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Ecosystem Health Program Combines Health Needs with Conservation Goals

January 2002
Ecosystem Health Program Combines Survival-health Needs with Conservation Goals

Over the past year, much has been accomplished toward our goal of protecting gorillas from cross-transmission of parasites. This goal is a daunting task. We work in countries that have been affected by war, poverty, and malnutrition. When people are living in these situations, conservation is often of little importance. Survival is their main focus. The Ecosystem Health Program works to combine the basic survival needs (in our case, basic health care) of the people who live close to parks and reserves with our conservation goals.

We strive to do this in two ways:

  1. To aid people who live close to gorillas in achieving basic health care, and thus demonstrate to them that we are concerned about their well-being; and
  2. To protect the endangered gorillas from potential cross-transmission of disease which could easily wipe out their small populations.

In the three countries where we work, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR), we have hired and trained personnel, signed collaborations with government and non-government organizations, designed projects, and started data collection. In CAR, we have already started our basic health care initiative for the Ba'Aka pygmies, who live close to the gorillas and chimpanzees.
This is an exciting time for our program because we will be able to put some of the puzzle pieces together to help us understand the health threats and pressures on the gorillas. From there, we can make valid decisions that will aid in our conservation efforts.

Ecosystem Health Program in Rwanda

In Rwanda, our program is part of a larger project in collaboration with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) to determine:

  • the number of people who live at the park boundaries (at present count more than 150,000);
  • the species of parasites carried by the people, the gorillas, and the local livestock;
  • the number of people who go in the park and the frequency and reasons for the visits;
  • the attitudes of the people toward conservation of the park;
  • the numbers and types of livestock owned by the local people;
  • the types of domestic animals going into the park;
  • the duration of habitation in the villages close to the park for each family;
  • occupation and education of the family members tested in the villages;
  • recent illnesses of the people living close to the park;
  • types of latrines used by each family.

After all the data are collected we will have a better picture of the economic and health issues for the people who live closest to the gorillas. With these results we can work with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to determine what services are most needed around the park boundaries. Our report will give the Ministry of Health information that can be distributed to government and non-government organizations to help establish the problems and the most pressing needs for the people in this area.
In a country like Rwanda with such a high human population density, the danger of disease cross-transmission is extreme. The Ecosystem Health Program in Rwanda will help provide information to ascertain the problems in the park area, medical treatment for the people who live in this area, and education on personal hygiene and disease prevention.
As of last May, we hired a program manager for our Human Health Project, Ildephonse Munyarugero. Ildephonse came to us after he had completed a program for CONCERN, an international non-governmental organization. He is working closely with our collaborators to guarantee proper data collection and management. He has visited the government agencies in each area where we will be collecting data to ensure they understand our project, and he is meeting with the villages in each area to explain the goals and benefits of our project.
For each person analyzed, Ildephonse fills out two questionnaires and collects the sample. He collects GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) data on the location of each compound (or family group of houses) relative to the park boundaries and the water sources used by the family. After Ildephonse collects all the samples, they will be analyzed and we will begin our second phase of the project, which will involve designing an education and disease prevention program and proper distribution of medicines for treatment through the Ministry of Health
Also in Rwanda, we have another collaborative project with MGVP that provides emergency medical kits for Rwandan park guides. ORTPN was concerned that their tourism guides were not trained for potential visitor illnesses or accidents and asked us for assistance. With the help of MGVP we have designed emergency medical kits to be carried by the guides when they lead tourists into the parks and have provided seminars (delivered by the Rwandan Red Cross) to teach basic emergency care to the guides.
Last June, we gave our first Emergency Medical Seminar for the Volcanoes Park and Karisoke employees. We will have refresher seminars two times per year for the employees so they will always be prepared. Next year, we will continue the seminars in the other two parks: Akagera and Nyungwe.

Ecosystem Health Program in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have hired three assistants for our Ecosystem Health Program:

  1. Alimasi Magayane (Chief Assistant) who represents ICCN and the Virunga National Park, which is on the Congo side of the volcanoes;
  2. Paul Katembo, who represents the Tayna Gorilla Reserve; and
  3. Witha Kasuku, who represents Itombwe Reserve.

The assistants participated in an intensive training program that taught parasite analysis and speciation, micrometry, data collection and report preparation, and GPS training. All three graduated from the training program with grades close to 100%.
After the training program, all three assistants went to their park/reserve to collect gorilla samples. In all cases, the sample collection was challenging and difficult due to the terrain and the remote locations of the gorillas. Assistants had to track the gorilla groups to their night nests (which they found in the morning after the gorillas had gone out foraging for food), count the nests, collect hair and dung samples, which were registered in their data books, describe the nests and their layout, record climatological data, and take GPS readings for each site.
After the site samples were collected, the assistants returned to Goma, where we have a small laboratory, to analyze each gorilla sample. All of the gorilla samples have been collected and analyzed and a report has been submitted. The assistants are now beginning the human sample collections for the people who live closest to their park/reserve.
Last July, we hired a Congolese doctor, Dr. Anny Muyisa, as our medical consultant for the Congo projects. Anny is our Congo Ecosystem Health Program manager and her responsibilities include:

  • interfacing with the Department of Health and government officials in the villages we are analyzing;
  • supervising the health assistants;
  • preparing and teaching the assistants to submit data and progress reports;
  • assessing the health and economic problems in the areas that abut the parks/reserves;
  • helping design the education and disease prevention projects;
  • distributing appropriate medicines for people who are found to have intestinal parasites.

In Congo, the human samples are currently being collected. For the villages around Virunga National Park, we have already collected over 900 samples. After these samples have been analyzed, sample collections will begin in the villages around Tayna and Itombwe.

Ecosystem Health Program in the Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic, which was our flagship Ecosystem Health project, we have begun a health care program for the Ba'Aka pygmies.
We determined from our original analyses that the Ba'Aka were suffering from numerous intestinal parasites and respiratory diseases. We also found similar parasites in the gorillas and chimpanzees that live close to these villages. Our pilot health care project has allowed a health care worker, Victor Babon, to travel three times per week to the Ba'Aka villages where he will assess and treat basic illnesses.
We are continuing to search for funding to extend this project so we will be able to assess whether basic health care in humans reduces the danger of cross-transmission to endangered apes.

Goals for Next Year

For Rwanda and DRC, we will begin working with the Ministries of Health to create public service announcements about hygiene and prevention of illness and parasitism. Our assistants will begin visiting villages to institute health education programs and begin treatments for people who are positive for parasitism.
When all the samples have been analyzed from Rwanda and Congo, they will be compared with the samples from the Central African Republic. From these comparisons, we will be able to determine what problems are most pressing for potential cross-transmission and we will be better equipped to protect the gorillas in these areas.
The Ecosystem Health projects have been supported by: DFGFI, USAID, and the Disney Foundation.

By Alecia A. Lilly, Ph.D., Director