Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka wants more people to understand how closely intertwined human health and wildlife health are.(Supplied: Kibuuka Mukisa/UNEP)

How Uganda’s First Wildlife vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is Saving Endangered Gorillas

Source: ABC RN / By Nick Baker and Jessie Kay for Saturday Extra | August 8th, 2023

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka wants more people to understand how closely intertwined human health and wildlife health are.(Supplied: Kibuuka Mukisa/UNEP)

When Idi Amin launched a coup and took power of Uganda in 1971, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s father was among the first victims of the brutal dictatorship that followed.

“[My father] was a senior cabinet minister in the previous government … [so] he was abducted and killed,” she tells ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka was two years old at the time, and she grew up wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps — by devoting her life to helping the country develop and thrive.

On a high school visit to Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, it became clear how she could do it.

The park had very little wildlife, as much of it had disappeared over Idi Amin’s eight years in power.

During that time, both poaching and the ivory trade were encouraged, with the dictator himself hunting animals in the country’s national parks.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t I become a vet who can bring Uganda’s wildlife back to its former glory’,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says.

Changing the attitude to conservation

After high school, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka won a scholarship to study at the University of London Royal Veterinary College.

When she returned to Uganda, she convinced the government to appoint her as the country’s first wildlife veterinarian.

Early in her career, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka became focused on protecting the wildlife in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)
Early in her career, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka became focused on protecting the wildlife in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)

“[But] the attitude towards conservation back then was that animals shouldn’t be touched. They should just be left to natural selection,” she says.

“People looked at me rather strangely when I said we have to treat [injured or sick] animals.”

A key focus for Dr Kalema-Zikusoka was the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which represent around half of the world’s population of these great apes.

At the time, they numbered just 300 in the park.

And their biggest problem — by far — was humans.

When humans and animals interact

For the Bwindi gorillas, there is a litany of threats from humans.

Habitat destruction and poachers are among these, but what’s less recognised is the health impact of having humans living in very close proximity.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says humans and gorillas are “always mixing” as there are communities located right on the edge of the park.

Mountain gorillas are endangered, with only around 1,000 alive in the wild.(Supplied: Jo Anne McArthur)
Mountain gorillas are endangered, with only around 1,000 alive in the wild.(Supplied: Jo Anne McArthur)

And just as humans can pass on illness to other humans, they can also pass on illness to gorillas.

“We share over 98 per cent of our genetic material [with the gorillas] … We’re closely related and we can easily make each other sick,” she says.

An unusual case of scabies

One of the first jobs that Dr Kalema-Zikusoka undertook as government vet was looking into a skin condition affecting the Bwindi gorillas.

The gorillas had rashes and were insatiably itchy — symptoms similar to scabies.

Around half of the world's wild mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)
Around half of the world’s wild mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says there are occasional scabies outbreaks in some less-developed communities in Uganda.

“This gorilla group was spending a lot of time outside the park. So they probably came across dirty clothing … and that’s how they got it.”

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka was able to treat the gorillas with medicine, but one baby gorilla died from the skin condition.

Living side by side

The scabies case, particularly the baby gorilla’s death, was “a big eye-opener” for Dr Kalema-Zikusoka.

“I realised you couldn’t really keep the gorillas healthy without improving the health of their human neighbours.”

But at the time, healthcare options in the communities around the park were dismal.

“[People near the park] had very limited access to good healthcare … the nearest health centre was around 20 miles [32km] away,” she says.

“If someone fell sick, they had to carry them on a stretcher to the health centre.”

Bwindi gorillas have been treated for scabies, contracted from humans. This can be fatal for some of the great apes.(Getty Images: SOPA Images)
Bwindi gorillas have been treated for scabies, contracted from humans. This can be fatal for some of the great apes.(Getty Images: SOPA Images)

So in 2003, she co-founded a non-profit organisation called Conservation Through Public Health, which focuses on the interdependence of human health and that of wildlife, specifically gorillas.

Her approach to conservation is known as “One Health”, which is about “addressing things holistically”.

As part of the work, “teams spread good health and hygiene [messages] and good conservation attitudes and practices”, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says.

She says the approach is working.

After a few years of the holistic conservation practice, human and animal health outcomes changed.

“We found that as people were falling sick less often, gorillas were falling sick less often,” she says.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka and members of the Conservation Through Public Health team out monitoring a gorilla group.(Supplied: Conservation Through Public Health)
Dr Kalema-Zikusoka and members of the Conservation Through Public Health team out monitoring a gorilla group.(Supplied: Conservation Through Public Health)

A 2018 count found that the Bwindi gorilla population had increased by more than 150 — to 459 in total — which moved them from “critically endangered” to “endangered”.

For her work, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka has received praise from the likes of conservation royalty Jane Goodall, who she first crossed paths with in 1993.

Dr Goodall supplied the foreword to Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s new memoir, Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet.

“She has made a huge difference to conservation in Uganda, and she is an inspiring example,” Dr Goodall writes.

COVID-19 and gorillas

Gorilla tourism has been part of Uganda for three decades — and it’s brought dollars and development to communities near the park.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka wants outsiders to come and safely meet the great apes, but it’s not without risk.

“Tourists can bring a fatal flu,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says.

COVID-19 poses a threat to the wild mountain gorillas.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)
COVID-19 poses a threat to the wild mountain gorillas.(Supplied: Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka)

Researchers have documented cases where humans have passed on respiratory viruses to gorillas, and while these are often mild, they are sometimes deadly.

So when COVID-19 hit, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka and her team swung into action to further protect the gorillas.

Elsewhere in the world, at San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Prague Zoo a number of gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 after catching the virus from humans.

“During the pandemic, we advocated to the government that everybody should wear masks when they come close to the gorillas, whether it’s the park staff or the tourists or the local community members,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says.

“And that really worked. The gorillas did not pick up COVID from people.”

She says the pandemic has made even more people understand the connection between animal and human health, and that “diseases can jump back and forth” between the two.

And while there is still work to be done to improve human and animal health in Uganda, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka says the attitude towards the country’s wildlife — especially the gorillas — has changed.

“The communities really see gorillas as their future,” she says.

How gorilla tourism became a conservation success story

Published at August 18, 2023 by Catherine Marshall

Source:The Age

Somewhere high above me, the mountains are touching the sun. They sweep heavenwards like mighty barricades, their flanks cloaked in a tangle of forest, their peaks concealed in a pall of cloud.

“We expect the baptism every time,” warns guide Amos Nduhukire.

But this forest’s density is self-evident; enmeshed vegetation will surely shield us from the deluge as we penetrate its understory. Ahead of us lies a path swaddled in vines, spongy with accumulated rainfall. We must step carefully lest we slip, we must duck and swerve to avoid the forest’s probing tentacles.

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

A sound emanates from deep within: a pulsating wheeze, a baritone groan. It erases the symphony of insectile clamour and gentle birdsong. Nduhukire pauses. The sound comes again. He plunges into the undergrowth, beckoning me to follow. As we pass through a clearing, I realise the baptism he warned of was overstated: the clouds are rising slowly, like a bride’s veil; revealed beneath them are slopes damp with morning vapour. But a religious encounter of sorts awaits, for our trackers have located the source of those reverberations: a family of endangered mountain gorillas secreted deep within the foliage.

It’s 30 years since the first gorilla tourist arrived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a World Heritage Site wedged into the Albertine Rift in the country’s south-western corner. Nearly half the world’s 1063 remaining mountain gorillas live here; the rest range between Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, two hours’ drive south, and neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Driven largely by this flagship species, tourism accounted for nearly eight per cent of Uganda’s GDP prior to the pandemic. The socio-economic benefits of gorilla tourism cannot be overstated.

“Making 30 years has been a very interesting journey,” says Lilly Ajarova, long-time conservationist and chief executive of the Uganda Tourism Board. “Tourism has changed everything, especially for the people living around the national parks… Fifty-eight per cent of those employed in tourism are women, which gives a good opportunity for gender equality.”

But there’s an elephant in the gorilla-scented room: equality isn’t guaranteed for Ugandans – or tourists. Recently, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law an act that criminalises same-sex relationships; prison sentences and the death penalty are potential consequences. While some groups are calling for a tourism boycott, others argue such action would punish the communities and wildlife whose welfare depends on foreign visitors.

Museveni’s decree comes hot on the heels of another scourge, COVID-19. Not only did tourism cease during the pandemic, gorillas – which are highly susceptible to human-borne disease – faced potential extermination. This danger was exemplified at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where captive gorillas caught COVID-19 (they recovered with onsite care).

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

Fortunately, such calamity was avoided in Uganda; the rangers who monitor habituated gorillas received priority vaccinations and were equipped with masks and sanitiser. Though long mandated in the Republic of Congo (home to critically endangered western lowland gorillas), a Ugandan tourist mask directive was finally catalysed by the pandemic. For the preceding decade, such action had been urged by the country’s first wildlife vet and founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

“There was a tug of war about mask wearing,” she says. “Uganda and Rwanda were competing for tourists. [People] were concerned – ‘What if tourists don’t want to come, because we’re making them wear masks?’ COVID forced the issue.”

During the pandemic, Kalema-Zikusoka’s team built on a foundation laid decades earlier after a baby gorilla died during a scabies outbreak. The incident underscored the intractable link between gorilla and community welfare; CTPH was founded as a response to these twin issues. Today, the program includes COVID-19 prevention measures, family planning advocacy, educational programs and a coffee-growing project for farmers living on Bwindi’s periphery; visitors can order the fair-trade brew at Kalema-Zikusoka’s Gorilla Conservation Cafe in Entebbe, or meet farmers during one of her coffee safaris. Such community uplift has helped reduce human-wildlife conflict. By addressing socio-economic problems, she says, gorillas can thrive.

“Uganda and Rwanda are the two countries in the world that have a lot of gorilla tourism and where gorilla tourism is contributing significantly to the national economy. It’s running all the other parks that don’t have enough tourists to meet operational costs. Gorillas, they’re like the lifesaver.”

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

But they’re not the only primates with such lifesaving potential: endangered chimpanzees also inhabit Bwindi, and while the park’s jagged terrain makes them difficult to track, conditions are wholly amenable in Kibale National Park, five hours’ drive north. This is where my own wildlife encounter starts, after a journey by road from Kampala across grasslands sporadically dotted with villages, over hills glossy with tea plantations and into the folds of the tropical forests where Kibale’s chimps live. They’ve left calling cards: shredded seed pods and leaves strewn across the forest floor.

“Good news,” says guide Alex Turyatunga. “The chimps are moving here. They are asking, ‘Where are you?’ Their telephone is now on.”

It’s the red colobus monkey’s call that rattles the rubber trees and echoes through the forest in a haunting melody. Vines hiss and sigh; birdsong glances off the canopy. It’s easy to slip unseen into this fecund underworld, to lay a snare and feed one’s family with the bush pig or duiker caught in it. But chimps are often the unintended victims of this outlawed practice.

“People were redundant [during the pandemic], and most of them would sneak into the forest and put in traps, and as chimps move on they get trapped. We have a vet doctor, and they come and dart the chimp and remove the snare. That’s one of the biggest challenges,” Turyatunga says. “Two, we’ve got a challenge of chimps moving outside of the forest. The whole of this park is surrounded by communities, so chimps have the habit of going outside to look for sweet things – sugar cane is the number one. You expect them to visit you if you have a garden. Then if you have beehives they also go for honey. People may spear and kill them.”

Tourism is a vital resolution; it provides employment for people like Turyatunga along with explicit revenue-sharing schemes.

“Twenty per cent of annual collections go back to the communities neighbouring the park, such as they become stakeholders in conservation,” he says. “I’m born around [here], so I’ve got a job here, my livelihood is here. Any chimp out there, they say ‘Alex, your chimps are here’. But they don’t know they’re all our chimps.”

And their call, when it comes, is all-encompassing. The stillness is ruptured by a blood-curdling shriek as a juvenile chimp torpedoes through the leafy awning. Angered at his diminished hierarchical status, he sinks his sabre-teeth into the fruit of the aptly-named “testicle tree”. Nearby, the alpha male regards me with a look of distinct familiarity. It’s another baptism of sorts, an encounter with our closest living relatives (along with bonobos).

Emerging from the forest, I’m comforted by the altogether gentler demeanour of the youngsters sharpening their hospitality skills at Cafe Kibale, near the trekking entrance. They brew coffee grown on nearby slopes, prepare tasty Ugandan fare and, in quiet periods, take modules on wildlife studies and conservation.

The cafe was founded last year by Great Lakes Safaris Foundation in an effort to address high unemployment and share tourism’s burgeoning potential with local communities. Its founder, Amos Wekesa, knows well the power of education: born during Idi Amin’s dictatorial reign in the 1970s, he was given an opportunity to attend school after the Salvation Army visited his parents’ village in eastern Uganda. He later studied tourism and worked in the industry as a cleaner, messenger and tour guide while saving up enough money –$US200 – to start Great Lakes Safaris in an “under-the-staircase” office in 2002.

“I first went to track gorillas in 1999. It was tough, accommodation was rough, the quality of guides was not as good as they are today,” he recalls. “The roads, of course, some parts are still rough, but it’s much better today than they were at the time. A lot has improved.”

Wekesa has enlarged that potential; today, his Uganda Lodges portfolio includes properties in three of the country’s national parks – including Primate Lodge, the only accommodation located within Kibale’s boundaries. Graduates of his training program will fill the employment gap here and at other Ugandan tourism ventures.

“The first graduation [in June 2022] was so good, they shocked me. It shows that anybody can be anything. Their parents were like, ‘Ah, no, there’s no hope for my kids’. And of course we’d just come out of COVID. It’s expensive, but it’s value I’m giving back. The idea is, everywhere we have a lodge, we’re going to do the same. If we’re able to train 200 people every year we’ll be very happy,” he says.

“You know, Uganda was the top tourism destination in Eastern Central Africa until [Amin’s coup in] 1971. It can go back to its old glory.”

That glory is distilled days later as I track those gorillas in Bwindi.

“We can do our last preparation right now,” Nduhukire says. “Let’s make sure we have no flash in our cameras. Once you’re done with a sip of water you can put on your mask, and we’ll go straight to the gorillas.”

We approach in supplication these tender creatures whose future lies entirely within human hands. Haloed in greenery, a silverback lifts a frond to his bearded maw. Above us, a female dangles gymnastically from a tree. Nearby, a baby dozes on a branch’s hollow. Her name is Miracle, Nduhukire says, and this she is. Born at the pandemic’s outset, the tiny gorilla is at once a talisman, an expression of hope and a manifestation of glory.


Emirates flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai, with regular connections to Entebbe. See

Great Lakes Safaris’ seven-day gorilla and chimpanzee safari costs from$5200 a person and includes trekking permits, games drives, transfers and accommodation at the operator’s lodges in Bwindi, Kibale and Queen Elizabeth national parks, see Latitude 0 Degrees in Kampala costs from $205 for two nights, see

Cafe Kibale is located beside the chimp trekking entry point at Kibale National Park; see Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s coffee safari includes a meeting with community farmers. Its café in Entebbe is open for breakfast and lunch; see Fairtrade Bwindi coffee can be bought in Australia from Hilda, see

The writer was a guest of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, see

walking with Gorrilas

Walking with gorillas

Durban – Primates and presidents have shaped the unique and dangerous life of Uganda’s first wildlife vet, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who was in South Africa this week to promote her memoir, “Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet”.

In an interview with the Independent on Saturday, she said it was vital to build African leadership and to cultivate a love for conservation in people who live where the wildlife is found.

“The first gorilla I met, I studied his eyes and I felt a really deep connection. They are so accommodating when you are with them it’s very therapeutic,” she said.

The book details her life of courage; shaped by politics from birth, her commitment to growing and protecting the mountain gorilla population in Uganda, and her near death as a result of Covid-19.

In the foreword, Dr. Jane Goodall writes that she first met Dr. Gladys when she attended one of her lectures in London in 1993, “It was immediately apparent that there was something special about this vibrant Ugandan woman ‒ a sense of purpose and love for her work were strikingly apparent”.

Their paths crossed from time to time and she took an increasing interest in Dr. Gladys’ career.

“In some ways, her trajectory was not unlike my own, but hers was a more difficult path,” wrote Goodall.

“I was a bit of a surprise for my parents and siblings, but I was loved,” she writes.

Her maternal grandfather, Martin Luther Nsibirwa, was the prime minister of the Kingdom of Buganda ‒ a subnational kingdom within Uganda, a British protectorate at the time. He was assassinated when her mom, Rhoda Kalema, was only 16 because he acquired land from influential chiefs to expand Makerere College into a University. Unbeknown to his killers, parliament had passed the land acquisition bill a day before he was killed.

In 1971 Obote was overthrown in a coup by Idi Amin while her dad was with him at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Singapore. While Obote went into exile in Tanzania, Dr. Gladys’ dad returned to be with his family. She writes that soon after Amin began “his reign of terror” he turned his attention to her family and in January 1972, at the age of 45, her father was assassinated. His body was never found.

“It seemed as if history was repeating itself with a father leaving behind a young family,” she writes. At the time Dr Gladys was 2 years old and her mom, once again affected by a political assassination, quit politics to take care of her six children.

In her book, she describes it as “terrifying times for us all, as Amin’s reputation as ‘the Butcher of Uganda’ grew”. She says his children attended the same school she did, and the headmaster warned the pupils not to get into conflict with them.

The only way she coped with this terror was through her love for animals. Her first pet was a stray pygmy cat called Pili, and she regularly recruited children to participate in pet funerals, even though she grew up in a culture that believed animals did not have souls. She writes: “Something deep inside me knew that they had as much soul as any human, and I mourned them in the same way.”

A defining moment came when the Cuban ambassador to Uganda and his wife moved into the house opposite hers. Their pet vervet monkey, Poncho, was fascinating because his fingers and nails looked exactly like hers. One day while she was practising the piano Poncho watched intently. Knowing how playful and intelligent he was, she left the room to see if he would imitate her.

“Sure enough, Poncho climbed onto the stool and played one note with one finger. He was my first venture into studying primates,” she wrote.

By the age of 12, she had already decided to become a vet because she hated to see animals suffer and she was determined to dedicate her life to making them better.

“Most people in Uganda don’t consider veterinary medicine a worthwhile career because people don’t place much value on pets in a developing country with so much human suffering. In spite of this, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who understood my passion and encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she writes.

She said the 1970s were devastating for Uganda’s wildlife, particularly elephants and rhinos which were hunted for ivory and horn.

“Conservation was of little concern to Idi Amin who himself started killing animals in the national parks where hunting was not permitted and encouraged people to enrich themselves from the Ivory trade.”

In 1991 she went to London to study at the Royal Veterinary College. A talk on the mountain gorillas of Rwanda by Dr. Barkley Hastings, the first vet to work with mountain gorillas, and Dr. Ian Redmond, the first research assistant of the late Dr. Dian Fossey, fuelled her desire to work with these shy, gentle giants.

In January 1996 she started her first job at Uganda National Park. Even though it was her dream job, there weren’t any funds to support it and she spent a lot of time explaining to others who worked for the park why she was hired, and how vets could support conservation efforts. She also had to explain why it was necessary to intervene when the wildlife was affected by an issue that was human-related, or life-threatening in a species that was critically endangered like the mountain gorillas who only numbered 650 at the time.

“At the time that I was recruited, conservationists believed that wild animals should not be interfered with and natural selection should always take its course.”

From dealing with threats posed by The Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony to poachers and a scabies outbreak in the wild, her career has been fraught with danger.

The book is peppered with nuggets of humor and kindness, from how her mom climbed the mountains to meet the gorillas in a skirt, and how she was approached for help by the wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni when two elephants ate the bananas in her cousin’s plantation.

A recurring theme has been that “much like humans, chimpanzees (and other primates) that are treated well as infants are more confident and rise faster in the ranks to become alpha males”.

Her One Health approach to ensuring the survival of gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is what she is most recognized for. Dr. Gladys realized that people who live near the gorillas must be healthy because their diseases would inevitably affect the animals. She also realized they would not kill the gorillas for bush meat if they had other sources of income and could provide for their families. Through a multidisciplinary approach, she has made them custodians of gorilla welfare.

Through gorilla tourism, people earn an income and ensure that the animals are safe, even tolerating them when they raid their crops.

Dr Gladys and her husband, Lawrence Zikusoka, have also helped the coffee farmers find international buyers, securing their income.

She taught communities about hygiene after a scabies outbreak infected the animals and it was during the Covid-19 outbreak that she pioneered health workshops with rangers to ensure the gorillas and people were protected. Through her NGO, Conservation Through Public Health, Dr. Gladys has shown the world that the lives of people and gorillas are intertwined and that one cannot be successful without the other.

“Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet”, will make you laugh, make you cry, but most of all it will leave you with a deep respect for a woman who triumphed over the odds to become one of Africa’s most respected leaders.

Source: IOL

Published Aug 12, 2023