BUDUDA – In January through March every year, clouds of smoke usually hang over the Mt Elgon forest as part of the national park is burned to make way for agriculture.
The fires exacerbated by the dry weather across the area, smother in a haze, leaving resident bats, rodents, snails, and other animals whose habitat is a forest with no other option than to run elsewhere for shelter and in search of food, carrying with them deadly diseases.
And not so long after the bats settle in Caves where cattle, sheep and goats are kept, human beings around them start to fall sick—presumably after eating the bats, goats, cattle and taking the milk.
By October 2017, two people in Kween district had developed a fever, chills, headache, gum bleeding and vomiting blood.
This was a first known emergence of a strange disease which government epidemiologists confirmed was an outbreak of Marburg haemorrhagic fever case in the eastern district of Kween, which then caused a string of recurrent threats across Mt Elgon.
While it can be convenient to think of human health and the environment as Silos that are unrelated and operating independently, they are in fact closely related.
As we prepare to depart from Bushiyi, one of the trails to Mt Elgon in Bududa district, Mr. Alex Solimo, our tour guide, takes a look across the hitherto Mt Elgon forest in a contemplative mood.
“This forest used to be big and thick, and was filled up with vast types of animals, rivers flew all the time but look from here, massive deforestation has taken place, you can see the ground there, it is all gone,” he lamented.
He explained the role of deforestation in the spread of the disease at Mt Elgon, noting that “deforestation raises sunlight, temperature, and surface water availability,” allowing mosquitoes and other disease carrying vectors to breed more easily.
Mr Solimo adds that forests play a vital role in human health and well-being while offering a wide array of ecosystem services but that biological diversity and ecosystem goods and services provided by Mt Elgon forests are on the decline due to extensive deforestation and degradation.
The 56-year-old Solimo, who works with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, believes that due to the massive deforestation, most of the rivers that provided a livelihood to many people in Bugisu and Sebei sub-regions are facing extinction.
He disclosed that the forest cover has gone down due to a combination of several factors, especially reckless human activity of deforestation, encroachment and environmental changes.
“Look, the rivers down there have become streams, streams have dried up, there is massive deforestation that has left the land bare because of human activity,” added Mr Solimo.
He added that besides local people have also created plots for farming on the slopes where the rivers flow from, have cut down trees/vegetation, burnt them and that some creatures that transfer diseases like bats are now taking shelter in homes and caves.
According to the conservation area manager/Mt Elgon national Park Chief Warden Mr Fredrick Kizza ever since encroachment and deforestation have taken a centre stage, many forest leaving creatures are disappearing.
“Although the mountain is covered by red laterite soils which favor the growth of thick undergrowth, the huge Elgon teak and cedar trees, man has cut these down to secure land for settlement and farming to the disservice of the functions of the big mountain. I think environmental degradation at the Mountain calls for immediate conservation interventions,” says Mr. Kizza.
The extent of the Encroachment:
Ms Hellen Nambozo, working with the community conservation office at Mt Elgon national park says that encroachment for cultivation into the national park is a major threat to the Mt Elgon eco-system due to the amount of degradation caused.
Ms Nambozo says that encroachment has resulted in the deterioration of approximately one-fifth of Mt Elgon’s forest within the past generation.
“Vegetation, wildlife, soils, water, geology, climate and other natural disturbances that all contribute to the ecosystem diversity and ecological sustainability have been destroyed by man’s activities and thus the support to social and economic sustainability has been hindered,” said Ms Nambozo.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA] although by 2005 about 12 per cent of the 1,110 kilometre of Mt. Elgon catchment area only had been destroyed.
Ms Nambozo, says to-date more than 36 percent of Mt Elgon parkland has been encroached upon and its vegetation destroyed by encroachers in Namisindwa massively, Bududa in December [Bugisu sub-region and Kween in Sebei sub-region.
Mr Fredrick Kizza, explained that soil productivity is sustained through nitrogen and carbon dioxide fixation, mineral release from weathering parent materials, coarse debris and other decaying matter and translocation of nutrients and that all this is reducing because of deforestation, Land degradation and encroachment along the steep slopes of Mt Elgon.
“The increasing incidents of landslides in the upper encroached hills of Mt Elgon, high incidences of malaria, Marburg, recurring incidents of incessant rainfall and threats of biodiversity indicate that human life living around the mountain is in danger if government does not develop guidelines for sustaining the ecological diversity at Mt Elgon,” said Mr. Kizza.
Mr Kizza argues that the continued depletion of Mt Elgon natural forest and wetlands pose a major threat to the livelihoods of citizens endangers the tourism sector, which is currently one of the biggest sources of foreign exchange for the country.
Dr Richard Pollack of the T.H. Chan School Public Health at Harvard says forests contain numerous pathogens that have been passed back and forth between mosquitoes and mammals for ages.
The scientists have repeated the warning for at least two decades: As humans encroach upon forests, their risk of contracting viruses circulating among wild animals increases.
Dr Muhammed Mulongo [Mbale hospital] said that communities at the slopes of Mt Elgon have borne the brunt of communicable diseases that have escalated against a backdrop of atmospheric warming.
“With Deforestation, the profound impact of climate change on health cannot be underestimated as we witness a rise in vector borne diseases that are more resistant to conventional medicine,” said Dr Mulongo.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the senior environment officer [Manafwa district] says a wide range of activities have resulted in deforestation and that these include colonisation and settlement, trans-migrant programmes, logging, agricultural activities to provide for cash crops, mining, hydropower development and fuel wood collection.
“And each activity influences the prevalence, incidence and distribution of vector-borne disease,” said Ms Bisikwa.
Ms Bisikwa added that the people in the rural areas are among the first hit by the environmental negative effect of deforestation which include climate change, soil degradation reduced biodiversity and loss of recreation.
Dr Pauline Byakika, a senior researcher on Malaria at the School of Medicine Makerere University College of Health Sciences says as climate change rises, the higher parts of the mountains which were previously unsuitable for the breeding of mosquitoes are becoming favourable for mosquitoes.
“Although prevalence of malaria used to be low in most hilly areas of the country, the disease is re-emerging in the highland areas due to a combination of climate and non-climate factors especially vast deforestation on the hills,” said Dr Byakika.
She said a combination of unusually high temperatures, low rainfall and humidity encourages malaria epidemics.
Prof Stephen Turner, head of the department of microbiology at Melbourne’s Monash University, says what’s most likely is that virus originated in bats.
Dr Turner says that before it infected the first humans and spread through the world by living in travelers’ bodies, the novel Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, inhabited other hosts in a wild environment — most likely bats.
He explains that when such viruses are isolated and in equilibrium in their habitat, for example a closed forest, they are not a threat to humans but that the problem arises when this natural reservoir is cut down, destroyed and occupied.
“….. the virus emerged at the Wuhan live animal market from an interaction between an animal and a human and viruses of this type are circulating all the time in the animal kingdom,” said Dr Turner.
Scientific studies published before the current pandemic had also already showed a connection between deforestation, the proliferation of bats in the damaged areas and the family of Corona viruses, which includes the current lethal strain.
A paper titled; Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation 2007 by D Pimentel and others says currently an estimated 40% of world deaths are due to environmental degradation.
“The ecology of increasing diseases has complex factors of environmental degradation, population growth, and the current malnutrition of about 3.7 billion people in the world,” reads the paper in part.
Dr Wangisi who doubles as DHO, Mbale district says that forests play a vital role in human health and well-being while offering a wide array of ecosystem services, however, biological diversity and ecosystem goods and services provided by Mt Elgon forests are on the decline due to extensive deforestation and degradation.
“And many Virus-carrying rodents will soon be spotted in deforested areas of Mt Elgon unless we change out attitude towards conserving our environment and stop cutting down trees,” said Dr Wangisi.
A 2015 study reveals that researchers at Eco-health Alliance, a New York-based non-profit that track infectious diseases globally and others found that “nearly one in three outbreaks of new and emerging disease[s] are linked to land-use change like deforestation.
The study reveals further that many viruses exist harmlessly with their host animals in forests, because the animals have co-evolved with them and that humans can become unwitting hosts for pathogens when they venture into or change forest habitat.
According to Dr Mulongo, other diseases caused by deforestation include malaria
Malaria—which kills over a million annually due to infection by Plasmodium parasites transmitted by mosquitoes—has long been suspected of going hand in hand with deforestation.
He explained that clearing patches of forest appears to create ideal habitat along forest edges for the mosquito Anopheles darling—the most important transmitter of malaria in the Amazon—to breed.
He revealed that on top of known diseases, scientists fear that a number of yet-unknown deadly diseases are lurking in forests that could be exposed as people encroach and deforest Mt Elgon further.
WHO says some viruses, like Ebola or Nipah, can be transmitted directly between people, theoretically and that Zika virus which was discovered in Ugandan forests in the 20th century, could also infect millions because it found a host in Aedes aegpti, a mosquito that thrives in urban areas.
“There is also Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease—is transmitted by ticks that rely on forest-dwelling deer to breed and obtain enough blood to survive,” Dr Mulongo said adding that mouse which happens to thrive in forests fragmented by human settlements could also cause diseases.
A paper by the US national Library of Medicine [Public health Emergency Covid 19 initiative published October 2020 also says the loss of biodiversity in the ecosystems has created the general conditions that have favored and, in fact, made possible, the insurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scientific studies published before the current pandemic had already showed a connection between deforestation, the proliferation of bats in the damaged areas and the family of Coronaviruses, which includes the current lethal strain.
An article titled; Wildlife habitat destruction and deforestation will cause more deadly pandemics like Coronavirus, scientists warn,” by Emma Newburg published May 2020 in the Financial times [CNBC] says the Coronavirus pandemic is the most recent instance of how human degradation of wildlife habitats is linked to the spread of infectious diseases.
It adds that before it infected the first humans and spread through the world by living in travelers’ bodies, the novel Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, inhabited other hosts in a wild environment — most likely bats.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of Mt Elgon forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue and that Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.
The minister of Water and Environment Mr Sam Cheptoris says for a host of ecological reasons, the loss of forest can act as an incubator for insect-borne and other infectious diseases that afflict humans.
“Mosquitoes are not the only carriers of pathogens from the wild to humans. Bats, primates, and even snails can carry disease, and transmission dynamics change for all of these species following forest clearing, often creating a much greater threat to people,” said Mr Cheptoris.
Environmentalists say that Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to 8 per cent up from 24 per cent in 1990s and the loss is attributed to human encroachment for different activities, including agriculture and tree-cutting for timber and charcoal and other stakeholders.
In the late 1980s, Approx. 75,000 km2 (31.7%) out of 236,040 km2 of total land in Uganda consisted of forest and woodland. Today, forests and woodlands cover is about 15.2% of Uganda’s land surface meaning that Uganda has lost 16.5% of forests and woodland cover.
According to Mr Charles Wakube, the, the Mbale district environment officer , although it is true that the causes of deforestation and forest degradation exist across the Mountain, effective solutions need to be developed with a site-specific approach.
Mr Wakube said implementation strategies should be developed for Mt Elgon following in-depth consultation with various stakeholders.
He explained that identification of key causes directly linked to deforestation and forest degradation, successful integration of forest stakeholders and policy makers in a common forum, enthusiastic stakeholder participation in various discussions, establishment of common strategies for field implementation and collaborative development, among stakeholders, of realistic solutions to forest degradation problems.
“I believe that once government initiates these, puts in place the development of concrete forest rehabilitation strategies and raises awareness about matters related to land degradation while encouraging active stakeholder participation in discussions and planning initiatives, Mt Elgon will be saved,” said Mr Wakube.