Birth Control and the Human-Wildlife Connection

I'd be lying if I said that much of my time isn't spent thinking about the connection between population -- that is, human population growth -- and every facet of life as we know it (who said insomnia was a bad thing?).

There's the connection between population growth and poverty; population growth and food security; population growth and climate change; population growth and human rights; and the list goes on and on.

But while each connection is unique in its own way, taken collectively, it all comes down to one thing: the impact we humans have on the earth and its inhabitants. Because without ecosystems and the wildlife that occupy them, our planet -- and everything on it, including us -- would likely cease to exist.

Don't get me wrong: Population growth is not solely to blame for our environmental problems. But it does make many of them much worse -- deforestation, global warming, and overfishing are a few things that come to mind.

Champions of fossil fuels and others have long tried to frame the debate as a choice between either helping humans or helping the environment. But they're shortsighted and wrong. Helping humans helps the environment.

As it turns out, healthy and empowered people (and especially women) are key to sustainable development and conservation efforts. We can help to protect wildlife and conserve habitats by providing people with family planning services, and modern contraception in particular.

And that's especially true for the almost 1.1 billion people who are currently living in the world's biodiversity "hotspots" -- 35 regions where the successful conservation of species would bring us that much closer to securing life on Earth.

Most of these "hotspots" also happen to be low-income areas with a high unmet need for family planning -- where there are many women who want to prevent pregnancy but lack access to modern contraception -- and where, not coincidentally, there are high rates of population growth.

One such "hotspot" is the Bwindi region in Uganda, home to almost half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas.

While Bwindi's gorilla population resides in a national park, the growing human settlements surrounding the protected area -- a magnet for people seeking tourism-related jobs -- are a threat to the primates' wellbeing and delicate forest habitat.

That's because more people means more human-gorilla interactions and, as a result, higher rates of disease transmission from humans to our primate relatives (with whom we share an astonishing 98 percent of our DNA). More people also means more poaching and increased pressure on the forests that gorillas call home.

These are problems that had for years been severely ailing the gorillas in Bwindi, which has some of the highest poverty and fertility rates in the world. That is until wildlife veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka set up family planning clinics via her organization Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

Now CTPH's health and conservation teams in Bwindi reach as many as 22,000 people, 300 of whom (and counting) are new modern contraception users. Even more astounding is the impact the organization's efforts have had on the world's remaining mountain gorilla population, which has grown from 650 in the 1990s to now 880.

The trailblazing vet's family planning initiative is just one of many programs around the world that are protecting wildlife and conserving habitats by providing local human populations -- and, specifically women -- with the tools and knowledge needed to take control of their reproductive lives. And, like CTPH, most of them depend on USAID for funding.

That is why we must ensure that the government increases U.S. aid for international family planning programs to $1 billion. It's not just good for humans; it's good for the planet too.

"Everything is linked," Kalema-Zikusoka said earlier this month while speaking at Population Connection's annual advocacy event, Capitol Hill Days. "It's about people having a better quality of life... because a good quality of life means good environmental conservation and good public health."

I couldn't agree more.