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


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

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

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

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Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife vet and a renowned conservationist

Two one-year old baby mountain gorillas play together in the forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda Saturday, April 3, 2021. AP / AP



Countless natural disasters made worse from climate change and the degradation of our natural world feel like a steady drumbeat in the news. It’s hard not to feel discouraged, especially when we hear about the enormous amount of species that have gone extinct due to climate change and human activity. But there is hope.

This week’s edition of the Joy Beat celebrates the hard work and dedication of a world-class conservationist and wildlife veterinarian: Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. She’s the founder and CEO of the grassroots non-governmental organization Conservation Through Public Health, and her new memoir dives into her career caring for Uganda’s mountain gorillas. She joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath.

Arun Rath: First off, tell us about how you first got involved in conservation efforts in Uganda. I believe you started quite young, right?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: Yes. I first got involved in conservation efforts when I revived a wildlife club at my high school in Uganda. I was very excited to go to the national parks. But when I saw that there was very little wildlife because it had been culled during the President Idi Amin era, I thought that I should become a veterinarian who works with wildlife.

I’d grown up with so many pets at home, and I really wanted to be a vet by the age of two. But by the age of 18, I felt like I wanted to be a vet that works with wildlife. Then, I got an opportunity to work with captive chimpanzees, and then I also got to work with chimpanzees in the wild and, finally, with mountain gorillas in the national park, one year after gorilla tourism had just begun. And I became Uganda’s first wildlife vet.

Rath: Tell us a bit more about your first encounter with gorillas and how you came to become enamored with these animals.

Kalema-Zikusoka: My first encounter with gorillas was really exciting. First of all, it took me a week before I could see them because I developed a nasty cold. But once I got better, we went to visit them, and that day we only saw one gorilla. We could be within five meters of distance with him.

I looked into his eyes, and it was a really deep connection. They’re very intelligent. I felt that they were so vulnerable, and we need to do something to protect them. At that time, there were so few left in the world, and that made me feel like I wanted to be a full-time wildlife veterinarian because I felt we needed to do something to prevent them from going extinct.

Rath: It’s interesting because Uganda has such fantastic natural beauty and wildlife, but you just reminded me in this conversation that we’re talking about the post-Idi Amin period when the wildlife had not been taken care of. Talk about what the situation was and how the country had recovered in terms of the natural landscape.

Kalema-Zikusoka: During the Idi Amin era, the president himself was hunting elephants in the national parks. The national parks were supposed to be a safe haven for wildlife. The wardens tried to stop it, but eventually, they couldn’t anymore, so elephant poaching went up. Later, when the army overthrew Idi Amin, some of the soldiers also ate meat from the forests and the national parks, so a lot of numbers went down, and the elephants and rhinos were pushed to extinction.

Then, in 1987, mountain gorillas were discovered. They thought the only population was in the Virunga Mountains, but suddenly, in ‘87, after doing genetic studies, they found out that there is a second population. Having seen how Rwanda was benefiting from mountain gorilla tourism, Uganda started to habituate them, and a few years later, tourism began.

That completely transformed the situation in Uganda because gorilla tourism is now raising so much revenue that some of it was going to support the other national parks that don’t get enough tourists because they don’t have enough wildlife or it’s not easy to get to the wildlife. It really transformed the landscape.

When I first started working with gorillas, there were only two groups habituated for tourism. Now, there’s 22 groups. So at any one time, you can have almost 180 people in the park, whereas before, there were only 12 people.

It’s transformed people’s lives. Most people employed by the park are from the local communities, and we are also engaging them in our nonprofit, so it’s really transforming the whole area.

“You can’t protect the gorillas and their habitat without improving the health and well-being of the people who they share their fragile habitats with.”

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s wildlife veterinarian

Rath: My next question was going to be about how your NGO, Conservation Through Public Health, and how public health ties into wildlife conservation. But I feel like you gave us a bit of a preview on that. Talk about that some more.

Kalema-Zikusoka: Actually, one of the very first cases I had to deal with as Uganda’s first wildlife vet working for the national parks, which later became the Uganda Wildlife Authority, was a skin disease outbreak on the then-critically endangered mountain gorillas. They called me and said the gorillas are developing white, scaly skin. So I wondered what it could be, and a human doctor friend of mine told me the most common skin disease in people is scabies.

So I went with a drug called ivermectin, which is very good for any parasites. When we got there, it turned out to be scabies. The baby gorilla had sadly died, but the others recovered with treatment. Their hair started to grow back and stop scratching.

We started asking ourselves, “Where could this have come from?” The two groups habituated for tourism was spending a lot of time outside the national park because their habitat had been cut down, and they were always going out to look for banana plants. It had been cut down because of the high human population density. We found that those people were very poor and they had very little health care. When we met with them, they said they wanted to improve the situation because they don’t want to make the gorillas sick, and they wanted to be more healthy and have better well-being.

This made me realize you can’t protect the gorillas and their habitat without improving the health and well-being of the people who they share their fragile habitats with. A few years later, we founded Conservation Through Public Health.

I did research looking at tuberculosis in people, wildlife and livestock, and I understood how the public health system works in Uganda. All of this information helped us to found Conversation Through Public Health.

Rath: As I mentioned at the top, it seems like most of what we hear about wildlife and conservation is typically bad or terrible news — almost panicking. It’s nice to be able to talk to you about hopeful stories like this, about how wildlife can rebound. Can I ask you for any additional hope? Are there ways in which what you’ve accomplished in Uganda could apply in other places? Are there other ways that we could do what you’ve been able to pull off there?

Kalema-Zikusoka: Actually, we have found that as the health of the community is improving, people are not poaching as much. We show them that we care about them and their health, which is a basic human right, and not only about the wildlife and the forests. We’re very excited about that.

Tourism has also helped. Communities are much happier. I’ll say that there are other countries in Africa where the numbers of gorilla species are going down, but the mountain gorilla population has almost doubled over the past 25 years and is still growing, which is exciting.

In other countries in Africa, where there are no community benefits, there isn’t much support for communities — there’s still a lot of hunting. This particular model could really work, and it could also work in other areas with other wildlife.

I’ve actually been speaking at the Wilson Center today, and the very question they asked was like this. They said, “We would love to scale up our approach to other parts of the world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Ugandan gorilla vet on how Rwanda played a role in her early days of practice

SOURCE: The New Times
Uganda’s first gorilla veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. Internet

In a newly released book penned by Uganda’s first gorilla veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, she hinted on the role that Rwanda had in her early days of getting into the profession.

ALSO READ: Treating mountain gorillas: The story of Dr. Julius Nziza

Kalema-Zikusoka, 53, is a celebrated gorilla vet who won the Whitley Gold Award in 2009, in addition to being named a United Nations Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation for her work with the One Health initiative in 2021.

Titled “Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet,” the book tells the remarkable story of her animal-loving childhood to her career protecting endangered mountain gorillas and more wild animals.

It takes the reader on a journey with Kalema-Zikusoka, from her early days as a student in Uganda, enduring the assassination of her father during a military coup, to her veterinarian education in England to establishing the first veterinary department for the Ugandan government to founding Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), one of the first organizations in the world that enable people to coexist with wildlife through improving the health and wellbeing of both.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.


In one of the chapters, she says her first experience of treating wild gorillas was in Rwanda.

Having graduated from the U.K and returned to her native Uganda as a young wildlife vet in the 1990s, she was invited by Liz Macfie who was then the Uganda country director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) to go with her to Rwanda to rescue an infant gorilla from a snare.

“Because Liz was living in Kabale, a six-hour drive from Kampala, I got on a public bus to meet her at their offices before we drove ten kilometers to Gatuna at the Uganda and Rwanda border,” she narrates.

When she got to Kabale, Liz collected her from the bus station, and they crossed the border to Rwanda.

“These were the green undulating hills where the late Dr. Dian Fossey had set up a long-term study of the mountain gorillas. Though the director of the Office rwandais du tourisme et des parcs nationaux (ORTPN) mainly spoke French, I was able to pick up his comment that I looked too young to be a veterinary officer,” she recollects.

They stayed in Kigali for that night. The following morning, they got up early and collected Dr. Tony Mudakikwa, a Rwandan vet who was working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). After this, they headed to the wild to save the infant gorilla.

ALSO READ: Rwanda extends gorilla trekking promotional prices

“It was my first veterinary intervention with wild gorillas. I had been involved in treating captive animals at London Zoo, but not in the wild. When we got to the park headquarters at the base of the Volcano National Park, we gathered together some rangers, trackers, and porters to carry the veterinary equipment,” she recounts.

The equipment included a dart pistol and blowpipe with carbon dioxide cartridges to power the pistol, pliers to cut the snare, and a vet kit containing thermometers, stethoscopes, darts, syringes, needles, anesthetic drugs, anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics along with cotton balls, surgical kit, suture material, masks and gloves.

“We started to hike up the mountain. After one hour, we found the gorillas. Immediately the trackers started to make the comforting grunts with which I had become familiar in Bwindi. The Virunga mountain gorillas were slightly larger than the Bwindi mountain gorillas and more habituated, enabling us to get much closer.”

“The trackers showed us the snared infant gorilla, about four years old, that had a rope cut into his lower arm, a devastating effect of poaching, even if the snare was not intended for the gorillas, but for duiker and bush pigs that people like to eat.”

Liz and Tony prepared the dart while Kalema-Zikusoka passed on to them the syringe and needle as well as the anesthetic drug that they had to use. They walked in single file toward the gorillas, with Liz and Tony leading the team.

They successfully accomplished the mission of rescuing the infant gorilla, despite the fact that it involved challenges like having to keep its protective family members away, while the treatment was being administered.

From such beginnings, Kalema-Zikusooka has gone on to be a top wildlife vet in Africa and with her experience, she is an asset for the mountain conservation efforts in the three countries where they are found – Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo.

Meet Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: Uganda’s Gorilla Doctor

“When I first started working with gorillas, there were no women at all working in conservation in Uganda, there were no female rangers at all. Now we have female rangers, trackers, and porters. More women are getting involved in conservation in that way. I’m pretty happy about that,” says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

Over time Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, known as ‘The Gorilla Doctor’ has shifted her focus to also working in public health because it turns out community health and gorillas go hand in hand. In Uganda’s forest communities inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, there’s tension between humans and wildlife. People are living in very close proximity to the gorillas, and Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka has made it part of her life’s work to educate locals on the importance of health and hygiene for both themselves and for the conservation and future of Uganda’s mountain gorilla population. She does this through her NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). And, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise that’s part of CTPH was launched after Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka visited farmers living adjacent to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. 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 and fuel wood.

COVID-19 helped people to understand just how devastating the effects of human-to-gorilla transmission of a virus can be, but this is something the pioneering wildlife veterinarian has been working on for many years prior to the pandemic. Today she continues to work, day in and day out, to protect the health of gorillas, as well as that of the communities with whom they co-exist—with a strong focus on empowering women by improving their livelihoods through access to healthcare.

A female mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Uganda is home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. There are 587 of them in Bwindi. Image by Alicia-Rae Light.
Alicia-Rae Light: How did you get your start as a veterinarian?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “I always wanted to be a vet since—I grew up with lots of pets at home. I started a wildlife club in high school, and it took off from there. We took kids to the national parks and I thought, I want to be a vet who works with wildlife. Someone at the wildlife club offices told me about the mountain gorillas and I was so excited to hear about them but they told me we couldn’t visit them because they weren’t yet habituated for tourism. That was in the late eighties. Later when I went to the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, I got to choose an animal to work with during training and I chose Uganda’s mountain gorillas.”

Alicia-Rae: Was it hard to get involved with working amongst the gorillas since they weren’t yet habituated?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “It took a few years. Between the time I heard the gorillas weren’t yet habituated to the time that I was in vet school, they had habituated two families for tourism. A doctor who worked in mountain gorilla conservation in Rwanda came to set up the International Gorilla Conservation Programme office, an NGO, in Uganda. She was my supervisor and mentor, and she was very instrumental in ensuring that healthy, safe practices were set up to ensure that people weren’t making gorillas sick with human illnesses. I was looking at that closely, seeing how tourism was affecting gorillas by looking at their fecal samples, which I was given permission to do by the director of Uganda’s National Parks. Eventually, I was hired as the first-ever veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.”

Alicia-Rae: What was it like spending time with these incredible primates when gorilla tourism had just begun?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “It’s been a journey. It was a really exciting time as they had only been working with them for about a year, so the gorillas were not as habituated as they are now, they were quite a bit shyer. It was just an amazing time to be there and there were very few tourists. Not that I don’t like tourists, but it was quite nice to have so few people there and the locals are so charming, friendly, and hospitable.”

Alicia-Rae: When did the gorillas first come in contact with a human illness?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “The first disease that came to gorillas from people was scabies, a skin disease that came from people living around the park who had very little access to healthcare. That’s when we knew that we needed to improve community healthcare. I made it an imperative part of my work, improving the health of people who interact with the wildlife and live in close contact with them.”

Doctor Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tracking gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Image courtesy of Conservation Through Public Health.
Alicia-Rae: Tell me a little bit about Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), the NGO that you co-founded with your husband Lawrence?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “With CTPH, We realized that we also needed to look at people’s livelihoods because many people are unhealthy because they were poor. So now we have an active wildlife health program and an actual community health program. We treat the livestock as well and strengthen community-based healthcare for people and get them to also do conservation outreach. We’re integrating human health and animal health together and meanwhile, we’re also integrating wildlife conservation or everything together.

The fact that now people know that COVID-19 can spread from people back to the wildlife, especially the closely related wildlife, like the gorillas and chimps, and even onto cats and other species.

So that got everyone thinking about what we’ve been talking about for so many years: The impact of genetic disease on conservation and on public health. Finally, people really started to understand what CTPH has been trying to do all these years and advocating for. When the pandemic began I was getting calls from people saying or emails saying, ‘Oh, we understand what you’re trying to do now you know, human health equals wildlife health.”

Doctor Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative. Image courtesy of Gorilla Conservation Coffee.
Alicia-Rae: Tell me a little bit more about Gorilla Conservation Coffee?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka:  “My husband Lawrence thought it would be a good idea to help coffee farmers around Uganda. We noticed that a lot of the coffee farmers were not being hired and so they weren’t benefiting from being close to gorillas like other community members who could get jobs as rangers or porters who carry tourists and luggage, sell crops for meals, or work at different accommodations. The coffee farmers were being left out and were still going into the forest to poach and collect firewood just to survive.

So, we started to engage them as well. That also became a tourist activity because tourists could now go to coffee safaris and visit the coffee farmers. The tourists ended up being the main people who were buying the coffee. Not only the ones visiting Bwindi, but also in other parks because it was being sold in lodges all over Uganda, even the shops in Kampala, and Entebbe Duty-Free.

When we started the Gorilla Conservation Coffee enterprise, we thought most of the sales were going to be outside Uganda, because Ugandans don’t really drink coffee that much, we mainly drink tea.

So it’s all been part of sustainable tourism because we give the farmers better prices than the market price. But the coffee has to be very good so that we get repeat customers. Some people will buy the coffee to say, ‘Oh, let’s help the poor people living next to the gorillas. And then they’ll just buy once because it doesn’t really taste good, thinking they’ve just done something good for the gorillas, but what brings them back is that the coffee tastes really good.”

It’s like even if you can’t come to visit the gorillas, you can support them by buying Gorilla Conservation Coffee because then we’re able to provide an income for people who would otherwise be poaching during the pandemic. So, because of gorilla conservation, it meant that some people got an income during the pandemic during lockdown—the coffee farmers.”

Alicia-Rae: Can travelers come to visit any of your projects in Bwindi?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We have a camp in Buhoma called the Gorilla Conservation Camp with the best views of the forest. Our office is based right in the park! It’s where pre-pandemic we hosted students and researchers who are studying the gorillas. They get an immersion when they’re with us because we work with the gorillas and they also learn about the community issues and get more involved in our work.

It’s rustic, it’s not like the high-end accommodation you find in Bwindi, but to me, it has the best view in Bwindi of the forest—it’s amazing. People can also go to the  Gorilla Health Center and learn about the community work we’re doing. That’s something that we offer to tourists and also the students and volunteers who come to visit. Some come and stay at the camp, but even if they don’t stay at the camp, they can still come to meet me, see the health center and we do a presentation or a seminar.”

Alicia-Rae: How are you educating the community and what kind of impact has it had on the gorillas since the most recent, unfortunate poaching of Rafiki was poached—a 25-year-old silverback who was part of the Nkuringo gorilla group?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We have become much more intensive about it since the pandemic. There wasn’t much poaching in Bwindi before COVID-19 because there was so much tourism. But when the pandemic began and tourism had to be suspended for six months, not only because of the global lockdowns and preventing people from making each other sick but to prevent people from making the gorillas sick. During that time poaching went up drastically and that’s what led to the spearing of Rafiki. It was very sad, but after Rafiki was speared, we realized that we now needed to address hunger.

Rafiki’s killer was given 11 years in jail, which is the longest anyone has ever been given for killing a wild animal in Uganda. It was a very strong message, but as long as people are hungry and desperate because tourists stop coming, it will keep happening. Their whole livelihood was focused on tourism. People were very hungry and the money from tourism that was helping them to buy food wasn’t there. People had stopped doing things like farming since tourism came along, and took jobs as porters instead because in one day you could make what someone farming could make in one month or one week.”

Dr. Gladys In the field in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Image courtesy of CTPH.
Alicia-Rae: So how have you addressed the issue of hunger with a long-term solution in the region?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We realized that we needed to address hunger immediately so we started to provide them with fast-growing seedlings. We first went to the most vulnerable—the people from the village where the poacher came from, the Nkuringo Sector. We selected about 1000 homes there together with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, wardens, rangers, and village conservation team to identify the people who were the poorest. Of course, that included the poacher’s wife, a young woman in her early twenties. She’s the poorest of the poor, everyone there has a piece of land, and she doesn’t even have that. She’s living on her grandfather’s land in a small hut with three children under the age of three. When we gave her the seedlings she created a garden to put her crops in.

But those are the kind of people who find it worth it to go into the forest to poach for food, during covid, because they were hungry and could feed their families, or because they could sell the meat they poached at the local market.

We’ve done a small survey and we have our volunteers following up on them to see how they are growing. One thing that came out of the survey is that the biggest impact COVID has had on them is hunger.”

Alicia-Rae: What if something like Covid happens again? What can be done to protect those communities going forward because they’re so heavily reliant on tourism?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “Well, that was part of the reason also where we provided them the fast-growing seedlings—we gave them 10 different types to plant. It wasn’t just emergency food relief for them to have something to eat today. But it was also for them to get back into sustainable farming, which they used to do before tourism began, that was the only way they survived. So that when tourists come back, the money from tourism doesn’t go to feed their stomachs as they’ll have their own food source. Instead, that money can go towards other things, like paying school fees. Hunger is the most basic human need followed by other things. If the only way that they can feed themselves is through money from tourists, then that’s a dangerous situation to be in. This way they will always have food, and the money from tourism does other things to support their work.”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka hard at work in Entebbe. Image courtesy of CTPH.
Alicia-Rae: I know that you’re very involved with women in conservation in Uganda, can you tell me more?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “I think it’s important to engage women in conservation and Ride for Women in Bwindi is a shining example of that. We need to remember that women are half of the equation. If we’re only engaging the men, like the reformed poachers, which is another group we started to engage a lot more after Rafiki was killed, we’re missing the mark. When we approached them, the wives said, ‘Look, we tell our husbands to go and poach because we need the food for our home.’ So, we know we really need to engage the women because they are the ones who their husbands will listen to when they say don’t go back to poach.”

Alicia-Rae: Are there many opportunities for women to work in Bwindi?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “There wasn’t but Ride for a Women provided that. During the pandemic, a lot of them were about to be laid off but we got them to make masks for the rangers and everyone else instead of the traditional Kitenge clothing and tablecloths that were being sold to tourists pre-pandemic.”

Alicia-Rae: Are there rangers who are women?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “There are many rangers who are women, but the majority are men. When I first started out working with gorillas, there were no female rangers at all. It was not the job for them; the mindset was a female ranger or tracker doesn’t take people to the gorillas. Now there are more female rangers, and we even have female trackers and porters.”

Member of the Batwa Pygmy Tribe in Bwindi who used to peacefully co-exist with the mountain gorillas until Bwindi became a protected national park. Image by Wildplaces Africa.
Alicia-Rae: What was it like being the only woman in a field traditionally dominated by men?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “They used to say women can’t go to the gorillas, but I did. And other women are doing it now so I’m really pleased about that.

I was so excited about being with the gorillas and the work I was doing for conservation. That it didn’t bother me too much, but. And the men were very kind, you know, they would walk slowly so that I don’t get tired because they’re not necessarily fitter than women. I have to say. So that’s just how we were made.

It’s good that we’re having more women getting involved in conservation in that way— I’m pretty happy about that. When I first started out like twenty-five years ago, there were no women working here working in conservation. But eventually, I’m glad that I inspired other women.”

Alicia-Rae: Tell me about CTPH’s health education workshops?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We realized that if the gorillas could catch diseases from humans they could also catch it from other things. Like if people don’t cover their rubbish heaps or they defecate in their gardens, or if they leave dirty clothing, or scarecrows, and the gorillas come into contact with it, they are going to pick up other diseases. So, I was tasked with that job to hold these health education workshops about this issue—and that was my first time working in public health. And that was a turning point in my life.”

Alicia-Rae Light: Then what happened?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We selected the villages where gorillas were coming out of the forest and going into the human communities. Together with the district health authority, we were talking to the communities talking about hygiene, community conservation, and how their health and hygiene affect conservation. Talking about why this was a problem, helping them understand. I was about to say this is the solution until the warden touched my arm and said, let them come up with the solution.

They came up with much more varied and better solutions than I was proposing for them, which was a big eye-opener for me as a vet trained to solve people’s problems. I wasn’t trained to listen to what people have to do to solve their own problems.”

Alicia-Rae Light: What were their solutions suggested and how were they different from yours?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “One thing that they said to me that I didn’t expect to hear is that they wanted health services to be brought closer to them—and that was not among my solutions, mine was to be more hygienic, don’t defecate in the gardens.

And I just thought, wow, that’s amazing—I just didn’t realize that they didn’t get health care. I knew that the further away you go from the capital city, there are fewer services but I didn’t realize that they had no health services at all.

They were like, look, you need to continue to give us this education, it shouldn’t just be a one-off that you come today, you should be continuous.

And then also they said that we needed to strengthen the human gorilla conflict team and get them gumboots and make sure that they’re motivated.”

Alicia-Rae Light: The young women in the villages must have been very inspired by you…

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “The women were whispering to each other saying wow, we must educate our girls. Look at her, you know, she’s standing up in the communities and talking to us. She’s leading a team of men. They really liked that.  Girls there get pregnant at 15, and become a wife of someone, there was hardly any girl’s education. And that’s important because once the girls are educated, they influence their families a lot. You know, when you live in a home, few women are educated.”