The Albertine Rift, the most biodiverse region of Africa in terms of vertebrates with 1,762 recorded species, is threatened by human activity and thus is a focus for biodiversity conservation for Uganda and the world. Uganda's economic and social development is highly dependent on its rich biodiversity and natural resources, with more than 90 percent of the population directly depending on natural resources for their livelihood and income. According to the Uganda National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the gross economic output attributable to biodiversity use is approximately $546.6 million per year, while indirect benefits from ecosystem services and functions that support and maintain production are estimated to be another $200 million per year.
The Ecosystem Health Initiative of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Institute on the Environment is working with an international consortium of partners to improve understanding of the relationship among the environment, biodiversity, and the health of humans, livestock and wildlife in two demonstration sites in the Albertine Rift region of western Uganda. Entitled "Global Health and the Environment in Africa," the project also involves Makerere University, Conservation and Ecosystem Health Alliance, Ugandan Wildlife Authority, University of New Hampshire, Emory University, Robert Koch Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One area of focus is Queen Elizabeth National Park, a Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar site in western Uganda. QENP is an incredibly diverse, largely savanna ecosystem plagued by deadly anthrax outbreaks that threaten wildlife, domestic animals and humans. Yet almost zero resources have been dedicated to understanding the ecology, management and control of this important and frightening disease. Margaret Driciru, a veterinarian and Ugandan Wildlife Authority research warden in QENP, is enrolled in a joint PhD program with Makerere University and the University of Minnesota to investigate the ecology and management of anthrax in QENP. A research consortium meeting is being planned for 2012-13 to prioritize further research and outreach needs related to ecosystem health in the area.
The second research site is in Hoima District, just south of Budongo Forest Reserve. Twenty four percent of Uganda's surface area is forested, with 70 percent of that on private or communal land. Uganda has one of the highest annual deforestation rates in Africa (2.2% in 2000-2005, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, most of it consisting of unsustainable harvesting, conversion to agriculture use and settlement by an increasing population). This loss has increasingly led to wildlife ranging outside their natural home range into agricultural fields and more frequent human-wildlife conflict. Baboons, bush pigs, elephants, monkeys and chimpanzees have all been implicated in crop raiding. This increased conflict has harmed conservation efforts and increased the risk of disease transmission among wildlife, domestic animals and humans.
Of particular concern is the ranging of nonhuman primates because they share many diseases with humans. To date, no research has studied the interactions among habitat use, primate demography and disease risk in this area. Lawrence Mugisha, adjunct professor of ecosystem health in the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine and head of the Conservation and Ecosystem Health Alliance, is working with the district government to address these issues. Primatologists are now mapping the natural resources and censusing the chimpanzee population in the area.
University of Minnesota work on this initiative is led by Meggan Craft, assistant professor and disease ecologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and resident fellow in IonE; Innocent Rwego, assistant professor of ecosystem health; Mugisha; Dominic Travis, associate professor of epidemiology; and Katey Pelican, assistant professor and lead of the ecosystem health initiative and IonE resident fellow.