A Ugandan vet’s amazing story of her work to save mountain gorillas


Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is Uganda’s first wildlife veteranarian

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media)

The plight of mountain gorillas is well documented. But it’s a story with some recent — if qualified — good news. In 2018, as their population topped 1,000, they were removed from the critically endangered list and their status upgraded to just endangered. That positive step was due, in no small part, to Ugandan veterinarian Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka overcame many obstacles to become her country’s first wildlife veterinarian, and she has proved to those who doubted that a Black woman could become a leading figure in conservation.

Her working home is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to roughly half of the world’s mountain gorillas. But early on she also realized that to help the animals and keep them free from disease and poaching, she needed to also help their human neighbours, launching successful initiatives to improve the health and well-being of the people living around the park.

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka spoke with Quarks & Quirks‘ host Bob McDonald about her new book Walking With Gorillas, The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet. Here’s part of their conversation.

When did you first dream of becoming a wildlife veterinarian?

I would say that I first started dreaming about it while setting up the wildlife clubs in my high school in Uganda. We had an opportunity to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park, which was one of the first parks to be created in the 1950s. And when we got there, we were able to take walking safaris because there were no more predators. They had been killed. And so I felt disappointed that there wasn’t as much wildlife as I expected to see.

And I felt that maybe by becoming a vet who works with wildlife, we can bring the wildlife back to its former glory. Uganda used to be called the Pearl of Africa by Sir Winston Churchill a few decades before that. And the wildlife was depleted during the Idi Amin era, it’s unfortunately Uganda was no longer teeming with wildlife.

‘Walking With Gorillas’ chronicles the incredible journey of Uganda’s first wildlife vet Dr. Galdys Kalema-Zikusoka (Skyhorse Publishing Inc.)

Conservation was not a huge concern in Uganda when you were young. Tell me about that.

My dad was abducted by Idi Amin when I was two years old. He was a prominent minister in the government directly after independence and he targeted prominent people. My mom was also arrested a number of times. So that was a dark period of Uganda history, unfortunately. And my dad didn’t care much about wildlife. He even used to hunt wildlife in the national parks. It was a time when people never really had time for wildlife and so many animals were poached because no one really cared about wildlife around that time. It was a time of desperation.

You write that before your arrival, injured or sick animals were killed because there was no other solution. And then you arrived not only with expertise but with an aim to change the attitudes about conservation. How difficult was that?

At that time in Uganda it was probably a little easier for me to change people’s attitudes because I’m from Uganda. But I could say that having been hired as the first vet for the wildlife authority, people used to see me coming to treat gorillas and already they were beginning to benefit from gorilla tourism. Their lives were already beginning to be transformed because some of the tourism revenue was being shared with the local community. Ninety per cent of the park staff were hired from the local community and some of them were porters carrying tourist luggage. Others could sell crafts and food and accommodation. So people were happy that I was out there keeping the gorillas healthy and tourists were able to come.

Two one-year old baby mountain gorillas play together in the forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda (Conservation Through Public Health)

Poaching has been a way of life there. Tell me about the “born again poachers.”

The born again poachers (laughs). A lot of the rangers who are hired used to be hunters or poachers. One of them even told me that they got tired of arresting him and they just hired him as a tracker. But that makes sense. He knows how to find gorillas, right? Actually even one of our staff confessed to me that he used to be a hunter and so did his parents and grandparents. So it really was a way of life. And engaging them in conservation is now giving them a more meaningful and regular way of life. So we call them born again poachers.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (blue t-shirt) with the staff of Conservation Through Public Health (Jo-Anne McArthur/#unboundproject/We Animals Media)

An important initiative you launched is called, “Conservation through Public Health.” What does that mean?

Conservation Through Public Health is a non-profit we began when people started to make gorillas sick. One of the first cases I had to deal with was skin disease in the mountain gorillas and it was traced to people living around the park where they had very little healthcare. The infant gorilla died of scabies and the others only recovered with treatment. And this made me realize that you couldn’t keep the gorillas healthy without improving the health of their human neighbours.

So after a few years working at the wildlife authority, we met with the local communities. And they came up with amazing solutions that work best in the community because they came up with them and they’re finding their own way of solving their problems and are owning it. And some of it included bringing health services closer. A lot of them live 20 miles away with no public transportation, and when someone falls sick, you have to carry them on a stretcher. This year we’re celebrating 20 years of Conservation Through Public Health, which is very exciting.

Adult gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Conservation Through Public Health)

Earlier in your journey, as you call it, you refer to the endless possibilities that lay ahead for changing the world. Do you feel you have succeeded in that?

I’d say that I’ve succeeded in changing the world, but there’s still more things to be done.

You know, the mountain gorilla population has almost doubled over the past 25 years. Local communities around the protected areas where we work are embracing conservation, the former poachers, the children and the whole country are seeing mountain gorillas as important. In fact, the 50,000 shilling note has a mountain gorilla on it.

During the pandemic, the president of Uganda actually said we can open up for tourism after four months, but not to the gorillas and chimpanzees yet because we don’t want to make our cousins sick. Let’s first have enough protocols in place. And I was very happy to hear that because even right up to the top leadership in the country, they realize how important the gorillas and the great apes are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Mark Crawley.


Uganda’s gorillas are back in big numbers at last — here’s how to see them


It’s been 30 years since conservation efforts to protect Uganda’s mountain primates began and their numbers have nearly doubled. Our writer seeks out the rangers, vets — and animals — who have made it possible

So far 44 gorilla troops have been habituated for tourism | GETTY IMAGES

In a patch of isolated forest on the edge of east Africa’s Albertine Rift valley, creatures slink between the shadows of towering trees disappearing into a tangle of knotted vines. From dainty sunbirds to hulking primates, an astonishing array of species hide in the deep, dark depths of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

In her memoir Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet, published this month, the primatologist Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka recalls revelling in the beauty of the green terraced hills of Buhoma, southwest Uganda. She first visited the region as a researcher in the mid-1990s and would later become the east African country’s first wildlife vet.

“When I finally arrived, the evening mist was rising,” Kalema-Zikusoka writes. “I felt like I had reached the ends of the earth.”

It has been 30 years since tourists first trekked to see mountain gorillas in Bwindi, a former reserve designated as a national park in 1991.

Researchers and government officials looked to neighbouring Rwanda for help against poachers. There, since 1979, gorillas had been habituated so they wouldn’t be startled by the sight of humans.

In the early 1990s the global population of mountain gorillas had dwindled to 600. Three decades later that figure has risen to more than a thousand, with over 50 per cent in Uganda. The remainder are spread between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lies to the west. The increase was proof that tourism can play a role in saving a species from the brink of extinction.

The Buhoma I encounter when I arrive on a soggy April afternoon is in many ways not so different to the raw, red-earthed settlement Kalema-Zikusoka describes in her book: smoke coils from mud brick kilns, women buckle beneath bundles of firewood and men strike heavy scythes into the fertile soil. In contrast to Rwanda, development here has been slow. There are fewer luxury hotels and infrastructure remains clunky. Kihihi, the nearest airstrip, is a 70-minute drive, accessible via a short flight from Entebbe.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest |

Things are changing, though. Chinese money has smoothed over potholed dirt tracks with tarmac roads; the national carrier, Uganda Airlines, is poised to start direct flights between Entebbe and London this year.

Kalema-Zikusoka has also been busy making improvements to the lodge at the research centre she founded, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), where tourists can book full-board, en suite accommodation for less than £100 a night. There are four rooms available on an elevated wooden terrace with views of the mist-veiled forest, all named after gorilla troops.

My room is Mubare, named after the first family of primates habituated for tourism; I’m hoping to meet them during my stay.

During a tour of the laboratory where most of her work for the NGO takes place, Kalema-Zikusoka shares fond memories of Mubare’s well-loved silverback Ruhondeza, who died aged about 50 in 2012.

“He would deliberately set out to frighten tourists to see their reaction,” she says. “It was his idea of humour.”

Revealing more anecdotes, she lifts the lid of a chest freezer to reveal hundreds of test tubes containing faecal samples collected from the nests of all habituated gorillas. Each one is analysed under a microscope to check for microbes passed from humans, part of the conservationist’s work in establishing links between the health of gorillas and communities.

As well as improving community education about personal hygiene, her achievements include setting up HuGo, a human and wildlife conflict resolution team, and founding the fair-trade initiative Gorilla Conservation Coffee. In front of the research centre several farmers sift through beans ready for roasting. The finished product is sold in packets featuring an illustration of Kanyonyi, another superstar silverback from the Mubare line. In the near future Kalema-Zikusoka hopes to open a café in an open-air dining room above the research centre. Set at eye level with peaks veiled in mist, it has one of the best views in Buhoma.

So far 44 gorilla troops have been habituated for tourism — although not all are tracked daily — but many more wild apes, chimps and monkeys live in the forest. In 1996 no more than 12 tourists would be trekking in one day; now 160 tourists may be in the park at the same time.

Guests can stay at the research centre, Conservation Through Public Health, for under £100 per night

Medad Tumugabirwe, who was a ranger in the park even before Kalema-Zikusoka arrived, was involved in habituating the Mubare group and has experienced the growth of tourism first-hand.

“At first the silverback Ruhondeza was attacking us,” he says, when we meet at the office for his Retired Rangers organisation, where he sits behind an empty desk below pages of hand-scribbled conservation commandments. “But slowly, slowly, week by week, month by month, he got used to us. Eventually he would send the babies towards us when he could see we were friends and not enemies.”

Initially gorilla permits cost only £121, but there was no guarantee the rangers could locate the animals so that tourists could see them.

“Communication was a very big problem,” explains Tumugabirwe, who retired last year. Without any radio equipment, gumboots or rain jacket, he would trek barefoot through stinging nettles and ants’ nests, occasionally staying out past midnight to check on the gorillas’ location.

Despite the hardships he endured, 30 years later the agile 60-year-old still feels young. Currently seeking funds through a Kickstarter campaign, he hopes his NGO will provide an emotional and financial support network for retired men and women with plenty of energy still left in their tanks. “I dream about gorillas,” he confesses, his voice trembling with mixed emotions of pride and sadness. “My life was — and still is — gorillas.”

Mubare’s original members have either died or joined other families, but I plan to meet a new generation — Mubare’s nine descendants — the following morning. In contrast to Tumugabirwe’s early days, gorilla trekking is now a far smoother, carefully orchestrated experience: a maximum of eight tourists is assigned to each troop, who will have been closely monitored by trackers since first light.

“They’re not shy,” warns Amos Nduhukire, our ranger, as he shows us a family tree of Mubare’s current members during a briefing at the park’s headquarters. “They’ll run between your legs.”

Mountain gorillas are the only gorilla subspecies whose population is growing |

After a short drive to reach the unmapped village of Kanyerere, we begin our trek through farmland. Mud brick houses peek from behind the fanning leaves of banana plants on a crush of hilltops. Women dressed in bright kitenge fabrics are bent double sowing potato seeds for harvest. On pathways children have laid out sketches of gorillas for sale. A revenue-sharing scheme means 20 per cent of all park fees are invested in surrounding communities, along with an additional £8 of every £565 permit going to those living close to Bwindi.

A couple of hours after slipping and sliding on steep forest trails matted with tree roots, we mask up (a new rule introduced during the pandemic) and prepare for our one-hour audience with the gorillas.

Tumbling from the bushes, juveniles roll past our feet, making it tricky to keep the required 10m distance. Staring at his reflection in my camera lens, one toddler points a thick, stubby digit in my direction. But he’s soon distracted by a sibling pouncing playfully on his back. More interested in foraging for fresh leaves, his mother scales a fig tree.

Submerged in nettles, the silverback Maraya is indifferent to his human visitors. Barely lifting an eyelid, the alpha ape fiddles with his belly button before mounting a female and grunting pornographically.

“I told you they weren’t shy,” sniggers Nduhukire, as the big daddy lets rip an explosive fart.

Without doubt habituation has altered the behaviour of these animals, making them less wild. One of the biggest contentions between leaders in conservation and tourism is whether more gorillas should be habituated. Nelson Guma, Bwindi’s chief park warden, says there are no plans for further habituation. Splits in existing families are creating enough groups to meet demands. He also hints at a possible increase of permit prices to “harmonise” with Rwanda’s £1,210 fee.

When we meet at his office next to the park gates in Buhoma, he admits Uganda’s success has also brought challenges, including increasing pressure on space as both gorilla and human communities grow.

“When you remove the fear of humans from gorillas, they go to where people are,” he says, outlining plans to clear thick areas of vegetation within the forest to make them more accessible to gorillas. Forcibly moving villages to create a buffer zone would be a last resort.

Understandably it’s a sensitive topic. Controversially evicted from Bwindi in the early 1990s, the Batwa hunter-gatherer community has never fully adapted to a new world. Groups continue to campaign for rights to re-enter the forest and perform traditional ceremonies, but the risk of transmitting diseases to the animals, who are genetically close to humans, is too great.

And here lies the great contradiction of habituation efforts: despite years of trying to bring people and gorillas together, it’s imperative they stay apart.

Yet Kalema-Zikusoka thinks the necessary evil of tourism isn’t quite the demon it’s made out to be. Weighing up the pros and cons back at the CTPH’s scenic dining area, she admits all arguments boil down to the same conclusion: mountain gorillas are the only gorilla subspecies whose population is growing.

Nodding in agreement, I watch the peaks of extinct volcanoes ghost into the horizon and listen to the fading calls of roosting colobus monkeys as dusk falls. Bwindi is derived from the word Mubwindi, which means “place of darkness” in the local language Runyakitara. But the thriving forest I see below me has evolved into a sanctuary penetrated by rays of light.

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Great Lakes Safaris, which has five nights’ B&B from £1,873pp, including domestic flights, one gorilla trek permit and some extra meals (greatlakessafaris.com). Fly to Entebbe


Uganda’s first wildlife vet calls for more gorilla tourism

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka recalls a cheeky monkey that inspired her younger self to dream big. Today, as the country marks the 30th anniversary of gorilla tourism, she’s a key reason for its success.

A silverback family from the Mubare group of gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Nick Penny

Uganda’s great apes owe a debt of gratitude to a pet vervet called Poncho. The monkey belonged to the Cuban ambassador to Uganda in the 1970s; he would sit on the gate of the neighbouring house in Kampala, where a young Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka lived with her family.

“I was fascinated by his fingers and fingernails that looked exactly like mine – so human,” she writes in her recently published memoir, Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet.

“He was my first venture into studying primates.”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and a ranger track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project

It was a time of tremendous political upheaval. Kalema-Zikusoka’s parents had both been involved in politics; when Idi Amin staged a coup in 1971, her father – a tireless advocate for social upliftment and a member of the overthrown government – was assassinated.

“I was only two years old, so I never got to know him,” she says. “And writing the book, I realised he had had so much impact on my life.”

Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s product helps small-scale coffee farmers make a living in the region surrounding Uganda’s endangered gorillas.
This legacy is self-evident as I sit down with Kalema-Zikusoka at her cafe in Entebbe, near the shores of Lake Victoria. An offshoot of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, the social enterprise supports smallholder coffee farmers from around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, stronghold of Uganda’s endangered gorilla population, a short flight west of here.It’s one of many initiatives spearheaded by her organisation Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), which she founded in 2003 with the aim of empowering communities and so improving outcomes for the gorilla population.This visionary disposition bloomed early: in high school, Kalema-Zikusoka helped revive the school’s Wildlife Club, and persuaded the principal to take students on an excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park.
“There were very few animals, so it was a big disappointment. I couldn’t believe that there were hardly any lions,” she recalls. “I thought, maybe I should be a vet who works with wildlife. But such a position didn’t exist in Uganda at the time.”Nonetheless, Kalema-Zikusoka pursued studies at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College in the UK. It wasn’t until after the first gorilla tourists had arrived in Uganda in 1993 that she got to work with the primates while on a student research placement at Bwindi. Trekking with tourists, she was struck by the potential for conservation-led economic growth.
An adult blackback gorilla shelters from the rain. Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project

“I got to understand the role of tourism in conservation and how communities are benefiting from tourism,” she says.

This positive impact had been demonstrated in neighbouring Rwanda, where gorillas were attracting crowds. Uganda, by comparison, was flailing – even though about half the mountain gorilla population – now estimated to number 1063 – is found in Uganda (they also range across the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka leads tourists on a gorilla trek in Bwindi. “Once a community member meets a tourist, they’re much less likely to poach, much less likely to destroy the habitat.” Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project

The experience also underlined the risks inherent in human-gorilla interaction: shared DNA renders great apes susceptible to human-borne diseases. As tourism improved, so the risks to habituated gorillas increased. After her stint at Bwindi, Kalema-Zikusoka presented a report to the then executive director of Uganda National Parks, Dr Eric Edroma, outlining the risks and the critical need for a dedicated wildlife vet. He told her that when she graduated, the job would be waiting for her.

The following year, degree in hand, she returned home and set up a vet unit with the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka helps a gorilla called Kahara to her feet after rectal prolapse surgery.

“There were so many firsts,” she recalls. “No-one thought you should even touch a wild animal to treat it. It was always [about] breaking barriers. I’d meet resistance, but then I’d also meet people who were supporting me. I worked with them, and we’d get it done.”

Kalema-Zikusoka shaped her job description on the run: one day she’d be translocating giraffes, the next she’d be deep in the rainforest removing a snare from a gorilla’s limb. In-between, she married and had two children, lobbied for funding and built networks with government departments, academics and conservationists including primatologist Dr Jane Goodall. In the forward to Kalema-Zikusoka’s book, Goodall calls her an “inspiring example” who “has made a huge difference to conservation in Uganda”.

Soon after the vet unit’s launch, the intractable link between human and gorilla health was amplified when a baby gorilla died during a scabies outbreak. The infection was traced to impoverished communities living on the park’s periphery; gorillas would often forage in their gardens. CTPH was established in response to the predicament, and in the two decades since has achieved untold success.

CTPH team members always masks when monitoring gorillas, who are susceptible to human diseases because we are so closely related to them. CTPH

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Kalema-Zikusoka says. “Gorillas are herded back [from community land] before they get sick. Since people are getting more healthy and hygienic we haven’t had a scabies outbreak, [and] giardia has almost disappeared in the gorillas. And as we attend to people’s health and their needs, they care more about the gorillas because we show them that we are not only concerned about the gorillas and the forest and the wildlife, but we also care about them. So, they’re more likely to want to protect the wildlife.”

Collecting gorilla poo is an important part of the job. Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project

Such is CTPH’s success, it has won international funding and recognition for its work – which now includes environmental preservation, family planning programs and support for sustainable agricultural practices such as the coffee project. A laboratory monitors gorilla health and a community lodge offers accommodation overlooking a ripple of mist-plugged valleys at Buhoma, Bwindi’s primary gateway.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s memoir was published in March and is available in Australia.

When COVID-19 struck in 2020, CTPH rose to yet another seemingly insurmountable challenge. Appointed to the government’s COVID-19 taskforce, Kalema-Zikusoka was able to prioritise an immunisation program for rangers and insist on mandatory vaccinations for tourists. She’d long lobbied for a mask mandate for gorilla tourists, and the pandemic helped facilitate this directive. But Bwindi’s habituated gorilla troops remain exposed.

“[Tourists are] wearing masks, but they still want to get close to the gorillas,” she says. “We are continuing to test for respiratory viruses, but also looking at other things like bacteria, salmonella, typhoid.”

And though the great apes have demanded the lion’s share of her time, Kalema-Zikusoka hasn’t forgotten the residents of Queen Elizabeth National Park, where her dream to become a wildlife vet took root all those years ago. Now stable, its lion population is nonetheless vulnerable. As tourism has cast a lifeline to gorillas, so she hopes it might change the fate of wildlife in Uganda’s lesser-known parks.

“The savannah parks are not getting enough tourists,” she says. “It is not enough just to see the wildlife – if you visit the communities, they’re less likely to kill the gorilla, the chimp, the lion, the elephant.

“Once a community member meets a tourist, they’re much less likely to poach, much less likely to destroy the habitat.”

As once a curious child who encountered a pet vervet and a park bereft of lions was wont to choose an unconventional path – one that would change the course of Ugandan conservation.

Catherine Marshall travelled to Uganda as a guest of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

VIP book launch for Cookham-celebrated Ugandan conservationist

SOURCE: Maidenhead Advertiser
Katherine Oakes, Lawrence Zikusoka, Claudia Hammond, Dr Gladys, Sarah Parfitt, Terry Wilson and Vicky Weddell

Borough businesses and schoolchildren supported a VIP book launch for an esteemed Ugandan wildlife vet with a special connection to Cookham in London last week.

Uganda’s first wildlife vet Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, an award-winning NGO that protects endangered gorillas.

The celebrated wildlife vet has won numerous awards for protecting gorillas and revolutionising conservation work, with a focus on the integrated health of humans and wildlife.

Her book launch supporters included businesses from the Metre Market (which pops up in Holyport and Cookham) as well as students from Furze Platt and Cox Green schools.

The event at the Uganda High Commission was organised by Media Hub founder Sarah Parfitt in Cookham and Katherine Oakes from Moneyrow Beans in Holyport.

The Ugandan foreign minister Jeje Odongo was also there, alongside Ugandan diplomat Nimisha Madhvani and members of the scientific community.

Dr Gladys shared anecdotes from her memoir ‘Walking With Gorillas’ with BBC presenter Claudia Hammond.

Her dream to write a book started to become a reality in Cookham at the Media Hub in 2019.

This also inspired Vicky Weddell from Moneyrow Beans to distribute Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which supports coffee farmers and Dr Gladys’ conservation work.