Animals

Mountain gorillas endangered by human diseases

Vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is working to protect the mountain gorillas of Uganda from human illnesses. Tuesday, 20 November 2018

By Jonathan Manning

The danger posed by humans to gorillas extends well beyond the traditional risks of poaching and habitat protection. Even where communities value and respect the great apes for their contribution to ecotourism income, there is considerable risk of humans inadvertently spreading illness and disease to gorillas.

In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a remote, heavily forested area of Uganda, vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded and is now CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, a non-profit organisation committed to protecting mountain gorillas. This is the only significant population of mountain gorillas outside Rwanda.  

Gladys and her team work to prevent the spread of disease from humans to gorillas and vice-versa through local community health programmes and education.

We caught up with Gladys, a National Geographic Explorer, as she arrived in London to a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2014) as she arrived in London to join the Whitley Fund for Nature in celebrating its 25th anniversary.

At the prize giving, Sir David Attenborough praised the Whitley Award winners for having “huge energy, huge passion, and huge knowledge.”

When did your interest in gorillas begin?

GKZ: Gorillas became important to me personally after setting up a wildlife club in school, where they used to talk to me about the mountain gorillas. Then I got to study them when I was in vet school in London. I was fascinated by them, and I decided I wanted to work with them for the rest of my life. That was in 1994.

How did you feel when you saw your first mountain gorilla in the wild?

GKZ: It was amazing. It took me a while to see my first gorilla because when I got to the park I had a nasty cold and you’re not allowed close to gorillas when you are sick because you can easily make gorillas ill. When I got better we went to see them and we only saw one gorilla that day and he was very accommodating. He settled with us, he watched us and we watched him eating a big piece of bark.

Gorillas are gentle giants, very accepting of human presence and very relaxed. They are gentle Buddahs!

How close are gorillas to humans?

GKZ: Our DNA is 98.4% similar to gorillas, it’s a very high percentage.

For how long have we known we could transfer human illnesses to gorillas?

GKZ: One of the first cases I had we found scabies skin disease in gorillas. They caught the scabies from the local community – gorillas like to go into people’s gardens and eat their banana plants. It was the first proof that wild great apes are at risk of human disease.

Do the same treatments work for gorillas as for humans?

GKZ: Yes, the same cures work. One treatment of ivermectin [a medication for scabies] worked and they got better.

How are you protecting gorillas from human contact?

GKZ: Tourists are not allowed to go close to the gorillas – they have to stay at least five metres away, although many of them want to touch the apes. And no one is allowed to go when they are sick. We want to start to get tourists wearing masks because they get too close and the gorillas get too close because they are very curious about people.

Can gorillas pass disease back to humans?

GKZ: The gorillas may get ebola – they don’t have it naturally, but they may get it from something in the forest. And in areas where people eat gorillas, like central and west Africa, they have been known to get ebola from gorillas.

What work does Conservation Through Public Health do?

GKZ: We do a lot of gorilla health monitoring. We collect samples once a week, and we compare them to humans and livestock in that area, and then we know if they are picking up something. We also train the rangers to look after gorillas, and we train the human-gorilla conflict team, which has been trained to take gorillas back to the park. We tell them to look out for gorillas in people’s gardens and to monitor their health. And we train village health teams that go to people’s homes to promote good health care. We make sure they promote how to prevent getting sick from wildlife and how to avoid giving wildlife dieases. We also promote conservation.

How close are gorillas to humans?

GKZ: Our DNA is 98.4% similar to gorillas, it’s a very high percentage.

For how long have we known we could transfer human illnesses to gorillas?

GKZ: One of the first cases I had we found scabies skin disease in gorillas. They caught the scabies from the local community – gorillas like to go into people’s gardens and eat their banana plants. It was the first proof that wild great apes are at risk of human disease.

Do the same treatments work for gorillas as for humans?

GKZ: Yes, the same cures work. One treatment of ivermectin [a medication for scabies] worked and they got better.

How are you protecting gorillas from human contact?

GKZ: Tourists are not allowed to go close to the gorillas – they have to stay at least five metres away, although many of them want to touch the apes. And no one is allowed to go when they are sick. We want to start to get tourists wearing masks because they get too close and the gorillas get too close because they are very curious about people.

Can gorillas pass disease back to humans?

GKZ: The gorillas may get ebola – they don’t have it naturally, but they may get it from something in the forest. And in areas where people eat gorillas, like central and west Africa, they have been known to get ebola from gorillas.

What work does Conservation Through Public Health do?

GKZ: We do a lot of gorilla health monitoring. We collect samples once a week, and we compare them to humans and livestock in that area, and then we know if they are picking up something. We also train the rangers to look after gorillas, and we train the human-gorilla conflict team, which has been trained to take gorillas back to the park. We tell them to look out for gorillas in people’s gardens and to monitor their health. And we train village health teams that go to people’s homes to promote good health care. We make sure they promote how to prevent getting sick from wildlife and how to avoid giving wildlife dieases. We also promote conservation.

Read More