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Contraception Helps Women, the Planet, and Gorillas Too

By Elspeth Dehnert
Media Relations Manager

Ninety-eight percent of our DNA is not the only thing we humans share with gorillas. Our eerily-similar genetic makeup means we also share certain habitats and infectious diseases—two overlaps that have proven especially fatal for our furry relatives. 

Thankfully, there’s a solution, and it’s something that both gorillas and humans can greatly benefit from: family planning, and modern contraception in particular.

That’s because providing women with the ability to choose whether, when, and with whom to have children fights poverty and slows population growth. And that, in turn, helps to reduce the sometimes deadly impact that humans have on gorillas.

In countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo mountain gorillas are being threatened by local human populations that continue to encroach upon their delicate forest habitats.

While parks and wildlife reserves are meant to provide gorillas with a safe home, they also attract hordes of people in search of jobs and budding communities replete with schools, infrastructure, and health clinics. 

In fact, UC Berkeley researchers found that the average rate of human population growth along the borders of protected areas in 45 African and Latin American countries was almost twice that of neighboring rural areas.

And with an uptick in humans comes an uptick in habitat destruction, poaching, and disease-ridden gorillas who are no longer able to avoid contact with their homo sapien neighbors. 

It’s a problem that had for years been ailing the Ugandan community of Bwindi—home to nearly half of the planet’s mountain gorillas as well some of the highest poverty and fertility rates in the world. That is until wildlife veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka decided enough was enough following an outbreak of measles that threatened to decimate the local gorilla population.

After realizing that saving the gorillas would require improving healthcare within the surrounding human settlements, Kalema-Zikusoka set up family planning clinics via her organization Conservation Through Public Health.

“It’s very hard to tell people that everything is linked,” she said earlier this month while speaking at Population Connection’s annual advocacy event, Capitol Hill Days. “When I first mentioned family planning to some people they were like, ‘People are going to think you care more about the animals than the people.’”

“I told them it’s not about that,” she added. “It’s about the people having a better quality of life…because a good quality of life means good environmental conservation and good public health.”

Now Kalema-Zikusoka’s health and conservation teams in Bwindi consistently reach as many as 22,000 people, 300 of which (and counting) are new modern family planning users—four times higher than expected based on historical trends.

“Our program has really empowered women, especially when we added family planning,” she said. “Community-based Depo-Provera [a contraceptive shot] is now a national policy in Uganda”

But even more astonishing is the impact her efforts have had on the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population, which has grown from an astonishing 650 in the 1990s to now 880, a number the trailblazing vet is on track to increase even more over the coming years.

“We’ve reduced human and gorilla conflict, reduced disease among gorillas, and women and youth are more involved in conservation,” said Kalema-Zikusoka. “We now have a sustainable and scalable model.”

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