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.

#ThePowerOfOne: Dr Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka on Conserving Gorillas, One Sip at A Time

Recently, a Thursday midmorning found me at the office premises of the Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC) at Kiwafu, Entebbe. Curiosity had pushed me to have a conversation with Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, the CEO and Co-founder of GCC to learn about their work as a social enterprise in the coffee business.

Upon getting there, one thing struck me; the writing on the wall. If the literal meaning is to go by. The walls have been plastered with different media stories telling the story of Dr. Kalema- Zikusoka. Her role as the pioneering gorilla veterinarian in the country is the common denominator of all the stories written. Twenty three years ago, her journey as a vet began. It still goes on to date. However, she has broadened her wings to fly higher together with her dear husband Lawrence Zikusoka with whom they are co-founders at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and GCC. In all the life of CTPH, the organisation has worked with the communities around Bwindi to improve the health of both the gorillas and the communities as a means of combating diseases that could easily wipe them away.

With the passing of time, there was a problem. Human population was growing and the land was not expanding. The communities around Bwindi were invading the forest and in turn causing a health hazard to the gorillas. With this came the exposure of the human contact with the gorillas. The gorillas would easily pick up everything the human beings left behind and that meant transfer of diseases and all. One such a case was a scabies outbreak in 1996 which was Dr. Kalema’s first assignment at Bwindi.

The scabies outbreak was found to be caused by gorilla interaction with the poor hygiene among the communities. “Gorillas are curious animals that they touch everything they come across. They can easily catch diseases once they have human interaction,” tells Dr. Kalema.  “In the case of Bwindi, the gorillas are found to be in the proximity with human settlement unlike other places like the Virungas where they’re up in the forests and people in the valleys. The hygiene among the communities was wanting.”

With a growing human population that looks at the forest for survival, there was need to come up with a solution to avert this interaction. There was a high birth rate with a minimum of 10 children in each household. Children were looked at as service providers to the work being done at home.

Mothers staying up in the hills lacked access to maternal health care and were consequently faced with health challenges. Worse of it, they lacked money to go to health centres. For the conservation of gorillas to be realised, there was need to distract the human population from invading the gorilla space. There was also need to put money in the pockets of the locals to which they had to have a direct contribution. This meant involving them in income generating activities

That is how Gorilla Conservation Coffee was born three years ago. Coffee came out as an idea that was worth exploiting. The routes to gorilla tracking passed through scanty coffee trees. With GCC, the coffee was prioritised. The communities were taught about sustainable agriculture. They were introduced to intentional farming techniques to provide them food and also earn them an income.

The idea was simple yet it had a very big impact. The story is changing lives. “It is such a beautiful thing when you get everyone involved. In situation where you had children waking up to go to the garden to act as scarecrows, they now wake up going to school.”

Men are working with their wives tending their coffee gardens. The most interesting bit is that human interference with gorillas has greatly gone down. Since gorillas do not eat coffee berries, this harmonised the co-existence of the two.

Most importantly though is that there is money trickling down in the pockets of these farmers. They are earning from their coffee. They are minding their business just as the gorillas. It is what you could say to each their own.

The coffee grown by these communities is processed, packaged and sold under the Gorilla Conservation Coffee brand. The sales from the coffee go directly to the pockets of these farmers.

“The idea of conservation has to include the interests of everyone involved. As you conserve the gorillas, you should be able to conserve the people in communities. It is important the co-existence is conserved as well.”

From every pack of coffee, a percentage goes to CTPH which helps with facilitating community and gorilla health. They are currently working with 500 farmers around Bwindi. Coffee reminds the farmers to be self-sustaining other than expect to survive on hand-outs.

“To drink coffee is to be a responsible consumer. The benefits trickle down directly to the household farmers.”

Today, for every pack of coffee, a child is able to go to school. For every cup of coffee, a mother is able to afford a hospital bill.  For every sip of the gorilla conservation coffee, a gorilla is conserved.

It is through that one pack, one cup and one sip that a new story is being told in the effort to conserve gorillas at Bwindi.

You deserve a sip of Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Buy a pack of Gorilla Conservation here.

Photo taken by