially the ones in the rural areas – which are those most visited by gorillas. It is not our main focus because there are many more specific NGOs that focus on poverty. But we need to bring the poverty element within the health program, because as long as people are still poor it is hard for them to be able to keep healthy.
The gorillas are loved and hated in the community. On one hand, many of the community members are employed by the park – around 90 per cent of the staff must be hired locally. So that is already a big positive impact. Plus 20 per cent of the park entry fee has to go to the communities. At the same time the locals get distressed when gorillas are around. They can be destructive in their gardens, especially when they find eucalyptus trees. They go crazy for the bark.
In some ways the gorillas are in less danger because people are becoming more used to them. However, the new worry is foreign diseases from tourists that the gorillas are not immune to. All the time we worry that they’ve caught something that you can’t see because it can take time for diseases to begin showing symptoms. To tackle this we use the gorilla health centre to analyse faecal samples. Every month we take samples from all the habituated groups – the ones that you can see – which regularly come into contact with people. When the results are abnormal we take more samples.
We have a gorilla census every four to five years so that we can collect samples from the unhabituated groups. We expect the gorillas in the centre of the park to be healthier because they have less interactions with humans. In a sense, the habituated ones are sacrificed for these wilder animals to bring in conservation money and to encourage people to protect all the gorillas. It would be dangerous to expose all of the gorilla groups to the same human pressure.
The solution could be to wear masks around the wildlife. I’m on a committee called the Mask Task Force – yes it sounds like a superhero name – which looks at the idea of making it obligatory for tourists to wear protective masks. It is already a policy in the DRC, but Rwanda is reluctant despite a lot of pressure. Because the major tourist competition for Uganda is Rwanda, both governments are worried that tourists will go to the other country. However, in a survey we found that the majority of tourists wouldn’t mind. People that come to see the gorillas often want what is best for the animals.
1970 Born in Uganda
1995 Obtained bachelors degree in Veterinary Medicine from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London
1996 Returned to Uganda as the country’s first female veterinarian for wildlife
1996-2000 Set up the first Vet Unit in the Uganda Wildlife Authority
1998 Was the star of the BBC program Gladys the African Vet
2002 Founded Conservation Through Public Health
2016 Delivered lecture on wildlife conservation at the RGS-IBG, London
This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.