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.”

The Princess Royal interview: ‘I’m not sure that rewilding at scale is necessarily a good idea’

With conservation close to her heart, HRH explains what’s needed to save animals under threat and how the monarchy plays its part

Inside St James’s Palace there is a bit of a flutter about the weather. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal has several engagements today, and things are not looking good; due to wind, the helicopter might not be able to land at the designated sites, which will make travelling times to and from events longer.

The staff are waiting to be informed by the police, who are in touch with the helicopter pilot. HRH, as everyone seems to call her, has not yet been told.

She has a lot to fit in: directly after our interview, she is off to a meeting about Gordonstoun school, in London, by car, then by helicopter to give a speech at an English Rural Housing Association conference in Bedfordshire, followed by a visit to the Aircraft Research Association, where she will unveil a plaque, then back to St James’s Palace to change for evensong at The King’s Chapel of the Savoy, where she will be reading the lesson for the Royal Victorian Order.

Her day will finish at about nine, when she will be able to eat. Quite often she has a dinner engagement as well. Next week she is going to Mumbai for four days.

Not for nothing is she known as the hardest-working royal. She is involved with more than 300 charities, organisations and military regiments, and last year carried out 200-plus engagements – more than any other member of the Royal family.

Her first official engagement was at the age of 18; shortly afterwards, in 1970, she became president of Save the Children – a position that led to her being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – and her work with that charity continues to this day.

Early on, her father, the Duke of Edinburgh, advised her to pick the charities she was interested in – and her interests have multiplied.

But one charity that is particularly close to her heart is the Whitley Fund for Nature, which is why I’m here. Started by Edward Whitley OBE as the Whitley Awards, WFN is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the Princess has been a patron for 24 years.

The annual ceremony takes place at the Royal Geographical Society in London and is colloquially known as the Green Oscars; WFN distributes grants totalling around £500,000 to worthy international winners.

So far, £20 million has been awarded to 200 conservationists across 80 countries. And the Princess has never missed a single ceremony, presenting the awards and delivering heartfelt speeches.


HRH is quite probably the most respected member of the Royal family. Her lack of pomp and ceremony and the low-key dedication with which she carries out her duties is much admired. There is no whingeing. She refused titles for her children, Peter and Zara.

She is well known for her dry sense of humour. She is an exceptionally accomplished horsewoman and in 1976 became the first member of the Royal family to compete in the Olympics; she had won Sports Personality of the Year five years earlier. She famously resisted an attempted kidnap in 1974.

She has also become an inadvertent style icon, often rewearing outfits she first wore decades ago, which is both charmingly thrifty and impressive in that she can still fit into them, and she seldom buys anything that is not made in the UK.

She recently made a good-natured appearance on her son-in-law Mike Tindall’s podcast The Good, the Bad & the Rugby and she seems like an all-round good egg.

She has both gravitas and spirit – there was some very moving footage of her accompanying her mother’s coffin on the long journey from Balmoral to Westminster Abbey.

Back in St James’s Palace, Charles, her private secretary, is arranging the chairs, anticipating where she might like to sit. HRH arrives in a striking bright-green suit over a striped silky shirt and heads smartly for a different chair than the one offered.

How did she first get involved with Whitley? ‘That’s entirely Edward’s fault,’ she says in her crisp voice. ‘But the common denominator is Gerald Durrell.’

The Princess grew up reading Durrell’s books and became patron of his zoo in Jersey, part of what is now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, in 1972. ‘He very kindly asked me to become involved in the zoo – as it was then – in Jersey, and Edward [later became] one of Durrell’s trustees.

‘He and I had similar beliefs in what Gerald was doing. Apart from the fact that Gerald wrote very good books, during his travels he seemed to understand better than most the impact on the populations in which animals lived and the relationship between them and their animals.

‘Being told you have to save this, that and the other is all very well but have you been there? Have you ever tried living in that environment to find out what that means to them? Because the fundamental point is that unless the conservation comes from the local area, it won’t be sustained.’

No one is going to save an animal just because they’re told to. ‘You’ve got to work out how the animals are going to survive with the people who live there, who will be the ones who make sure that it works.’

What was Durrell like? ‘Every bit as entertaining as you would think. His humour but also his understanding of the relative importance of things in other people’s lives was absolutely fascinating – and he was spot on.’

Durrell said he felt ‘sympathy for the small and ugly; since I’m big and ugly I try to preserve the little ones’. He was an expert on captive breeding, with a view to releasing into the wild, and he tended to select animals that were close to extinction, or those that could best be helped, or just ones that were not very charismatic.

‘Yes, not the sexy ones,’ says the Princess. ‘Or the obvious ones. His approach was very holistic. He understood the impact of habitat – not just on one species but how all of the things that lived in that habitat related to each other and that you couldn’t replicate that instantly somewhere else – it was very specific to an area.’

Gerald Durrell died in January 1995, of septicaemia. He was an alcoholic and had successfully received a liver transplant but died of complications it gave rise to. ‘He told me that there was no point doing a transplant because his old liver had got used to being fed all the things he’d been given to eat and drink in order to make deals as he went round the world,’ the Princess says, smiling.

Durrell’s legacy is long. One of his innovations was to establish training for conservationists from around the world. The first trainee went on to become the first director of the National Parks and Conservation Service in Mauritius, and thousands of students from 151 countries have since attended the centre, whose graduates became known as Gerald Durrell’s Army.

This became the title of a book by Edward Whitley, who travelled round the world to assess the progress of some of the trainees and the animals they were conserving – such as the largest eagle in the world in the Philippines and Alaotran gentle lemurs in Madagascar.

To launch the book in 1992, Whitley was invited to give a talk at the Royal Geographical Society, and he asked the Princess to come along. It was at the book launch that he decided to set up the charity.

‘I sat down with Nigel Winser, who was the deputy director of the RGS and a long-time friend, and we designed what became the Whitley Awards on the back of a napkin,’ he tells me. In 1999, Whitley asked the Princess to become a patron. By then, ‘Attenborough was already on board, which encouraged her to think it wasn’t a fly-by-night organisation which would crash and burn’.

The awards focus on community-based conservation projects around the world. In order to qualify, each project has to be up and running – it cannot be a pipe dream. Initially there was only one award; this year there were six – of £40,000 each in project funding – plus a Gold Award of £100,000, given each year to a past winner in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation.

‘The reason WFN is so effective,’ says Alastair Fothergill, whose company Silverback made the acclaimed TV nature series Wild Isles, and who like Attenborough is a WFN ambassador, ‘is because its grants are awarded at the very cutting edge of conservation, where relatively modest funds can go a long way. Over the years, the fund has kickstarted the careers of many pioneers who have become leading lights in conservation.’

This year’s projects included safeguarding seabird nesting sites in Mexico; establishing ‘lion guards’ promoting coexistence in Cameroon; and protecting pangolins in Nepal, lemurs in Madagascar, freshwater fish in Lake Victoria and saiga antelope in west Kazakhstan. Each one heavily involves local communities.

In addition, WFN provides continuation funding for award-winners. To mark the 25th anniversary of Whitley, Kate Humble, also an ambassador, and Attenborough hosted an event at the Natural History Museum to help raise £1 million for continuation funding.

‘It was the first really big fundraiser we had,’ says Humble. ‘And one of the donors underwrote the entire cost of the event – so everything raised went into the continuation fund.’

The RGS ceremonies are joyous events. In addition to being presented with their award by the Princess Royal, each winner has a short film made of their work, narrated by Attenborough, screened at the event. ‘I’ve been going for 20 years,’ says Humble, ‘and every year I’m blown away by the winners – what they’ve overcome, what they’ve achieved.

‘You hear so much bad news, and you think, you know what? The world can be OK because people out there are doing this stuff – it’s demonstrable, it’s scientifically rigorous and it’s working. [It’s] an incredibly uplifting and inspiring evening.

‘And every year I watch Princess Anne speak and she never sounds like she’s reading someone else’s words. She cares deeply about what this charity does and what these people who win the awards have achieved – she is not a figurehead just trotting out nice words and providing a photo op. She could run the charity, she knows it so well and cares about it so deeply.

‘I’m not anti-royal,’ says Humble, ‘but neither am I someone who would go and wave a Union Jack. But when I see her I think, frankly you’re worth whatever it is we pay.’

HRH talks with fluency and knowledge on every subject. ‘She’s like a sponge – it’s unbelievable the information that’s stored in her brain,’ said her daughter Zara in an interview for ITV’s Anne: The Princess Royal at 70. ‘It’s quite annoying as well.’

She needs to know a lot because she works with a diverse range of charities, taking in early years, healthcare, microfinance and animal welfare. Promoting collaboration between charities is key. ‘I do a lot of that,’ she says now. ‘I have meetings bringing them together which they all seem to enjoy, though sometimes it’s a bit illogical.

‘Knitting together all the international NGOs is important, but we need to look slightly outside the box – can we do this better, are there ways of helping people to be more sustainable?’

The Princess does occasionally discuss conservation with the King, she says, but she won’t say if they always agree. And her grandchildren? How does she teach them about conservation? (She has five, four girls and a boy.)

‘I don’t see so much of them but making the point that they live in an area which they shouldn’t take for granted is important I think; both my children are aware of that.’

Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, where the Princess and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, live in an 18th-century manor with 730 acres of parkland, has some beautiful trees – ‘the ones that survive – quite a lot don’t, we live on Cotswold brash which is not popular with plants; but having said that we have beeches.

‘You’ve just got to live with what’s there and make sure it doesn’t get overwhelmed. I’m not sure that rewilding at scale is necessarily a good idea – it probably is in corners, but if you’re not careful you rewild all the wrong things because they are just the things that are more successful at growing.

‘My biggest row at home is ragwort. Lots of people think that ragwort is absolutely brilliant because butterflies love it, but it’s not good for the horses [it is toxic]. I would say don’t take all the ragwort out, just where the horses are – but it’s quite a delicate balance.’

There are, she says, ‘quite a lot of horses at home, but they’re other people’s as well’. She rides whenever she can. ‘It’s a very good place to observe nature from.’

The Princess supports several horse-related charities, and became patron of Riding for the Disabled in 1971, and president in 1985. ‘It was just becoming a national body when I was invited to become a patron – at that stage I knew nothing about disability but the concept that ponies or horses could make a difference was obviously interesting and I knew about them. No matter what the disability was, the answer was, if they’d like to ride, we’ll give it a go. The commonality of the experience was important.’

Essential things for running a charity, she says, are evaluation and thinking of the long term. She cites the influence of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, ‘who constantly evaluated programmes to see if they were making a difference, whether they were doing the right things and whether people were invested’.

And it’s important to keep projects focused and manageable. ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that scale is the thing that defeats any good idea, because it can get to a size where people can’t cope.’

She has spoken in the past about the huge value of long-term commitment, in terms of the constitutional monarchy as well as in charity work. ‘Seeing things in the long term is a challenge,’ she says now, ‘but maybe part of our [value] – as a family – is long-term continuity, because the long-term view is quite hard to come by. And I think we can do that.’

May I ask what she might have done as a profession in another life? HRH laughs and looks vaguely impatient. ‘You can ask but I’ve no idea.’ Does she ever think about that?

‘Not really, and it’s way too late to have those concerns – in a way the fortunate part of my life has been the broad spectrum, to see so much. Not having a very specific interest has been a bonus, I suppose. We all have ways of doing things and with Whitley it is the practical aspects of what they do, and how to support them [that has been my focus].’

Edward Whitley, a member of the wealthy Greenall Whitley brewing family, set up Whitley Asset Management in 2002, alongside its finance director Louise Rettie, to serve a small number of clients. But there had always been animals in his life – his great-grandfather founded a small charity called the Whitley Animal Protection Trust; his great-great-uncle Herbert was an eccentric animal breeder who started Paignton Zoo.

In Edward’s office is a stuffed cockatoo that belonged to Herbert and a photograph of Mary, his favourite chimpanzee. Mary was famous for riding around on her tricycle and walking the dogs, or taking visitors by the hand and leading them round the zoo.

Edward studied English at Oxford then went into banking, joining NM Rothschild & Sons in 1983. He left in 1990 to write: Gerald Durrell’s Army came out in 1992 and he also co-wrote Rogue Trader, the autobiography of disgraced banker Nick Leeson, and worked with Richard Branson on his memoir.

Whitley is a tall, gentle man who doesn’t like talking about himself but is full of unbridled enthusiasm for WFN, and in particular its royal patron. ‘She transformed the charity – we never would have had the success we’ve had without her involvement. She saw what was possible and really helped us to achieve it, and she inspires the winners to do more. The winners are always pretty amazed at how she cross-examines them and cuts to the chase so quickly when she meets them.

‘She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, and a phenomenal memory, and she is also very funny… And think of her father and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – she’s seen what a lifetime of work can achieve.’

In her speech at the Whitley Awards earlier this year, the Princess Royal cited her father, Gerald Durrell and Edward Whitley as the inspirations for her work with WFN. Among winners and their communities, she said, ‘it’s the global ambition to truly make a difference that has been astonishing’.

The awards, she continued, are for ‘the people on the ground, they’re the sharp end… It’s all very well to be here and understand what we think are the challenges, and want to make a difference, but when you meet the people who are actually out front and can turn that into a reality, it’s a real inspiration.’

Over the years, she has visited some of the winners’ projects, when her charity work takes her to those countries, ‘but not as many as I would like’, she says. In Uganda, for example, she met Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who was working on improving hygiene in local communities after viruses had spread to gorillas she was managing in Bwindi national park. And in 1997, before she became a WFN patron, she travelled in a boat up the Amazon to see pink dolphins.

‘She was in Colombia for Save the Children and she asked the British embassy to include a visit to the Amazon in her trip – she was very interested in the dolphins,’ says Dr Fernando Trujillo, who went on to win an award in 2007.

‘The British embassy contacted me as an expert on rivers and dolphins. I was a little bit intimidated, and it was raining and I was worried we wouldn’t see any dolphins, but in the end we counted 32 – and she was so excited, every time she saw one she would jump up and down with excitement, and then rein herself in as if she suddenly remembered she was a princess. I could see her love for the environment was very genuine. From that day she was my favourite royal person.’

Another winner, Pablo Bordino, whose picture with HRH had been in the paper in Buenos Aires was flying back to Argentina. One of the flight attendants recognised him and when he arrived at the airport there was a television crew waiting to meet him. It raised the profile of his NGO – which protected marine life and habitats in Argentina – enormously and enabled him to generate further funding. ‘That’s the effect HRH has,’ says Whitley. ‘You can’t quantify it.’

Several award-winners went to the Princess’s 60th-birthday celebrations, including Claudio Padua, a successful businessman from Rio who gave it all up to pursue conservation, training at Durrell in Jersey and moving to a forest in Brazil with his wife, Suzana, and three children.

HRH had been to see them at their headquarters outside São Paulo and had taken an interest in their efforts to conserve the black lion tamarin, a monkey. They had no idea her visit would be such an ordeal, with all the security arrangements. ‘We had a call to ask what kind of security we had,’ says Claudio. ‘I said, “I have an old dog, that’s all.”’

‘She turned up with a security detail and entourage,’ Suzana adds. ‘They wanted to go into the forest to see the monkeys in our Land Rover and her security team asked, “Has this car been checked?” I said it hadn’t and they became very nervous but she ignored them and just got in anyway.’

Years later, the Paduas were invited to Buckingham Palace for her 60th. ‘It was a beautiful opportunity for us,’ says Suzana, ‘and as she came down the stairs she spotted us and said, “Oh how nice to see you. How are the monkeys?”’

The Whitley Fund for Nature is hosting a #PeopleforPlanet biodiversity summit on 6 and 7 November at London’s Royal Institution, where members of the public can hear live from Whitley Gold Award-winning conservationists from Africa, Central and South America, and Asia