What do gorillas have to do with the prevention of spread of COVID-19? In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), more specifically in remote villages around Tayna Nature Reserve, eastern of the country, they are intrinsically connected. And the information to raise awareness about this arrives through an old and good friend: the radio.
Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, or GRACE, is a NGO which engages local communities on conservation education, forest protection and sustainable livelihoods to foster a peaceful coexistence between human and gorillas. The use of radio as an educational tool by GRACE goes back over a decade and in COVID-19 pandemic times it is more useful than ever.
GRACE Educators, together with member of the communities, have been broadcasting live and pre-recorded segments and shorter “spots” in the Tayna Radio Station, located in the village of Katoyo and with a estimated potential audience of 60,000 people.
“Radio is an efficient and cost-effective resource, a key component of GRACE’s conservation education programming because people rely on radio for news. They do not have access to television or newspapers and the closest internet source for community members is in Butembo, 90 kilometers away”, says Tommi Wolfe, GRACE executive director.
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the ability to do in-person training and education, GRACE turned to its already successful radio programming as a way to continue and expand conservation outreach and to put hygiene and disease transmission as the priority of the day.
“We designed a special radio campaign during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and following an 18-month Ebola outbreak which came within 15km of the GRACE sanctuary. The theme of hygiene was chosen for its current relevance and because disease is one of the three main threats to gorillas. Others are hunting and poaching and habitat loss, destruction and fragmentation”, explains Wolfe. “Improving hygiene and reducing the risk of disease transmission is of critical importance for both people and gorillas.”
GRACE educators tema in action in the programming of radio Tayna
Feasible challenges ahead
As important as prevention awareness in COVID-19 times, GRACE embraces another noble challenge: to reintroduce 14 orphan gorillas back into the wild. The organization manages the only sanctuary for rescued Grauer’s gorillas (one of the two subspecies of mountain gorillas, who have this area as a main habitat), nursing them to restore health and to be with other of their kind again. Everything done with the final goal that they join properly one of the groups of around 300 wild gorillas who have the neighbor forests as home – 8% of remaining wild population.
The rehabilitation activities followed by reintroduction reach program also involves locals, who participate actively in the sanctuary routine and are extremely connected and respectful to the animals. GRACE is the only conservation NGO in the area, located on the northeast border of Tayne Reserve, and therefore plays an important role in protecting this stronghold for gorillas – and for people.
With the demands risen by COVID-19 pandemic in terms of information and sanitary orientation, GRACE is not only creating a new radio campaign, but it’s also putting effort to expand its target audience. There are 21 barazas, or villages, where the NGO already undertakes research and education within Tayna reserve.
“Our longer-term goal is to expand education to villages on the outskirts of the reserve and also to villages and town along the main road between Alimbongo to Butembo, to provide a protective shield of knowledge, empathy, and pride for Grauer’s gorillas and the other rich biodiversity assets of the region”, points Wolfe.
Provide access and proper education messaging
Limitations imposed by COVID-19 added more difficulties to the already restrict access in the area. There are no roads inside the reserve and very few ones surrounding and it can take very long to go from one village to another by river or on foot.
“For us, the educators, radio has become a regular tool we use to do our jobs. We are lucky to have a radio station near us. It is hard to imagine how we could reach our neighbors that live in very remote areas without it. The radio helps us reach many more people than if we just had to walk everywhere because some villages are several days’ walk from us’, says Honoré Mustafa, Educator Manager and Research Assistant.
Honoré is one of the three full-time educators hired by GRACE from the region. They count with the support of expert education advisors to prepare the radio campaign, which uses a mix of dramas, informational sessions, interviews with leaders and influencers and even a special song written by GRACE educator Sims Guy.
Currently, as expected and needed, the most covered themes are hygiene and the conservation threat of human-wildlife disease transmission, focusing on behaviors related to hand-washing, wearing facial coverings and building “tip-taps” water stations to avoid contamination.
Nevertheless, improvement efforts never stop. Community engagement team members trained by GRACE educators recently completed a survey of households living in and around the reserve. They wanted to determine actual and potential listeners and to establish baseline information on people’s knowledge of threats to local wildlife, which will lead the development of future programs.
Also, as part of the project, GRACE is verifying that the radio station’s signal can be received in all of the communities. It’s not uncommon to electricity not to be available and the access solution provided is giving out one solar-powered radio to each of the 21 barazas.
Fact is that radio has been a high strategic educational tool for GRACE in these hard COVID-19 times. Raising awareness that bushmeat is a disease transmission route and teaching good hygiene practices helps addresses disease risks for people and gorillas.
“We think the radio is a very good way to teach people about conservation. Everyone we have spoken with has appreciated the new programs and enjoyed the songs”, concludes Honoré.
Tune in and may all this passionate work guarantee the health of people and gorillas!
Photos credit: Courtesy of GRACE
*Journalist, Strategic Communications Specialist, Communications Advisor for GAP Project Brazil/International