The Ugandan Vet Saving Gorillas & Empowering Communities

Local veternarian, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka in Uganda © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the Gorilla Conservation Café in Entebbe, Uganda, I order a latte while I wait for Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. It’s not just any coffee in my cup, and as the name of the locale implies, this is not just any coffee shop. Both the café and the coffee are part of Kalema-Zikusoka’s collection of social enterprises that support her non-profit organization, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

Kalema-Zikusoka, known to most as Dr. Gladys, is a pioneering wildlife veterinarian who has dedicated her career to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. She does so by improving the lives of the people who live on the edges of the gorillas’ habitat in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Kalema-Zikusoka’s unique approach to conservation embraces the inherent difficulties of motivating a community to reserve concern for animals when they, themselves, are struggling.

Kalema-Zikusoka arrives wearing a black T-shirt featuring the Gorilla Conservation Coffee logo and the slogan: “Saving gorillas, one sip at a time.” She’s become a savvy businesswoman—she earned her MBA with a focus on social entrepreneurship in 2016, and she’s often photographed in shirts that highlight her initiatives.

Kalema-Zikusoka tells me she’s been interested in helping animals since she set up a wildlife club in her Kampala high school some 30 years ago. She attended the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College in the early 1990s, where about half of her classmates were women. When she returned to Uganda at age 25, she was hired as the first female veterinary officer for the country’s national parks. But when she spoke to local veterinary classes, she realized all the students were men.

“When I first started working with wild gorillas, there were no female rangers—hardly any women at all,” she explains. “Now, about a third of the rangers, trackers, and wardens are women. There are more vets as well, but there is a long way to go.”

At around the same time that Kalema-Zikusoka was studying in London, the Uganda Wildlife Service was beginning to recognize the tourism potential of its large primates—mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only three countries with wild mountain gorilla populations, and none live in captivity. There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, and about 60 percent of them remain in Bwindi.

There are just over 1,000 wild gorillas left in the world © | Christina Newberry

Conflict between humans and gorillas has always existed on the edges of Bwindi. Gorillas come out of the forest to feed in the banana plantations, destroying the farmers’ livelihood. The animals pick up human diseases from dirty clothing on scarecrows. When the farmers are struggling, they enter the forest to hunt and gather wood for fuel, disturbing the gorillas’ habitat and creating more opportunities for disease transmission.

Kalema-Zikusoka identified human scabies as a fatal problem for the gorilla community during her early research in 1996. She realized that in order to improve gorilla health, she had to improve human health. When communities are healthy and thriving, there’s far less risk of disease spreading between the two species, which share 98.4 percent of the same DNA.

As a vet, Kalema-Zikusoka had the most health education of anyone in the organization, which had become the Uganda Wildlife Authority by the early 2000s. She created CTPH to provide sanitation and family-planning options for locals, who, at that time, had an average of 10 children per family.

“Family planning fit in very well with our mission in Bwindi,” Kalema-Zikusoka elaborates. “Only 20 percent of women were using modern family planning methods. Now we’re up to 60 percent. We present it as a way of balancing the family budget, so even the men in the household become interested. The women are happier. They feel liberated. It’s good for maternal health not to have babies every year.”

Dr. Gladys with Gorilla Conservation Coffee lead farmers, Vincent and Sam Karibwende © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the same time, Kalema-Zikusoka helped create a cooperative of about 75 coffee farmers, which provides production, training, and marketing support to brand their Gorilla Conservation Coffee as a premium product, and pay them a living wage. They earn 50 cents per kilo above market price for their beans, which are processed in Kampala, and $1.50 from every bag sold directly supports the work of CTPH. Participating farmers also offer a coffee safari program that teaches tourists who have come to Bwindi for gorilla trekking about how coffee is produced, and how the social enterprise supports community and gorilla welfare.

Bags of beans are for sale in the café as well as 60 other locations, including the duty-free shop at Entebbe International Airport. CTPH distributes trademarked Gorilla Conservation Coffee in the European Union, Switzerland, and the United States, where the beans are available from Pangols, a wildlife and sustainability-focused e-commerce site. Each bag of Arabica beans features the image of Kanyonyi, a silverback from Bwindi. His image also looms large in the café.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which both supports the local community and saves gorillas © | Christina Newberry

Through her work, Kalema-Zikusoka has strengthened the bond between gorillas and the people who live alongside them, improving the health of both parties along the way. In October 2018, she received a Sierra Club Award for her “Unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation.”

In November 2018, mountain gorillas were removed from the critically endangered species list, though they are still endangered. The World Wildlife Fund cited “Community engagement, prevention of disease transmission and law enforcement” as key factors in the gorilla population rebound. “Gorillas are so similar to us,” Kalema-Zikusoka adds. “We want people to feel inspired to protect them forever.”

This story originally appeared in the 4th issue of Unearth Women magazine, now available for purchase in our online store.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: What We Can Learn from an Ugandan Wildlife Conservationist

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka observing gorillas. Photo courtesy: Sarah Marshall

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a WINGS WorldQuest Fellow, National Geographic Explorer and award-winning researcher, is one of the world’s leading protectors of the critically endangered mountain gorillas. She is the lead veterinarian at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a 321-square-kilometer wildlife preserve in southwest Uganda, where roughly half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas live.

As we settle in for our phone interview, Kalema-Zikusoka is having issues with her internet. Calling in from Kampala, the Ugandan capital, right after her BBC interview, she says, “Voice memo. Instead of a live conversation, I had to send a voice memo. I’m glad it’s working now.”

Adaptability seems to be on Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka’s mind more than usual. Her non-profit organization, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), which focuses on animal and wildlife preservation public education, has been considering how local communities can adjust to the new normal.

In a normal year, tens of thousands of visitors pour into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to see the gorillas. But, with all inbound international flights grounded due to COVID-19, the wildlife tourism that sustains the communities around the park all but disappeared overnight. Now, in addition to maintaining overall health of the ecosystem, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka and CTPH have an added objective of sustaining local livelihoods.

After winning the Sierra Club Earthcare Award in 2018, Kalema-Zikusoka began the process of writing her memoir, due out in 2021. Mining from her thirty years in conservation, she discusses integrated approaches to sustainable development in an increasingly interconnected world. Now, in light of COVID-19, her thoughts don’t just apply to Uganda, but to the world.

Photo Credit: JoAnne McArthur
Photo courtesy Ryoma Ostuka. A female mountain gorilla with baby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Recognize interconnectedness of nature and society

In 1996, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka was working as the first-ever veterinary officer for the Uganda Wildlife Authority when scabies infected a mountain gorilla family. Dr. Gladys discovered the cause was clothing and food items in a nearby community — zoonotic transmission, illness transferred between humans and animals. She brought the disease under control by educating communities on proper hygiene and infection prevention.

Deforestation and urban development push humans into spaces once occupied solely by wildlife. With the Bwindi scabies outbreak, the gorillas were infected by venturing into human living quarters that were once their domain. “Gorillas are naturally curious, they will explore the areas that used to be their habitat,” says Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka.

An April 2020 study by Stanford University suggested that deforestation could lead to a rise in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, which traveled from animals to humans. The risk of zoonotic diseases is high at the fragile point where wildlife, people and livestock intersect.

Recognizing the need for a long-term, community-invested organization to implement these and other measures, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka founded CTPH in 2003. Similar to the current messaging from the Center for Disease Control, the team recommended frequent handwashing and social distancing. Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka had long-term aspirations including family-planning to improve health and reduce family size, as well as education to alleviate poverty. Every step she took to improve human health, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka knew, would benefit gorillas as well.

The global economy can put local health at risk

The PPE crisis experienced in the United States was felt around the world. Kalema-Zikusoka recalls being in a virtual meeting with fellow researchers at the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, which experienced the same shortage of N95 and surgical face masks, “It dawned on me then…if Germany doesn’t have masks, then it’s no wonder we’ve run out of masks.”

Thinking quickly on her feet, Kalema-Zikusoka encouraged Ride 4 a Woman , a local non-profit employing textile workers in the community, to pivot from making artisanal tablecloths to double-layer cotton masks, which are now protecting government workers, CTPH researchers, and therefore the gorillas.

Return to self-sufficiency

In the early 1990s, when the park was opened up for tourism, the residents near Bwindi abandoned their physically taxing agricultural efforts to pursue the strong foreign currencies from tourists. But during government-mandated shelter-in-place, these Ugandan workers suddenly found themselves jobless, and without stimulus checks or unemployment insurance.

Since the pandemic, Kalema-Zikusoka’s team has encouraged the community to return to coffee, tea and sustenance crop farming. This crisis has forced us to consider the necessity of food, shelter and water, and how we can provide for ourselves.

Look out for each other

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka sees a change for the better among the tourists inquiring about upcoming tours at Bwindi. Previously, trekkers wanted to be as close as possible to the mountain gorillas, but now they are expressing concern about not getting animals sick, maintaining distance, and insisting that other guests wear masks.

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka sees how people are supporting each other locally and globally, something CPTH has been doing for years. CPTH organized a group of local farmers to grow and harvest coffee, which is now being sold in the United Kingdom and United States as Gorilla Conservation Coffee. “Now people who may not be able to travel to us can still support the gorillas,” she says.

The impact of COVID-19 propelled us to be a bit more cautious and more considerate of our neighbors, both human and animal, and increased our sense of responsibility for others. Making decisions that take into account how interconnected we are will be critical for global health moving forward.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee gets a Distributor in UK

Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a nonprofit award-winning NGO founded by Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, who was the first Veterinary Officer of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee was launched after Dr. Gladys visited farmers living adjacent to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. Here she learned that the farmers were not being given a fair price for their coffee and were struggling hard to survive, forcing them to use the national park to meet their basic family needs for food, fuel wood and other resources for survival.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee buys coffee at a premium price of $0.50 per kilo above the market price from 500 coffee farmers living next to Bwindi and supports them through training in sustainable coffee farming and processing. This helps to improve the coffee quality and increased production yield.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee further helps farmers by processing the coffee, then roasts and packs it and sells it in more than 60 outlets around the world. Supporting local farmers helps to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and their fragile habitat.

We are excited to let you know that we have extended our distribution in United Kingdom, with Moneyrow Beans supporting and distributing our sustainable single origin coffee.

Moneyrow Beans was founded by Vicky Weddell, a coffee enthusiast who is passionate about great coffee and supporting the local and international coffee community.

In her message to the new distributor, Dr Gladys notes that “We are excited to have our first distributor for Gorilla Conservation Coffee in the UK through this partnership with Moneyrow Beans. This will enable people in the UK to protect the gorillas by buying coffee from farmers around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, particularly important in this critical time of the COVID-19 pandemic when tourists are not able to travel to Uganda to visit the gorillas and support the local communities.”

‘I am very proud and excited to bring this great coffee to the UK and to support the important work of Gorilla Conservation Coffee and CTPH’, Vicky said upon receiving a shipment from Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

To make an order please write to Vicky ( and support this important cause.

For more information, please visit