The downside of ecotourism

Contact with tourists and even researchers is exposing great apes in conservation areas in Africa to human pathogens. Mountain gorillas in a protected park in Uganda were found to share the same bacteria with the people living in the surrounding area, tourist guides and the scientists who studied them.

“Many of these apes haven’t had any contact with humans before. Because we have the same physiology, it’s likely that they get human diseases”, says veterinarian Innocent Rwego, from Makerere University , in Kampala, Uganda. His conclusions were presented yesterday in the International EcoHealth Forum, held in Merida from 1-5 December.

The study was carried in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park area, in southeastern Uganda. Rwego compared the Escherichia coli bacteria found in fecal samples of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei)  with those identified in humans.

He showed that genetic similarity was higher between the bacteria found in humans and in gorillas exposed to the daily contact with tourists. The similarity was smaller in animals that only had contact with researchers and even smaller in those who hadn’t had any contact with humans at all.

The study found also that the bacteria found in gorillas that had contact with tourists had the higher resistance to the antibiotics most commonly used in Uganda.

Rwego believes that restricting ecotourism in the region wouldn’t be a solution for this problem. “Tourism is a source of income for local communities living around these conservation areas”, he explains. “If we limit it, it will have a bigger impact on the population.”

“If we follow the he health and vaccination rules, we are likely to reduce any problem of transmission”, Rwego says. “Besides, there should be policies by government to reduce migration of people from other rural areas to the areas where ecotourism is flourishing.”

Read here a more complete version of this story (in Portuguese).

Let´s talk about environmental system risks

The rise of ocean levels, the acidification of oceans, the intensification of infectious diseases and other climate change impacts should be considered environmental system risks, the same way that we think of the risk of a global economic collapse due to the current financial crisis.

This analogy was proposed by climatologist Carlos Nobre, keynote speaker of the International EcoHealth Forum held in Merida from 1-4 December.

Nobre criticized the amount spent so far by the US government – 5 trillion dollars (and counting) – to tackle the economic crisis.

This sum is roughly 30 times the investment announced by president-elect Barack Obama in renewable energy – 150 billion dollars to be invested in a 10-year plan.

Nobre urges policy makers to deal with the threat of climate change with the same urgency that has been addressed to the economic crisis.

“The same precaution principle should be adopted to environmental issues”, he claims. “We should talk of environmental systemic risks as well”.
The risk of a collapse of the Amazon is one of the many catastrophic outcomes of climate change that he mentioned.

Studies carried by his group in Brazilian National Institute of Space Research show that most of the world’s largest remaining rainforest might be replaced by savannahs in a few decades in the scenario of a 4 centigrade degrees temperature rise.

If you can understand Portuguese, read also this report of the opening ceremony of EcoHealth Forum in Ciencia Hoje On-line, the website that I regularly write for.

Essay: Why I should win the opportunity to cover the International EcoHealth Forum 2008?

I believe I should win the opportunity to cover this event because I could give important visibility to current research on health and environment both in the website where I work and in other publications I regularly write for. Furthermore, I can act as a multiplier of my experience covering this forum by sharing information and contacts collected during the event with colleagues.

I work as the editor of Ciência Hoje On-line (www.cienciahoje.org.br) – the electronic version of a monthly magazine published by the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). Ciência Hoje was created in 1982 by a group of researchers intending to enhance the public visibility of Brazilian science. It features articles written by both scientists and journalists and aimed at the general public. Besides reproducing texts from Ciência Hoje, CH On-line has its own exclusive news stories published in a daily basis. The team of these publications includes ten journalists and three journalism students interested in developing their skills for science reporting.

Our website and magazine give considerable importance for environment and health issues, covering mainly (but not limited to) themes of national interest. Among the issues most frequently covered in our articles, are the way Brazil is facing climate change and its impacts; the role of the Amazon in the global warming scenario; the challenge of finding a model of sustainable development and fighting deforestation driven by the pressure for more land for agriculture and cattle; the challenge of maintaining Brazilian energy policy heavily based on ethanol and other biofuels, without affecting native vegetation and food production; and the recurrent epidemics of diseases linked to poor basic infra-structure and to the expansion of cities over areas of natural vegetation areas.

Not surprisingly, these issues will be addressed in the main conferences of the International EcoHealth Forum. I am convinced that covering this event will allow me to keep updated with the latest tendencies in research and policies regarding health and environment, and this will improve my every daily work as the editor of CH On-line. Moreover, the forum is especially relevant to Latin American journalists, because important questions of regional interest will be discussed by specialists.

I can give visibility to the debates of the forum by publishing in CH On-line several news stories inspired by conferences and contacts made during the event. A feature article or a longer report could also be published in Ciência Hoje print version. Finally, I could propose news stories about the forum to two publications I regularly write for as a free-lancer: Biofutur, a French magazine on biotechnology, and SciDev.Net, a website focused on science issues relevant for the developing world.