Gorilla-strength coffee?

An extraordinary wildlife vet in Uganda has come up with a scheme that not only helps
endangered gorilla populations in the country, but also coffee farmers and other members
of the communities that live around their habitat. Report by Jack Dutton.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka – Science and Innovation Laureate 2021


It might have been the neighbor’s monkey which came downstairs to join her for piano lessons, or the wildlife club that she started in primary school in Kampala, Uganda. But from a very early age, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, this year’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation, knew she wanted to work with animals.

“Basically, pets were my first friends,” said Kalema-Zikusoka, a wildlife veterinarian by training who would go on to spend three decades helping to safeguard some of the world’s rarest primates, including endangered mountain gorillas. Much of her work has been in impoverished East African communities that border protected areas, where she has helped improve healthcare and create economic opportunities, turning many locals into partners in conservation.

“Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a pioneer in community-led wildlife conservation,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “In many places, economic pressures can cause friction between humans and animals. But her work has shown how conflict can be overcome when local communities take the lead in protecting the nature and wildlife around them, creating benefits for all species.”

Supported by her family, Kalema-Zikusoka embarked on a global educational adventure, earning degrees in Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. In her early 20s, she returned to Uganda for an internship in, what would eventually become the locus of her future work, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park located in the country’s remote and impoverished southwest.

It was the beginning of gorilla tourism in Bwindi and Kalema-Zikusoka, then a young vet student, found that conservation wasn’t a simple process. “There were people focused on tourism and on community conservation,” she recalled. “There were wardens and rangers and the Peace Corps and lodges and by the end of my time there, I understood how complex tourism and conservation were.”

Kalema-Zikusoka would become the first-ever wildlife veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. There, she began to apply what was a new approach to working for wildlife – one that centred on improving lives and livelihoods in the remote villages that surrounded Bwindi.

“(That allows) humans to enjoy a better quality of life and be more positive about conservation. When you show people that you care about them and about their health and well-being, you help them better co-exist with wildlife.”

That would become the guiding principle behind the organization that Kalema-Zikusoka founded nearly 20 years ago: Conservation Through Public Health. It has expanded its model of village health to protected areas near Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as to two non-protected areas of Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda. In addition to promoting hygiene and good sanitation practices, the teams also support family planning.

Appreciating the interplay between humans and wildlife, and the spread of zoonotic diseases between the two populations, was critical for Kalema-Zikusoka as she took on a greater role in providing guidance to the Ugandan government’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

Global lockdowns hobbled the tourism industry in Uganda’s southwest, forcing some to return to one particularly problematic vocation: poaching. That threatened painstaking advances made in restoring Bwindi’s mountain gorilla population, whose numbers have steadily increased to more than 400.

This represents nearly half of the population of the endangered species still living in the wild.

Conservation Through Public Health provided fast-growing crops to families, allowing them to at least grow enough food to feed themselves. They also left the community with an important message. “We told them, you have to continue to protect wildlife because it’s helped you this much. This is your future.”

Conflict between people and animals is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most iconic species, according to a recent report from World Wide Fund for Nature and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In many countries like Uganda, the conflict, coupled with health risks of COVID-19 has further imperiled endangered species.

Kalema-Zikusoka worked with national park staff to encourage visitors and rangers to wear masks, not just to prevent transmission amongst themselves of COVID-19, but also to protect the gorillas, who can be infected by human-borne pathogens. That work would evolve into protocols designed to limit the spread of zoonotic diseases – contagions that jump between humans and animals – and training for local health workers designed to combat COVID-19. Now 21 countries in Africa – including the 13 states that are home to dwindling populations of great apes – have signed on to the guidelines.

“We are really adapting the model of preventing zoonotic disease to COVID-19 prevention,” said Kalema-Zikusoka. Conservation Through Public Health also looks at ways to diversify income streams for local communities sharing space with wildlife. The organization’s latest project is Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise. Staff teach farmers near Bwindi how to grow top-notch coffee beans while conserving water and using organic fertilizers. “We are now working towards impact investment,” said Kalema-Zikusoka. “It’s all about the importance of sustainable financing for conservation.”

Recognized globally for her work, Kalema-Zikusoka, says that she hopes she will inspire young Africans to choose careers in conservation. “There is a lack of local representation among conservationists. Not many are from the places where endangered animals are found,” she said. “We need more local champions, because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries.”


The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth recognize individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. Presented annually, the Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Visit www.decadeonrestoration.org to learn more.

We need more local champions, because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries

Saving Gorillas one sip at a time Lawrence Zikusoka TEDxIUEA

Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka tells us a story about Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian who noticed a problem affecting both humans and mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She came up with a social enterprise that not only conserves endangered mountain gorillas, but also improves the lives of farmers around the forest.

Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka is Founder and ICT Director at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and husband to Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. He was inspired to set up the 1st award winning CTPH Telecenters in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (2006) and Queen Elizabeth National Park (2007) bringing computer and internet access to the rural communities. Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka tells us a story about Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian who noticed a problem affecting both humans and mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She came up with a social enterprise that not only conserves endangered mountain gorillas, but also improves the lives of farmers around the forest. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

Interview with National Geographic Explorer and Conservationist, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a National Geographic Explorer and multi-award-winning conservationist who has been a life-long champion of wildlife. As an African woman growing up in a male-dominated society, she found the determination and courage to overcome the many obstacles she faced due to her gender to become Uganda’s first wildlife vet.

Not one to rest on her laurels, after leaving the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, she followed her heart and founded her NGO, Conservation Through Public Health, and the social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee to preserve the endangered mountain gorillas, create health and prosperity for the local human community and be a caretaker for our planet.


Describe a typical day for you?

I don’t have a typical day. As founder and CEO of a small but growing 17-year-old grassroots NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), based in Uganda, that works to ensure that the mountain gorillas are healthy and their habitats are secure, I have a long to-do list and wake up each day to prioritize it. I also wear several hats as a leader where I sit on a number of boards including, The Gorilla Organization based in the UK, and committees including the Women for Environment – an Africa leadership council advocating for greater female leadership in conservation.

My husband, Lawrence Zikusoka is a co-founder of our two main initiatives, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and our social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee.  We often start the day by comparing notes on what we plan to do.

The best part of my job is spending time at our field office in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to just under half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. A typical day involves getting up earlier than usual to check on the gorillas, and other days involve hosting and attending meetings with field staff and community volunteers including Village Health Teams, Gorilla Guardians and Reformed Poachers who encourage their community to protect the gorillas, and who we support along with the rest of the local community with improved healthcare and livelihoods so that they can coexist with the gorillas and other wildlife. I am also a mother to two energetic sons, aged 16 and 11 who travel with me to the national parks as often as possible, where we spend amazing quality time together.

When I am at CTPH headquarters in Entebbe, I often spend my day responding to emails about day-to-day operations and new enquires, thanking our donors and supporters through email and social media, writing or reviewing grants, reviewing and sending reports to donors, the government and other stakeholders on the work we have done, reviewing and designing new projects and mentoring and inspiring my team in their work.

Prior to COVID-19, I spent 25% of my time travelling around the world presenting and raising funds for our work. Lately, I have been invited to sit on a number of virtual meetings, giving several presentations because our One Health approach is helping to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on endangered mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, as well as other great apes in Africa via advocating for responsible tourism.

One highlight has been finding our first UK distributor for our Gorilla Conservation Coffee, Moneyrow Beans who have made it possible for us to continue to support local coffee farmers in the absence of an income from gorilla trekking tourists during the pandemic. This has helped to reduce their need to enter the gorilla habitat for food and firewood at a time when bushmeat poaching has greatly increased all over Africa. We have also had to begin a new program of providing emergency food relief for vulnerable communities around the park, which became more urgent when one of the gorillas was killed by a hungry and desperate poacher.


What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

One of my greatest achievements has been establishing an award-winning NGO that is positively impacting some of the poorest people sharing a habitat with gorillas and other wildlife, and contributing to the growth of the mountain gorilla population from 600 when I first started working with them, to 1063.

One of our first awards was the 2009 Whitley Gold Award for outstanding leadership in grassroots nature conservation which was presented to me by HRH Princess Anne. I was also greatly honored to become a finalist for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa in 2019, where we were hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Kensington Palace which caused a lot excitement among friends, colleagues and family in Uganda. This year, our charity Conservation Through Public Health won the prestigious 2020 Saint Andrews Prize for the Environment, an achievement we are very proud of.

Our social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, also won the 2017 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Switch Africa Green SEED Award for eco-inclusive enterprises, and second prize at the 2019 Italian StartUpAfrica Road Trip Award.

In August, I was honored to receive the 2020 Aldo Leopold Award from the American Society of Mammologists, and truly humbled to be the first African to receive it and the second woman.


What’s in your handbag/satchel?

Lip balm, fragrance and hand cream from the Body Shop where I have been shopping since 1990. I was drawn to this business because they do not test on animals and now also support women and sustainable businesses globally. I also carry a phone, sunglasses, contact lens solution and glasses (I am very short-sighted), a notebook, pens of different colors and at least one reading book. Other essential items since the COVID-19 pandemic began, include hand sanitizer and a range of cloth masks made by local women from a local enterprise, Ride for A Woman enabling them to earn an income to support their families sharing a habitat with the gorillas in the absence of tourism.


What are your ambitions in life?

I would like to expand our impact to other countries in Africa where gorillas are found and other parts of Uganda where gorillas are not found, working with local stakeholders. Something else I feel strongly about is to help increase the number of women leaders in conservation through my role on the leadership council of Women for the EnvironmentAfrica, and leaders of color in conservation in my role as the Vice President of the African Primatological Society that is building African leadership in primate research and conservation.

I am currently writing a book about my experiences in conservation and leadership journey with gorillas and other wildlife over the past 30 years, which I hope to get published next year. It’s something I have been wanting to do for many years and excited that it is finally happening. I have found a great literary agent, Naz Ahsun, who is very supportive.


What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?

It is important to choose a career based on something you truly care about because when the going gets tough, what keeps you going is your passion and purpose. I have found that you will never be able to please everyone all of the time, especially if you want to make a difference and change the world. When you work alone you go fast, when you work with others you go far; I have learnt the importance of teamwork, having a motivated team, and building partnerships with external stakeholders. As a founder of an NGO and social enterprise, I have also learnt to place values ahead of talent when hiring people. On a personal note, I have learnt how important it is to be an authentic leader, and strive to develop a healthy work/life balance.


Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I see myself stepping down from being the CEO of our NGO and social enterprise and devoting more of my time on the Board, spending more time growing as a leader and mentoring my team, and others in my sector. I also see myself spending more time advocating for our approach to a wider audience in Africa and the rest of the world. I am humbled to be a finalist of the 2020 Tällberg Eliasson Global Leadership Prize because of our One Health approach to Conservation.


What advice would you give a budding Vet?

Veterinary training enables you to impact many sectors if you would like to take up these amazing opportunities. It has been a truly interesting and rewarding journey for me to be able to make a difference in conservation, public health, tourism, and agriculture sectors through my training as a veterinarian.


What advice would you give to a new parent?

Enjoy parenthood, don’t try to be a perfect parent, spend as much time as possible with your children because they change so fast during the first few years and two decades of their life, and you don’t want to miss many of those moments in helping to shape their values. My eldest son recognised his first elephant at the age of two, in the national park, not in a storybook. Let them follow their passion and be who they want to be and encourage them to be authentic, build their leadership qualities, and fulfill their potential in life. I am truly indebted to my mother, who on top of being a hands-on mother and grandmother, encouraged me to follow my dream to pursue a career with animals because she realised that from an early age, I hated to see them suffering, and even when being a Vet in Uganda was not a profession that paid well, and I am truly indebted to her for that.


Finally, happiness is…

Being true to yourself and leaving the world better than you found it….