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BBC 100 Women 2023

The BBC has revealed its list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2023.

Among them are attorney and former US First Lady Michelle Obama, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Ballon d’Or-winning footballer Aitana Bonmatí, AI expert Timnit Gebru, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Hollywood star America Ferrera and beauty mogul Huda Kattan.

In a year where extreme heat, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters have been dominating headlines, the list also highlights women who have been working to help their communities tackle climate change and take action to adjust to its impacts.

The list includes 28 Climate Pioneers, named ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28.


Sumini, Indonesia

Forest manager

In Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province it is unusual for women to be leaders.

When Sumini realised a major cause of floods in her village was deforestation, which also contributes towards climate change, she decided to take action and work with other women in the community.

Her group received a permit from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry allowing the community of Damaran Baru village to manage the area, all 251 hectares of forest, for 35 years

She now leads a Village Forest Management Unit (LPHK), to discourage illegal logging and hunters threatening Sumatran tigers, pangolins and other at-risk wildlife.

With rampant deforestation and wildlife poaching these days, forests should get more and more attention when it comes to how we collectively tackle the climate crisis. Keep the forest, keep the life.


Sonia Kastner

Sonia Kastner, US

Wildfire detection tech developer

This year has seen wildfires ravage some of the world’s biggest forests. With firefighters often struggling to keep up with the scale and spread of the blazes, Sonia Kastner founded an organisation to help detect them earlier.

Pano AI uses artificial intelligence technology to prepare a faster response before fires spread by scanning the landscape for signs of ignition and alerting responders, instead of relying on members of the public to call emergency services.

Kastner previously spent more than 10 years working in a variety of tech start-ups.

What gives me hope is the incredible power of human innovation. I have witnessed first hand the potential of technology and data-driven solutions to help address the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Sonia Kastner

Dayeon Lee

Dayeon Lee, South Korea

Campaigner for Kpop4Planet

Through Kpop4Planet, Dayeon Lee is rallying K-pop fans all around the world to confront the climate crisis.

Since its launch in 2021, the campaign group has asked influential people at South Korea’s biggest entertainment labels and streaming services to take climate action, and transition to renewable energy.

The group has highlighted the environmental implications of physical album waste, which prompted iconic figures in K-pop to pivot to digital albums.

Dayeon Lee is now moving beyond music, to challenge the climate pledges of luxury fashion brands, which often feature K-pop celebrities as their public face.

When standing for social justice, we never give up until we make a change. We have proved this time and again, and will continue to do so, fighting against the climate crisis.

Dayeon Lee

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda


As an award-winning Ugandan vet and conservationist, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka works to save the country’s endangered mountain gorillas, whose habitat is being eroded by climate change.

She is founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, an NGO that promotes biodiversity conservation by enabling people, gorillas and other wildlife to co-exist, while improving their health and habitat.

After three decades, she has helped increase the number of mountain gorillas from 300 to about 500, which was enough to downgrade them from critically endangered to endangered.

Kalema-Zikusoka was named a Champion of the Earth in 2021 by the United Nations Environment Programme.

What gives me hope in the climate crisis is the increasing acknowledgement that it needs to be addressed urgently. There are innovative methods to mitigate and adapt to this crisis.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, UK

Marine scientist

Seagrass is known for its ability to store carbon and provide nurseries for fish, but some underwater habitats have been devastated.

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth is one of the founders and current CEO of Project Seagrass, the UK’s first seagrass restoration scheme at a meaningful scale.

The project makes the process easier by using a remote-control robot to plant seeds, and could create a blueprint to help other countries restore their underwater meadows.

An interdisciplinary scientist with more than 20 years of experience in marine research, Cullen-Unsworth is devoted to science-based conservation and restoration.

There is too much to do for anyone to achieve things alone, but people are working together and sharing knowledge. For my own small part, I know we can revive a vital habitat, protect it and restore it for all of the benefits it provides our planet and society.

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

Jess Pepper

Jess Pepper, UK

Founder of Climate Café

Climate Café is a community-led space where people come together to drink, chat and act on climate change. The first one was founded by Jess Pepper in 2015, in the Scottish village of Birnam, Perthshire.

She now supports other communities to start their own spaces, linked together in a global network.

Attendees say these are safe spaces where they can share their ideas and concerns about the climate crisis.

Pepper holds a number of leadership roles within the climate sphere, is an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Climate action and positive change is happening in communities, often led by women and children. Seeing how connections are inspiring and informing change, building resilience whilst creating opportunity and political space for further change, gives me hope.

Jess Pepper

Matcha Phorn-in

Matcha Phorn-in, Thailand

Campaigner for indigenous and LGBTQ+ rights

Living in Thailand on the border with Myanmar, an area which has experienced the effects of both climate change and conflict, Matcha Phorn-in has focused her work on the rights of minorities.

She founded the Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project, an organisation that aims to educate and empower thousands of stateless and landless indigenous women, girls, and young members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As an ethnic minority/indigenous lesbian feminist, Matcha Phorn-in has a leading role in the movement to stop gender-based violence in the region, while also advocating for land rights and climate justice for displaced and disenfranchised people.

There can’t be sustainable climate solutions without the meaningful participation and voices from indigenous communities, LGBTQIA+, women and girls.

Matcha Phorn-in


Bayang, China

Diarist and sustainability advocate

Since 2018, Bayang has been keeping an eco-diary, monitoring local species and changes to water sources, recording the weather and observing plants.

She lives in China’s Qinghai Province, which is situated mostly on the Tibetan Plateau and is already experiencing the effects of climate change such as higher temperatures, melting glaciers and desertification.

Bayang is part of the Sanjiangyuan Women Environmentalists Network, and advocates health and sustainability in her community.

She has acquired skills in crafting eco-friendly products – including lip balm, soap and bags – to protect local water sources and inspire others to join the environmental cause.

Sophia Kianni

Sophia Kianni, US

Student and social entrepreneur

After speaking to relatives in Iran, social entrepreneur Sophia Kianni realised that there was relatively little reliable information about climate change in their language, so she began translating materials into Farsi.

This soon expanded into a wider project when she founded Climate Cardinals, an international youth-led non-profit group that aims to translate climate information into every single language and make it more accessible to those who don’t speak English.

It now has 10,000 student volunteers across 80 countries. They have translated one million words of climate material into more than 100 languages.

Kianni’s aim is to help break down language barriers to the global transfer of scientific knowledge.

Young activists have built and nurtured global climate action networks, mobilised millions to protest, driven thousands of petitions against fossil fuel development, and raised millions of dollars to fund climate initiatives. The world’s challenges are too great for us to silo ourselves based on age or experience.

Sophia Kianni

Basima Abdulrahman

Basima Abdulrahman, Iraq

Green building entrepreneur

In 2014, when the so-called Islamic State group took over huge parts of her home country, Iraq, Basima Abdulrahman was studying at university in the US.

Many Iraqi towns were destroyed as a result of fighting, but when Abdulrahman returned home after her masters in structural engineering, she saw a way of helping.

She founded KESK, Iraq’s first initiative dedicated to green building. She found that creating greener structures meant combining the latest energy-efficient technologies and materials with Iraq’s traditional building methods.

She is committed to ensuring that today’s building practices do not compromise the well-being of future generations.

I am often anxious about the climate crisis. I can’t help but wonder how anyone can find peace without being part of the solution to mitigate its risks.

Basima Abdulrahman

Marcela Fernández

Marcela Fernández, Colombia

Expedition guide

Glaciers provide an essential source of freshwater for local communities, but in Colombia they are rapidly disappearing.

Founder Marcela Fernández and her colleagues at the NGO Cumbres Blancas (White Peaks) raise awareness of the issue, highlighting that of the 14 glaciers that once existed, only six are left and these are at risk.

Through scientific expeditions and by assembling a team of mountaineers, photographers, scientists, and artists, Fernández monitors changes and develops creative ways to prevent glacier loss.

With her adjacent project, “Pazabordo” (Peace on board), she also travels to areas affected by violence during Colombia’s 50-year internal armed conflict.

Glaciers have taught me to deal with grief, with absence. When you hear them you know that their loss is a damage we can’t undo, but we can still contribute and leave a mark.

Marcela Fernández

Natalia Idrisova

Natalia Idrisova, Tajikistan

Green energy consultant

Women living in remote parts of Tajikistan often struggle to access energy sources such as electricity or firewood. Environmental charity project co-ordinator Natalia Idrisova seeks practical environmental solutions to this energy crisis and educates women about natural resources and energy-efficient technologies and materials.

Besides training, her organisation offers energy-saving equipment, solar kitchens and pressure cookers, freeing up time for the women and supporting gender equality in the home in a climate-friendly way.

Now Idrisova is training communities on how climate change specifically affects people with disabilities and finding ways to ensure these voices are heard in political discussions.

Extreme events around the world give us the last warning that people are inseparable from nature. We cannot negligently exploit nature without serious consequences.

Natalia Idrisova

Susanne Etti

Susanne Etti, Australia

Sustainable tourism expert

One of the few climate scientists in the travel and tourism sector, Susanne Etti is passionate about leading the industry towards a more sustainable future.

Her work as the global environmental impact manager at Intrepid Travel, a small-group adventure travel business, has led the company to become the first tour operator with verified science-based carbon reduction targets.

Etti has authored an open-source guide for travel businesses wanting to decarbonise and is a key part of Tourism Declares, a voluntary community of 400 travel organisations, companies and professionals who have declared a climate emergency.

Today we are seeing more businesses recognising the importance of climate action by setting ambitious goals to reduce environmental impact, investing in renewable energy and committing to long-term emission reduction targets.

Susanne Etti

Anne Grall

Anne Grall, France


The Greenwashing Comedy Club is a stand-up collective that addresses environmental issues as well as feminism, poverty, disability and LGBTQ+ rights.

It was founded by stand-up comedian Anne Grall, who believes that through punchlines, it is possible to sow the seeds of change in people’s minds and even influence their habits.

In a society driven by entertainment, where concise concepts and short messages prevail, Grall believes that humour, often reliant on exaggeration and punchlines, can be an excellent medium to share ideas around climate change.

The success of the Greenwashing Comedy Club is quite heartening because it indicates that today many people are concerned about climate change, and they want to come together, laugh, and leave the show feeling ready to continue the fight!

Anne Grall

Kera Sherwood-O'Regan

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan, New Zealand

Indigenous rights and disability advocate

A Kāi Tahu indigenous and disabled climate expert, Kera Sherwood-O’Regan is from Te Waipounamu, the South Island of New Zealand.

She is the co-founder of Activate, a social impact agency specialising in climate justice and social change.

Her practice is grounded in Māori approaches to land and ancestors, which until recently were ignored by the mainstream climate conversation.

Sherwood-O’Regan has built relationships with ministers, officials and broader civil society to highlight the effects of climate change on her communities, while advocating for greater recognition of the rights of indigenous people and people with disabilities in the climate negotiations.

We are rejecting the extractivist model, we are taking up space, we are leading with community – and it is working. I think many people now recognise that the realisation of indigenous sovereignty is the solution to the climate crisis.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan

Sagarika Sriram

Sagarika Sriram, United Arab Emirates

Educator and climate adviser

Teenager Sagarika Sriram is fighting to make climate education mandatory in schools.

Using her coding skills, she set up the online platform Kids4abetterworld, designed to help educate children around the world and support them in sustainability projects in their communities.

She backs this up with online and offline environmental workshops, teaching children how they can have a positive impact on climate change.

Alongside studying for her A-levels in Dubai, Sriram is part of the children’s advisory team of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, where she champions environmental rights.

It is not time for alarm but for action, so each child is educated to live sustainably and drive the systemic changes we need to see in our world.

Sagarika Sriram

Wanjira Mathai

Wanjira Mathai, Kenya

Enviromental adviser

An inspiring leader for an entire continent, Wanjira Mathai has more than 20 years of experience advocating for social and environmental change.

She led the Green Belt Movement, an indigenous grassroots organisation in Kenya that empowered women through the planting of trees, established by Wanjira’s mother and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai.

Mathai is now the managing director for Africa and Global Partnerships at the World Resources Institute, and the chair of the Wangari Maathai Foundation.

She currently serves as Africa adviser to the Bezos Earth Fund, as well as to the Clean Cooking Alliance and the European Climate Foundation.

Action is “local”. We need to support local initiatives like tree-based entrepreneurs and community-led work around restoration, renewable energy and the circular economy. Bottom-up efforts like these give me hope as they show us what is possible.

Wanjira Mathai

Neha Mankani

Neha Mankani, Pakistan


When devastating floods hit Pakistan last year, midwife Neha Mankani travelled to affected areas to offer her skills.

Through her charity, Mama Baby Fund, Mankani and her team provided life-saving birthing kits and midwifery care to more than 15,000 flood-affected families.

Her typical practice focuses on low-resourced settings, emergency response and climate-affected communities.

Mama Baby Fund has now raised enough money to launch a boat ambulance that will transport pregnant women living in coastal communities to nearby hospitals and clinics for urgent treatment.

The work of midwives in communities facing climate-related disasters is vital. We are both first responders and climate activists, who make sure women can continue to receive the reproductive, pregnancy, and postpartum care they need, even when the situation around them is deteriorating.

Neha Mankani

Anna Huttunen

Anna Huttunen, Finland

Carbon impact tech expert

As a sustainable mobility enthusiast, Anna Huttunen pushed for greener, cleaner, more efficient mobility in the Finnish city of Lahti, named the European Green Capital 2021.

She led the city’s ground-breaking personal carbon trading model – the world’s first app to allow citizens to earn credits by using environmentally friendly transportation such as cycling or public transport.

She works as climate neutral cities adviser for NetZeroCities, an organisation which helps European cities attempt to reach climate neutrality by 2030.

Huttunen aims to make others excited about sustainable mobility and is a keen advocate for cycling, which she considers the future of transport in cities.

Municipalities around the world are full of amazing people working towards enabling a more sustainable life for their citizens. Do your part, get engaged and be part of the transformation!

Anna Huttunen

Trần Gấm

Trần Gấm, Vietnam

Biogas business owner

In 2012, Trần Gấm started introducing more climate-friendly energy sources to farms in Vietnam.

The mother-of-two saw a gap in the market and started a business installing and managing biogas plants in Hanoi, later expanding the operation to three neighbouring provinces.

Her project helps farmers cut costs by turning cow and pig manure, water hyacinth and other waste into biogas – considered a far more sustainable energy source than natural gas – which can then be used as energy for cooking and running a household.

Businesses like Trần’s engage local communities and drive the political support needed for climate change mitigation.

We must live, and must live well, so I have tried to cope and protect loved ones by enhancing our health through physical exercise, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining sleep patterns. I also encourage people to live an organic lifestyle, growing their own fruits and vegetables, and advocating against using chemical pesticides on our vegetables.

Trần Gấm

Arati Kumar-Rao

Arati Kumar-Rao, India


Working across South Asia, independent photographer, writer and National Geographic Explorer Arati Kumar-Rao documents the changing landscape caused by climate change.

She chronicles how drastically depleting groundwater, habitat destruction and land acquisition for industry devastate biodiversity and shrink common lands, displacing millions and pushing species towards extinction.

Kumar-Rao has crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent for over a decade, and her hard-hitting stories reveal how environmental destruction impacts livelihoods and biodiversity.

Her book, Marginlands: India’s Landscapes on the Brink, encapsulates the experiences of those living in India’s most hostile environments.

At the root of the climate crisis is the lamentable loss of our elemental connection with land, water and air. It is imperative that we reclaim this connection.

Arati Kumar-Rao

Jennifer Uchendu

Jennifer Uchendu, Nigeria

Mental health advocate

The ambition of youth-led organisation SustyVibes, founded by Jennifer Uchendu, is to make sustainability actionable, relatable and cool.

Uchendu’s recent work has focused on exploring the impacts of the climate crisis on the mental health of Africans, especially young people.

In 2022, she set up The Eco-Anxiety Africa project (TEAP) to focus on validating and safeguarding climate emotions in Africans through research, advocacy and climate-aware psychotherapy.

Her goal is to work with people and organisations interested in shifting mindsets and doing the hard and often uncomfortable work of learning about climate emotions.

I experience a range of emotions when it comes to the climate crisis. I am slowly making peace with the fact that I will never be able to do enough but that I can, instead, do my best. Showing up in solidarity with others to act, rest and just be, helps me safeguard my climate-induced feelings.

Jennifer Uchendu

Qiyun Woo

Qiyun Woo, Singapore


As an environmentalist and content creator, Qiyun Woo uses social media to share ideas about climate change.

Her online platform, The Weird and the Wild, is dedicated to making climate science more accessible and less scary. It focuses on content to advocate, educate and engage communities on climate change action.

She co-hosts an environmental podcast focused on South East Asia called Climate Cheesecake, which aims to break down complex climate topics into more manageable slices.

She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer.

The climate crisis is complex, overwhelming and scary. We can approach it with fierce but gentle curiosity – instead of fear – so that we can keep our heart soft to care for the world, while sharpening our tools to dismantle what doesn’t work and build what does.

Qiyun Woo

Louise Mabulo

Louise Mabulo, Philippines

Farmer and entrepreneur

In 2016, Typhoon Nock-Ten rampaged through parts of Camarines Sur, Philippines, decimating 80% of agricultural land.

Louise Mabulo defied the devastation by founding The Cacao Project during the aftermath. The organisation aims to revolutionise local food systems through sustainable agroforestry.

Mabulo empowers farmers, dismantles destructive food systems, and champions a rural-led green economy, putting control back in the hands of those who cultivate the land.

She advises international climate policy, where she amplifies rural stories and knowledge. She was recognised by the United Nations Environment Programme as a Young Champion of the Earth.

I find hope in knowing that movements around the world are being built by people just like me, stewarding a future with green landscapes, that connect communities, where our food is sustainable and accessible, where our economies are circular, and are driven by just, equitable principles.

Louise Mabulo

Sarah Ott

Sarah Ott, US

School teacher

Coming of age in the US state of Florida in the aftermath of 9/11, middle school teacher Sarah Ott says she was vulnerable to misinformation.

Despite being educated in the sciences, for some time she doubted that climate change was really happening.

Admitting that she was wrong was the first step in her search for the truth. Her journey has led her to become the climate change ambassador with the National Center for Science Education.

Now based in the state of Georgia, she uses climate change to teach physical science concepts to her students and raises awareness of environmental issues in her community.

Even though climate change is an “all hands on deck” situation, we just can’t do it all by ourselves. Activism is like a garden. It is seasonal. It rests. Respect the season you are in.

Sarah Ott

Elham Youssefian

Elham Youssefian, US/Iran

Adviser in climate and disability

A human rights lawyer who is blind, Elham Youssefian is a fervent advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities when addressing climate change, particularly in relation to emergency response to climate incidents.

Born and raised in Iran, Youssefian emigrated to the US in 2016. Today, she plays an instrumental role in the International Disability Alliance, a global network of more than 1,100 organisations representing people with disabilities.

Her mission is to educate decision-makers on their obligations when it comes to the impact of climate change on people with disabilities. She also champions the immense potential of individuals with disabilities in the fight against the climate crisis.

We, as individuals with disabilities, have proven time and again our ability to surmount intricate challenges and find solutions even when none seem to exist. People with disabilities can and should stand at the forefront of the battle against climate change.

Elham Youssefian

Zandile Ndhlovu

Zandile Ndhlovu, South Africa

Freediving instructor

As South Africa’s first black female freediving instructor, Zandile Ndhlovu wants to make access to the ocean more diverse.

She founded The Black Mermaid Foundation, which exposes young people and local communities to the ocean, in the hope of helping new groups to use these spaces recreationally, professionally and in sport.

Ndhlovu is an ocean explorer, storyteller and film-maker. She uses these skills to help shape a new generation of Ocean Guardians – people who learn about ocean pollution and rising sea levels and become involved in the protection of their environment.

Thinking about the number of young voices, rising up to create change in society gives me hope when considering the climate crisis.

Zandile Ndhlovu

Camila Pirelli

Camila Pirelli, Paraguay

Olympic athlete

Although her speciality is heptathlon, it was competing in the 100m hurdles that got Camila Pirelli into the Tokyo Olympics.

Known by her nickname the Guarani Panther, the track and field athlete holds a number of national athletics records, and is a sports coach and English teacher.

Pirelli grew up in an environmentally conscious family in a small town in Paraguay, where she has seen the impacts of climate change up close.

She’s now an EcoAthlete Champion, which means she is committed to using her sports platform to encourage people to talk about climate change and take action to reduce carbon emissions.

I grew up in a town where seeing wild animals was a daily occurrence. Knowing those animals are suffering now due to climate change worries me and makes me want to help.

Camila Pirelli

Pictures of some of the 100 Women participants for the 2023 BBC World Service season.

What is 100 Women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspiring women around the world every year. We create documentaries, features and interviews about their lives – stories that put women at the centre and are published and broadcast on all BBC platforms.

Follow BBC 100 Women on Instagram and Facebook. Join the conversation using #BBC100Women.

How were the 100 Women chosen?

The BBC 100 Women team drew up a shortlist based on names they gathered through research and those suggested by the BBC’s network of World Service Languages teams, as well as BBC Media Action.

We were looking for candidates who had made headlines or influenced important stories over the past 12 months, as well as those who have inspiring stories to tell, or have achieved something significant or influenced their societies in ways that wouldn’t necessarily make the news.

A pool of names was also assessed against this year’s theme – climate change and its disproportionate impact on women and girls around the world, from which a group of 28 Climate Pioneers and other environmental leaders were selected.

We represented voices from across the political spectrum and from all areas of society, explored names around topics that split opinion, and nominated women who have created their own change.

The list was also measured for regional representation and due impartiality before the final names were chosen. All women have given their consent to be on the list.

Book Review : Walking with Gorillas by Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Trailblazing vet speaks out on life with Gorillas

Published: Saturday, October 14, 2023, MONITOR

Like most things in life, there is a risk-reward dynamic when wild gorillas are habituated. Back in the early 1990s, Uganda had its first foray at habituation with the Katendegyere and Mubare groups. This was at Buhoma in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

While the economic benefits and ability to put a proverbial finger on the pulse of gorillas are all plain to see, risks—including diseases that can be passed from humans to animals—abound. This, compounded with other risk factors such as poaching, means the Katendegyere group, which was opened for tourism in 1993 with 11 gorillas, had by 1998 decreased to just three gorillas.

In her memoirs, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian recounts treating the Katendegyere gorillas that had been afflicted with scabies. Using a dart pistol and blowpipe, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka meticulously administered doses of ivermectin to the gorillas that were losing hair and developing white scaly skin.

“…We concluded that they (gorillas) must have been exposed when they left the forest to forage for banana plants and the bark of eucalyptus trees on community land, where people put out dirty clothing on scarecrows to scare away wild animals, including gorillas, baboons, and birds,” she writes in her memoirs titled Walking With Gorillas, adding, “Naturally curious, the gorillas may have touched clothing from severely infected humans and the mites burrowed under their skin, and when they groomed each other, the mites quickly spread through the group.”

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka, who was born on January 8, 1970 at Mulago hospital in Kampala to Rhoda and William Wilberforce Kalema, grew up surrounded by pets. After attending Kabale Preparatory School in Kabale District, Dollar Academy in Scotland, King’s College Budo in Kampala for O-Level, and Kibuli Secondary School in Kampala for her A-Level, there was always going to be one destination for her, really—veterinary.

And so it was. After graduating as a veterinarian from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), University of London, she returned home to become the first wildlife veterinarian for the Uganda National Parks (UNP). With time, UNP would rebrand to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Dr Kalema-Zikusoka also set up the veterinary department at UWA.

27 years and counting

Fresh out of vet school, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka had no idea that she would go on to dedicate 27 years and counting treating sick animals in the wild, relocating wandering elephants, gorillas and giraffes, reintroducing giraffes, rescuing orphaned baby chimpanzees, rescuing animals from snares, and testing Cape buffalo for zoonotic diseases.

Zoonotic diseases are transmitted to humans from animals. The transmission can also be vice versa as the scabies cases in the Katendegyere gorillas showed. Dr Kalema-Zikusoka further revealed that open defecation in gardens put “the gorillas at serious risk from common diseases in the community such as cholera and typhoid.”

Besides being a bastion for men, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka would soon discover that the sphere in which she was planting her feet had conservationists who were against veterinarians treating wild animals. The budget that the vet department at UWA ran off also seemed oblivious to the vulnerability of animals such as gorillas to human diseases.

Little wonder, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka ventured into specialised veterinary medicine at North Carolina Zoological Park and North Carolina State University (USA) when she left UWA to pursue her postgraduate studies. Her research was on disease at the human/wildlife/livestock interface. In fact, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) was born in 2003, with a mission to promote biodiversity conservation. This is by way of enabling people, gorillas and livestock to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods in and around Africa’s protected areas.

“Very few understood that people and animals can make each other sick and that, in turn, this can have enormous impacts on conservation, public health, and sustainable development,” she told Saturday Monitor, adding, “At CTPH, we developed a multidisciplinary approach to address these issues, but because it didn’t fit into a neat category, it was difficult for donors and policymakers to understand the potential benefits.”

Before Covid…

Together with the “lab-leak” hypothesis, a zoonotic episode is hypothesised as a potential trigger of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid-19 brought the CTPH concept to a broader acceptance, but wildlife veterinarians have been grappling with the reality of zoonotic disease outbreaks between people and wildlife for as long as there have been wildlife veterinarians…,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka revealed.
Adding: “Today, there is a global effort known as One Health that aims to help people better understand and respond to the intricate connections between the health of humans, animals, and the environment. By the time the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established its One Health office, Conservation Through Public Health had been implementing the approach for six years. The One Health approach really came into maturity during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Per Dr Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda is in the process of developing a National One Health Platform “to work together to prevent, detect, and respond to existing zoonotic diseases, as well as emerging pandemic threats.” Amid the tedious process of applying for funds to run the day-to-day operations and administrative requirements of CTPH, she, with great pride, talks about building capacity among young Ugandans.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s work has been recognised by some of the greatest conservation organisations. She is also the recipient of the Jane Goodall Institute Award for Conservation, among other awards. She has especially developed a strong bond with gorillas so much so that the loss of one left a deep scar.

“Just as we were about to launch the Gorilla Conservation café in December 2017, I received the shocking news that Kanyonyi, after whom our coffee has been named, had died. He had been one of my favourite gorillas, and I’d known him since he was a baby,” she revealed, adding, “Kanyonyi had taken over the leadership of the Mubare gorilla group from his father Ruhondeza five years earlier. …Kanyonyi had fallen off a tree and developed an infection in his hip. He was treated with antibiotics, but he’d fought with a habituated lone silverback, Maraya, and never fully recovered…”

She further revealed that “Kanyonyi had grown up around tourists.” As a silverback and leader of his gorilla group, she added, “he would deliberately set out to frighten tourists to see their reaction—his idea of humour, which was definitely lost on the unsuspecting tourists.”

Where are the women?

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka expresses disappointment that there are very few women running conversation organisations around the world.

“…as founder and chief executive officer of CTPH, I saw that the field of conservation, in particular, had very few women, not only in UWA, but also in Uganda, and shockingly, few women were heading conversation organisations around the world,” she notes, adding, “This means women’s voices are rarely heard. Thus over the years, I have learned that it is often necessary to raise my voice in a room that mainly has men.”

Citing the example of poaching, one of the biggest threats to wildlife conservation, she notes the telling role played by the wives of reformed poachers. This was after they noticed that these women initially “put their husbands under pressure to go into the gorilla’s forest habitat and collect bushmeat, which is also believed to have medicinal properties.”

Family support

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka met her future husband, Lawrence Zikusoka, in North Carolina while pursuing her postgraduate studies. They were engaged by March 2001, with the marriage coming six months later. During their courtship, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka made sure Mr Zikusoka met the mountain gorillas to understand her work.

“As a wildlife veterinarian, I found it challenging to balance parenting with the call of the wild, and support from my family and colleagues was essential,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka writes in her memoirs, adding, “We have often left our children with my mother and Lawrence’s grandparents when we travel abroad to raise awareness and funds for CTPH…”

It helps a great deal, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka writes, that “when I met Lawrence, he liked the fact that I was happy to be dirty in the bush. …Setting up an organisation with my husband gave depth to our marriage beyond having children, and has come with its own set of interesting opportunities and challenges.”

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says her husband “understood why I have taken our sons to Bwindi from the tender age of two months where Ndhego recognised his first elephant in the national park, and not in a storybook.” She adds: “It has been a joy teaching my children to appreciate and love animals and nature and to have empathy for poorer people we meet in rural areas like Bwindi. The Batwa traditional hunter-gatherers who lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest before it became a national park have become their good friends and have taught them many life skills such as making fire in the traditional way.”

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka lives in Wamala in Wakiso District with her husband and two sons. Walking with Gorillas is available in major bookshops in Kampala at Shs100,000, and on Amazon at $18.79 (Shs70,000).

Lessons from gorillas

An advocate of family planning, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian, has learnt to space her children from gorillas.

“I have applied what I have learned from the gorillas to my family, where we spaced our two boys using the same interbirth interval of gorillas of four and half years. This spacing is perfect because the older child is emotionally independent by the time the next baby is born and can even help to babysit and teach the younger child many important life skills.”

She adds: “Our older son, Ndhego, has taught his brother (Tendo Zikusoka) how to play soccer and how to handle animals, and I have always felt safe leaving Tendo under Ndhego’s watch, just like a four-year-old gorilla, who can build its own nest and will be able to play in a healthy manner with its younger sibling while helping its mother to babysit.”

Wildlife conservation and human health go hand-in-hand, says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka


Outward Voices is a collection of personal essays from individuals who are doing their part to protect our planet. For Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an organization dedicated to the co-existence of wildlife, humans and livestock in Africa, the success of mountain gorilla conservation is a lesson that human and wildlife welfare are inextricably connected.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel despondent about the planet’s future. We know that the Earth is warming up, that climate change is real and that it is happening under our watch. The evidence is irrefutable—we are now seeing and feeling the impacts of environmental damage on a daily basis.Everything from extreme weather conditions—such as droughts, floods and mudslides—to insect swarms and the emergence of new diseases are all attributable to climate change. It is a huge worry for us, for future generations and for all the species we share this planet with.However, we also have many reasons to be hopeful about our planet’s future. We have learnt so much about cleaner, greener energy recently—and the cost of renewable energy has reduced dramatically. Today’s generations and young people are also much more environmentally conscious, aware and concerned than previous generations. And under pressure from their constituents, governments are also more committed to a greener future, as are businesses that are having to adjust their products to meet the demands of their environmentally conscious consumers.This is all really exciting as it pushes us towards a positive climate action tipping point—a critical place when it comes to realizing positive and lasting change. When greener technologies and tools are so good and cheap, and consumer demand for cleaner, greener services and technologies is so strong, momentum is built and change is much faster.

In a recent report to the UN (March 20, 2023), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “Urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all. There are multiple, feasible, and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now.” This is really positive and motivates us to keep pushing for improvements.When I look back to the start of my conservation journey, I find hope in the story of the mountain gorillas. When I started out as Uganda’s first wildlife vet, they were critically endangered and widely predicted to be extinct by the turn of the millennium. It was a huge worry. However, in 2018—thanks to enormous efforts of all partners—mountain gorillas were reclassified from critically endangered to endangered, in recognition of their sustained positive population growth.Of course, the future of mountain gorillas is not yet secure, and the recent emergence of new diseases and viruses, such as COVID-19—examples of issues which are exacerbated by climate change and over-exploitation of resources—poses an increasing threat to their survival. Nevertheless, the redirection of their population trend to one of growth is one of the greatest conservation successes. It is something I am immensely proud to have contributed to.It also gives me hope at times when I feel overwhelmed by the continuing conservation and environmental challenges ahead of us. Nature is incredibly resilient and the more chance we give it to recover, the more it will amaze us with the speed at which it can. We just need to give it that chance.
The reclassification of mountain gorillas from critically endangered to endangered was a huge step for many individuals and organizations who had been working to secure a better future for these primates. Photo: Ryoma Otsuka
One of the most important things I realized at the start of my career in conservation—and the reason that I established Conservation Through Public Health to support co-existence between gorillas and humans—is that we cannot successfully conserve wildlife without improving the health and wellbeing of people as people cannot live without a healthy and clean environment.The health of people, wildlife and the environment is intrinsically interlinked; one cannot be addressed without the others. I talk about this in more detail in my recently published book and memoir, Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet about my journey in conservation leadership.As we consider our place on Earth, whether during Earth Month or beyond, I urge all readers to remember that their health, well-being and livelihoods are dependent on the conservation of our natural resources, environments and biodiversity—and to take action now to protect these for themselves and for their children and future generations. 

*** strives to be a low-emissions publication, and we are working to reduce our carbon emissions where possible. Emissions generated by the movements of our staff and contributors are carbon offset through our parent company, Intrepid. You can visit our sustainability page and read our Contributor Impact Guidelines for more information. While we take our commitment to people and planet seriously, we acknowledge that we still have plenty of work to do, and we welcome all feedback and suggestions from our readers. You can contact us anytime at Please allow up to one week for a response.

Champion of the gorillas: the vet fighting to save Uganda’s great apes

SOURCE: The Guardian
‘True friendship between people and wild animals is possible’: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who has seen Bwindi gorilla numbers grow from 300 to 500. Photograph: Jo-Anne McArthur/#unboundproject/We Animals Media

Under the watchful and resourceful eye of award-winning conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s threatened mountain gorilla population has made an impressive recovery – as has the local community

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is tucked away in a remote corner of southwest Uganda. Meaning “place of darkness” in the Runyakitara language, this dense, mist-swathed rainforest makes for a good hiding place for half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. The other half, which the American primatologist Dian Fossey so famously befriended, live in Rwanda’s Virunga national park.

These majestic but shy creatures – whose existence now generates about 60% of Uganda’s tourism revenue – like to hide, especially when they know veterinary intervention is afoot. The gorillas are always outsmarting the humans – if they see someone carrying a dart gun (for sedation, vaccinations, medicine, etc), they’ll walk backwards so as not to expose their backs, where the dart needs to land. They also like to mock-charge at humans, stopping suddenly to indicate they mean no harm, yet leaving no doubt as to who holds the power. And if they’re really not feeling the presence of humans, they’ll outright charge at you.

“If the silverback charges, no one will be able to visit that group,” says the award-winning Ugandan wildlife vet and conservationist Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, via Zoom from her home in Entebbe, which she shares with her husband, Lawrence, and sons, Ndhego, 18, and Tendo, 14. “In order for him to accept humans, you have to stay very calm, keep your voice down and avoid eye contact. That’s how it should be with wildlife – they should be in charge.”

Out of the mist: a silverback gorilla in the impenetrable forest of the Bwindi national park in Uganda.
Out of the mist: a silverback gorilla in the impenetrable forest of the Bwindi national park in Uganda. Photograph: Kim Paffen/Getty Images


We’re here to discuss the 53-year-old’s forthcoming memoir, Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet, a humbling account of a life dedicated to the survival of Bwindi’s endangered gorillas and their human neighbours. You may not have heard of Kalema-Zikusoka, but the book’s foreword by Dr Jane Goodall gives some indication of her status in the conservation world. “It is hardly surprising that this remarkable woman has been the recipient of countless awards and prizes,” writes Goodall (in 2021 she was named the UN Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth, and last year won the Edinburgh Medal for her contribution to science). “She has made a huge difference to conservation in Uganda.”

That difference has largely been achieved through gentle tenacity and impressive networking skills, even since her student days – Kalema-Zikusoka introduced herself to Goodall as an undergraduate at the Royal Veterinary College in London after attending one of her talks. And when she realised her dream job didn’t exist (while still at RVC), she wrote to the person who might be able to create it – the head of Uganda national parks – to say she wanted to become its vet.

And so in 1996, aged 26, Kalema-Zikusoka became Uganda’s first ever wildlife vet. At this point, there were only about 300 Bwindi gorillas left in the forest. After nearly three decades of tending to them, she now estimates a total of about 500 – the last census in 2018 counted 459, enough to downgrade the mountain gorilla from critically endangered to endangered.

It’s an achievement that has prompted invitations to sit on numerous international conservation boards, including the Dian Fossey-founded Gorilla Organisation, for which she volunteered while at RVC, “stuffing envelopes late into the night,” says its executive director Jillian Miller. Since the late 1990s, Kalema-Zikusoka has been a trailblazer of “community conservation”, notes Miller, at a time when most conservationists took “a top-down, colonial” approach. “Gladys was a natural at getting the support of local people.”

‘Gladys was a natural at getting the support of local people’: Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tracking gorillas in Bwindi,
‘Gladys was a natural at getting the support of local people’: Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tracking gorillas in Bwindi. Photograph: Jo-Anne McArthur/UNEP


Born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1970, as the youngest of six siblings, Kalema-Zikusoka grew up against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s military dictatorship. Aged two, her father, William Wilberforce Kalema, a former cabinet minister under President Obote, was abducted and murdered by Amin’s soldiers. For her safety, Kalema-Zikusoka was sent to boarding school from the age of seven, variously in Uganda, Kenya and the UK, and in the 1980s her mother, Rhoda Kalema, now 93, became one of Uganda’s first female members of parliament, for the Uganda Patriotic Movement.

That was not without danger either – she was arrested three times and once jailed for her politics. The legacy of both parents “enduring many hardships” is, writes Kalema-Zikusoka in Walking with Gorillas, what inspired her to “dig deep to find my courage”.

As a child, though, animals were her escape from the “cloud of terror”, and she’d retreat to the strays turned pets that her older siblings brought home. Bby the age of 12, her heart was set on becoming a vet – not a respected vocation in Uganda, she explains in her memoir: “People don’t place much value on pets in a developing country with so much human suffering.” After a school safari trip, where she saw how Amin’s rule had decimated Uganda’s animal populations, she knew wildlife veterinary practice was her calling.

Her first encounter with a wild gorilla, at 24, was “a life-changing experience” – and not just for that heart-pounding moment of “deep connection with one of our closest cousins,” as she writes. She had volunteered for a Ugandan study while at RVC, collecting Bwindi gorilla faeces and discovered that gorillas visited by tourists carried a greater parasitic burden. “What struck me,” she recalls, speaking from the sparsely decorated study in which she wrote her memoir, “was how similar we were to each other and yet we are putting their lives at risk. We had to do something about it.” That lightbulb moment has guided her work ever since. “When you improve the health of humans, you improve the health of the animals,” she explains. This holistic approach to conservation, of which Kalema-Zikusoka was an early advocate, is now known as One Health.

Field trip: standing outside the mud hut Kalema-Zikusoka lived in while studying parasites and bacteria in mountain gorillas in Bwindi.
Field trip: standing outside the mud hut Dr Gladys lived in while studying parasites and bacteria in mountain gorillas in Bwindi 


It’s why you won’t find any cosy photos of Kalema-Zikusoka cuddling wild gorillas, like Fossey and Attenborough. Unless veterinary treatment is required, she and her team of rangers, porters and trackers maintain a distance of 10 metres from the gorillas. Sharing 98.4% of our DNA with them means we can easily make each other sick with zoonotic diseases – those transmitted between animals and people, such as Covid, TB and scabies. Even back in 2011, she was encouraging tourists to wear masks on gorilla treks, and during the pandemic went to great lengths – including lobbying the Ugandan government for priority testing for Bwindi people – to ensure none of the mountain gorillas caught the virus (they didn’t).

Another zoonotic pandemic is “inevitable, sadly,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, whose expertise led to her appointment on the WHO’s Special Advisory Group for the Origin of Novel Pathogens (founded in 2021 to determine the source of Covid and prevent the next pandemic). It’s inevitable, she explains, “because we are disrupting wild animals’ habitats so much.” As observed with the Bwindi gorillas, “when you destroy habitats, those animals will go into people’s gardens”. Mountain gorillas, by the way, find backyard banana plants irresistible, and the ensuing proximity to humans enables “diseases to jump back and forth” between species. While the next zoonotic pandemic could be caused by avian influenza, she thinks it will “probably be [caused by] another coronavirus. It’s the worst kind of virus. As a respiratory illness, it’s highly contagious, but the majority of people don’t die, so it just keeps going and going. And it’s able to mutate.”

Given the great apes’ sensitivity to human disease, is gorilla tourism really in their best interests? It’s complicated. Kalema-Zikusoka sees tourism as a necessary evil. It’s true, she writes, that habituated gorillas – those accustomed to humans – are more vulnerable to disease and poaching and yet, “The mountain gorilla, where there is a thriving tourism industry, is the only gorilla subspecies whose population is growing.”

Hands-on experience: the translocation of elephants from Mubende to Queen Elizabeth national park
Hands-on experience: Dr Gladys during the translocation of elephants from Mubende to Queen Elizabeth national park 


What about the local community’s best interests? There are about 100,000 people living in parishes bordering the national park. Well, it could go either way – and has, over the years. After the Bwindi mountain gorilla was discovered in 1987, the early days of Uganda’s gorilla tourism triggered a messy vicious cycle. As the gorillas lost their fear of humans, “They’d go into people’s gardens and catch human diseases,” says Kalema-Zikusoka. Meanwhile, driven by poverty, villagers would head into the forest to chop down wood and lay snares for bush pigs and duiker (a kind of antelope), which led to loss of habitat, gorillas being snared and people getting sick from diseased bushmeat. Plus, the locals grew resentful of gorilla tourism, knowing how much westerners were paying and that none of it benefited them.

Through Kalema-Zikusoka’s many bridge-building interventions, that vicious cycle has been transformed into a virtuous one, with several programmes being expanded to other parts of Uganda and beyond. In 2003, she founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an NGO through which she could fundraise and still run One Health programmes in Bwindi. She recruited her husband, a Ugandan telecoms entrepreneur whom she’d met while studying for her masters at North Carolina State University, as treasurer, and her former research assistant, Stephen Rubanga, as secretary; CTPH now has 35 employees.

Instead of parachuting in outsiders, local volunteering has been key to its success. This empowers the Bwindi people and encourages them to be stewards of their own environment. To keep the gorillas away from those bananas, Kalema-Zikusoka formed the Gorilla Guardians – local volunteers to herd gorillas back to the national park. Twenty years on, Bwindi’s 119 gorilla guardians are “a source of pride to the community,” she says. She also introduced family planning to Bwindi, in a way that was sympathetic to the community. What went down best, she found, was contraceptive injections every three months (more convenient; less explaining to do to sceptical husbands), administered by trained volunteers from the villages. And she established volunteer health visitors from each village who’d teach households about hygiene and sanitation. Now, “when gorillas forage in their gardens,” she writes, “they find cleaner homes with no dirty clothing on scarecrows, no open defecation and no uncovered rubbish heaps.” With the gorillas falling sick less often, tourism has prospered.

Lunch on the go: a silverback enjoying a snack in Bwindi.
Lunch on the go: a silverback enjoying a snack in Bwindi. Photograph: Paul Wild/500px/Getty Images/500px Plus


And now that the locals get a share of the tourist dollar – through selling food, crafts and accommodation, or as porters, guides and rangers – they see an incentive to protect the gorillas (many rangers are former poachers and enjoy better pay and more regular work). A few years ago, a very elderly silverback was found dining on villagers’ bananas and berries, but the locals let him graze. When he died a few days later, aged around 50, about 100 members of the community attended his funeral. “This act of kindness signified how far conservation efforts have come in Bwindi and that true friendship between people and wild animals is, indeed, possible,” says Kalema-Zikusoka.

Yet it’s a fragile ecosystem. When Covid hit and tourism halted, poaching and poverty returned. It may not surprise you to hear that Kalema-Zikusoka created a solution, providing 1,000 of Bwindi’s most vulnerable households with seedlings of fast-growing food crops – pumpkins, maize, ground nuts, beans, onions, tomatoes, amaranthus, spinach, kale and cabbages.

Community conservation is an expensive business, though. The proceeds of the memoir will go straight back to CTPH, she says, adding with her ready giggle, “You know what it’s like when you have your own organisation – you end up giving everything to it.”

In 2015, Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee as another way to sustain her work. Although it hasn’t yet broken even, this social enterprise now supports 500 fairly paid, well-trained coffee farmers, 120 of whom are female. The premium Arabica roasted coffee can be bought in Britain (through, the US, Canada and New Zealand.

The need for funding is relentless, and anyone who’s ever tried to fundraise will know how difficult that is. Yet in 20 years, Kalema-Zikusoka estimates that they have raised more than $6.5m. How? “Gladys is always cultivating allies and donors wherever she goes,” says Miller. Driven more by purpose than ego, it seems, she sees herself less as a leader and more “someone with an urge to get things done”.

‘Now locals get a share of the tourist dollar, they help protect the gorillas’: Dr Gladys and staff with some of the members of the Batwa pygmy community in Bwindi.
‘Now locals get a share of the tourist dollar, they help protect the gorillas’: Dr Gladys and staff with some of the members of the Batwa pygmy community in Bwindi. Photograph: Jo-Anne McArthur/#unboundproject/We Animals Media


It’s all the more remarkable given the hangover of colonialism in African conservation, plus the fact that Kalema-Zikusoka is still a hands-on vet 15% of the time. When she founded CTPH, she was told by African colleagues, “You’re Black, so you won’t be able to raise the money.” Although things are changing, conservation NGOs are still “mainly run by white people,” she says, “and it’s easier for those NGOs to raise money. The funding comes from America, UK, Europe and it’s easier, I think, for people to give money to others from their own country.”

The point is, notes Edward Whitley, a financial adviser and founder of the Whitley Awards, which champion such grassroots conservation organisations, that “entrepreneurial conservationists, like Gladys, are skilled at finding creative solutions to problems that we, on the outside, may not even know exist”. Kalema-Zikusoka won the Whitley Gold Award in 2009 (“the green Oscars,” as she calls it) for outstanding leadership in nature conservation and has since received £140,000 in funding from the Whitley Fund for Nature.

Does Kalema-Zikusoka have any enemies? She laughs heartily. “I probably do. Whenever you’re disrupting the status quo, you’re likely to. Some people hate vets – old-school conservation has always been: ‘Don’t touch the animals, don’t interfere with nature’.” She has, in her time, encountered “chauvinistic, racist bullies”. “You still find such people in governments, in donor agencies.” She has learned not to take it personally. “I don’t need them to like me,” she says, “but you still need to win them over – let them see you’re working with them, not pushing things upon them; make them feel like their point of view is important – if you’re going to have a big impact.”

Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet by Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikosoka is out 27 April (Arcade Publishing, £20), or at for £17.60

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