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One health - in Uganda

Wednesday, 30 January 2019   (0 Comments)
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VetScript editor's pick: February 2019

Seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is on the bucket lists of many travellers. But while tourism brings money, it can also be a threat. Matt Philp talks to veterinarian Ben Davidson about his postgraduate work in Uganda.


It's called the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but unfortunately for the endangered mountain gorillas who live there, it has proved all too accessible by humans – and human diseases. In 1996 and again in 2001, scabies contracted from farming communities on the Ugandan park’s boundary infected several gorillas and caused deaths. The outbreaks followed an even more devastating flare-up of measles, and have been succeeded by incidents of gorillas contracting human respiratory diseases and E. coli infections.

“All of a sudden we’ve brought humans much closer to the gorillas,” says Canterbury veterinarian Ben Davidson, who hardly needs to add the obvious coda: that the gorillas are suffering as a result.

Ben is Managing Director of the Rangiora Vet Centre, and the main veterinarian for Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch. His interest in Bwindi’s gorillas stems from his studies for a Master of Veterinary Science in Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on health at the interface of the environment, humans and wildlife.

For his master’s dissertation, Ben visited Uganda in 2018 alongside Massey University Professor David Hayman, who is conducting a five-year study into disease transmission between gorillas, humans and livestock in the national park area.

“Our project is looking at contact rates, and where the possible transmission of pathogens is occurring,” says Ben. “We’ve noticed that there’s potentially a cross-over of baboons who contact both gorillas and people. One question this raises is: are they a potential source of disease?”

With just 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, half of them in the area being studied, there’s an urgent need to find answers.

Fortunately, the Kiwi researchers are part of a larger collective effort. Arguably the gorilla’s most effective day tracking these same groups for the eco-tourism treks. These are people at high risk of being in close contact with gorillas, so it’s important to know about their health. That involves a lot of education, so that they recognise signs of illness in themselves and each other, and also in the gorillas.”

It’s not only local villagers who are a worry: the growth of eco-tourism has brought growing numbers of international visitors into contact with the famous ‘gorillas in the mist’.

“Since the 1990s they’ve been habituating groups of gorillas so people can get close to them. It’s brought much-needed money to these very poor areas, but it’s also brought humans in far closer contact. The other thing about eco-tourism, is that you have people flying in from all over the world, being on airplanes, mixing with viruses.”

Despite the proliferation of such threats, the mountain gorilla population has rebounded from a low point of just 250 surviving gorillas in the 1980s to more than 1,000 today, a result Ben says can be partly attributed to the efforts of Gladys and her NGO. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Ben hopes that the research he and David conducted while in Uganda will play a part, allowing CTPH to better address disease risks to the gorillas.

“We did a questionnaire for 100 villagers, who also kept diaries for seven days. We recorded their behavior around contact with wildlife and their own animals, the way they prepared food, hygiene, facilities in their houses, and so on. We also asked them to record any sickness. One thing we noticed was that even in that one week, there were a lot of unwell people.”

Once the data has been analysed, he says, “It will inform CPTH on the next education campaigns or a potential point-of-contact risk that needs to be managed, so it can put some guidelines around that. For example, if you’re a ranger and you’ve been sick, then maybe there’s a stand-down period before you can go into the forest.

Potentially, you could also manage exposure of the gorillas to tourists who have been unwell, whether that’s through wearing face masks and keeping more distant or standing down until their temperatures are at a certain level. As well, there’s information you can feed into research to find out how diseases are spreading and what can be done. Is there a vaccine, for example, that you can give to the gorillas, or to the local people?”

It has been a rewarding project for Ben, whose interest in both Africa and conservation predates his veterinary career.

“I used to think, ‘When I retire, I’ll get into conservation of wild animals’, but then I found I could incorporate both. This new field of conservation medicine really suits that.”

He’s also formed a connection with CPTH and with Gladys, who was recently awarded the Sierra Club EarthCare Award, a top US conservation honour. The award specifically recognizes her venture Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC), a Fair Trade-style social enterprise with the motto ‘Saving gorillas, one sip at a time’. By helping impoverished coffee farmers near the national park to raise their incomes, GCC aims to reduce their disease burden, with flow-on health benefits for the gorillas.

Farmers will also have less incentive to resort to poaching or gathering firewood from the forest, thus helping to preserve the gorillas’ habitat. The coffee can be bought online (www.gorillacoffee.co.nz), but Ben is working to secure wider distribution on the ground, talking to people he knows in the industry. “We’re also selling it through our clinic and our online veterinary store, and I’ve got it into Orana Park’s souvenir shop. I’m trying to help in any way I can, because for every kilo they sell, $1.50 goes back to conservation.”

This month he is running a 24-hour fundraiser for the CPTH, which currently has a 50% shortfall (see side bar). “To really make a positive difference for both human health and gorilla health, they need a lot more money than what they’re operating on at the moment. We’ll be doing the fundraiser through a crowdfunding platform called Charidy, hoping to raise around $80,000. We have some donors, and they’ve pledged $3 for every dollar given. Through this fundraiser, people have an opportunity to contribute to the future of these gorillas.”

In the meantime, he has plenty more data to analyse, ahead of filing his dissertation in June. And after that? “I’d like to be heading back to Africa.”


Gorillathon Fundraiser!

A Gorillathon fundraiser for Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) will raise funds for health monitoring of the endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable forest in Uganda.

Every dollar donated by the public during the 24-hour fundraiser will be matched by $3 from our major donors.

The fundraiser will begin at 8am on Monday 18 March 2019. Please check the news section of the March issue of VetScript for fundraising website details or keep an eye on www.ctph.org. If you would like to be a major donor or would like to donate to this fundraiser please register your interest by sending your name and phone number to ben@rangvet.co.nz.