By Allison Hanes
I first heard about Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) while working as a veterinary technician at Fifth Avenue Veterinary Specialists in Manhattan. One of the internists had interviewed someone with work experience at CTPH and told me to check it out. I was very much interested in conservation, primates, and healthcare development work so I did my research and kept it in mind. Two years later in the first weeks of my MSc course in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University I was speaking with my supervisor Dr. Catherine Hill and I told her that I was interested in sustainable development and conservation medicine. Conservation medicine is the health interface between people, animals (both wild and domestic), and the environment. She immediately directed me again to CTPH and CEO/founder Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka in Uganda. There was a reason that this NGO was pointed out to me several times. We share the same values and mission. The CTPH mission is to conserve wildlife by improving the primary healthcare of people in and around protected areas in Africa. I feel passionately about all people having a basic right to primary healthcare and safe drinking water and that the health of people and animals living near one another is interconnected. I think that in order to achieve good conservation you must work with the local people and allow them access to basic necessities and the health of the whole ecosystem depends on it. It is very hard to protect endangered species without addressing the problems within the region. I am particularly interested in primary healthcare and clean drinking water development projects, conservation, conservation medicine, veterinary medicine, ecotourism, and primates. I have done a lot of research and I don’t think there is another organization out there that aligns so well with my interests. So when my supervisor gave me Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s contact information, I sent her a list of potential MSc thesis projects immediately. We conversed for months through email and I am now here in Uganda doing a study on the disease transmission risks that tourists pose the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Forest edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
I arrived in Kampala about three weeks ago. I was in the capital for two weeks, much longer than expected for research permits. However, when I arrived here they told me I received clearance fairly quickly. To make up time spent in the capital I began my pilot study immediately.
My study has three main activities. They are to distribute questionnaires to tourists, conduct interviews with tourists after their treks, and collect saliva samples from tourists, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) staff, and vegetation of three habituated tourist groups of mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP).
Briefing and collecting saliva swabs from Uganda Wildlife Authority guides and trackers Sunday, Albert, and David.
I am also interviewing locals and staff for a greater understanding and to possibly put together a documentary for CTPH, UWA and/or myself. I am working every day and making good progress. I have finished my pilot study and soon need to draft my final interview questions and questionnaire. I aim to complete a sample size of 25 formal interviews and 250 questionnaires.
I have collected about a quarter of my projected 75 saliva samples. The toughest and most time consuming feat will be to track gorillas, identify them, and reliably collect fresh gorilla saliva. Especially since some of the groups are a round trip hike of eight hours up into the mountains and in my first trek I collected one trustworthy sample. However, I have only been working one full week and a lot of that time was spent meeting and briefing UWA staff, lodge staff, and locals about my research plans. Now I know a great deal of the people in both Buhoma and Bwindi and I have a schedule to move things along quicker.
CTPH community volunteer meeting that included discussions on washing household utensils, contraception, and the ECOLIFE Aquaponics project.
I normally wake up at 6:00am, arrive at the briefing area at 7:15am to depart on an advanced trek, return with samples, brief staff and tourists on my research and answer questions, distribute questionnaires to tourists, request interviews and swabs from UWA staff and tourists, and return to lodges to interview tourists. I often don’t get home until dark after dinner via boda boda and I am very tired.
Nonetheless, I am enjoying every moment of this experience. It is rewarding to know that UWA and CTPH find this information helpful and practical. Plus I get to enjoy the gorillas while fulfilling my MSc dissertation requirements. I hope to make a large contribution to organizations, the gorillas, and local people.
Young girl at orphanage organizing the artwork sold to tourists after their daily 5pm dance performance
I will be here for about one more month, a total of only nine weeks. I am very grateful and happy to be here. I am honored to work for such an amazing organization. Thank you CTPH for having me!
Rushegura group Kibande baby checking out tourists while climbing tree.