Uganda: Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka Pens Walking With Gorillas About Life As an African Wildlife Vet


Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka’s memoir, “Walking with Gorillas”, is a testament to her unwavering dedication to wildlife conservation.

Dr Kalema has made history by becoming Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian and founder of the non-governmental organisation, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

This is a globally acclaimed community programme ensuring the survival of the mountain gorillas.

Her memoir is divided into four parts, each revealing a crucial aspect of her journey towards becoming a wildlife veterinarian and founder of CTPH.

In the first section of the book, Dr. Kalema recounts how the assassination of her father influenced her decision to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

Despite cultural beliefs that discouraged girls from studying veterinary medicine, Dr. Kalema overcame several challenges to pursue her dream. Her journey to becoming a wildlife veterinarian began with Wildlife Clubs of Uganda, where she first learned about the mountain gorillas of Bwindi.

The second part of the memoir describes Dr. Kalema’s experiences in wildlife veterinary medicine. She recounts how she tackled significant challenges in her job, such as relocating elephants and treating a mysterious skin disease affecting giraffes.

However, it was the outbreak of an unusual skin disease that threatened the lives of mountain gorillas that inspired her to start an NGO seven years later that would address human health and seek to create solutions in which human and gorilla communities can coexist in harmony.

This part of the memoir takes readers through Dr. Kalema’s decision to establish Conservation through public health as an NGO in Uganda, detailing the successes and challenges she faced in promoting understanding for the need for an integrated response to conservation and health.

One of the highlights is Dr. Kalema’s recognition as an entrepreneur and leader in her field, including serving on the boards of Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, and Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The final section of the memoir focuses on the future of conservation, offering insights on ways to support it in sustainable ways that aren’t dependent on donors. This part emphasises the importance of ecotourism and highlights the conservation and social contributions of CTPH’s social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee. The section also addresses the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on conservation efforts and wildlife populations and Dr. Kalema Zikusoka’s personal battles with the virus.

“Walking with Gorillas” highlights the critical role of wildlife conservation in our environment’s sustainability and the importance of One Health approaches.

Dr. Kalema said the government needs to put more money into conservation and tourism, adding that tourism has helped greatly in shaping the industry.

“Conservation is about being ready to get your shoes dirty and enjoy wildlife,” she said.

The US Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie Brown who was the guest of honour during the launch of the book, expressed her love for animals and congratulated Dr. Kalema upon publishing her memoir.

“It’s an engaging lesson for all and useful information on the importance of conservation and its connection to health. The US is proud of its work over the years to support efforts to preserve the environment and Uganda’s 🇬’s biodiversity for future generations,” she said.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board, Lilly Ajarova, said the book “Walking with Gorillas” is a reflection on Dr. Kalema’s upbringing in Uganda and career as a wildlife veterinarian.

“We are very excited that we have this publication as another tool that will be able to create awareness about Uganda,” she said.

The executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Sam Mwandha, congratulated Dr. Kalema for writing the book, noting that it is a marketing tool for the national and for the wildlife in Uganda.

Gorillas remain the single most important item on Uganda’s tourism menu according to the Uganda Tourism Board

With conservation taking the mountain gorilla off the edge of extinction, the mantle is still left to the country to keep things from slipping back.

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.”

Coffee helps protect Uganda’s endangered mountain gorillas

Poor communities in Bwindi national park have long depended on what the forest can provide. But with gorillas under threat, coffee now offers a more sustainable living.  

Robert Byarugaba, now 45, began poaching with his father in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at just eight years old.

“My dad would force me to follow him to go in the park because I was his only son,” Byarugaba says. “We poached and hunted from Monday to Sunday. Every day we would be in the forest.”

The father and son weren’t the only ones, there were many hunters who combed the forest for bushpigs, antelopes, goats, and sometimes gorillas. The great apes might be killed to feed local families, or their meat and body parts could fetch high sums on the market for bush meat or traditional medicine.

Read more: Dian Fossey: Gorilla researcher in the mist

Uganda is home to almost half of the world’s estimated 1,000 surviving mountain gorillas. In 1991, when the primates’ population fell to an estimated 300 animals, the Ugandan government made Bwindi a national park. That meant increased protection and regulation of access to the park. But many poachers continued to hunt all the same because their livelihoods depended on it.

Read more: Gorilla population in Africa rises

After five years, Byarugaba gave up poaching and began to grow coffee, but he couldn’t sell enough to make a living and supplemented his income taking tourists bird spotting in the forest.

Robert Byarugaba, poacher turned coffee farmer in Uganda's Bwindi forestRobert Byarugaba began poaching with his father when he was just eight years old

Since 2017, that’s changed. Thanks to the work of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, Byarugaba says he now makes a reliable living from his coffee plantation. The social enterprise advises coffee growers and buys their crop, so they don’t have to resort to pillaging the forest.

Read more: The wilderness and the war

Making coffee profitable

The project was started by Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. A wildlife veterinarian, she first came to Bwindi in 1994 and was struck by the poverty blighting villagers in the national park. Later, she founded the NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to tackle disease transmission between humans and wildlife. Tracking gorillas through the forest, she would cross coffee farms. That got her thinking.

Read more:  10 facts you probably didn’t know about great apes

Not all coffee farmers were supplementing their meagre income with legal occupations like bird spotting. “We found that some of them were poachers and were going into the forest in order to just get food to feed their families and firewood to cook, and they didn’t have enough money to buy meat,” Kalema-Zikusoka says.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, wildlife veterinarian and founder of Gorilla Conservation CoffeeVeterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka realized that to protect gorillas, people had to be lifted out of poverty

One farmer who fitted that profile was Safari Joseph. He began growing coffee in 2007 but like Byarugaba, for many years he didn’t make enough from it to live on. He got together with others in his community to find a solution. “Our challenge was that when we started coffee growing, our coffee had no market,” he says.

“That’s when we went to Dr. Gladys and convinced her to work with us and market our coffee.” She said yes, on the condition that they stop poaching. In 2015, Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

Today, the brand supplies shops in Uganda, Kenya, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. It currently pays the equivalent of €0.31 ($0.34) for a kilo of red coffee cherries, almost twice the regular market price. The 500 farmers benefiting from these premium prices are members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative, to which Joseph serves as secretary.

Safari Joseph and Sanyu Kate of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Collective in Uganda Safari Joseph and fellow member of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Sanyu Kate

Musiimenta Allen, 32, oversees compliance for the cooperative, making sure its members adhere to practices that protect the forest. She is also one of two women on its committee — a position she uses to ensure the voice of female coffee farmers is heard.

Since her husband died in 2014, Allen has had to support herself and her two boys from her coffee plantation. She used to depend on the forest for daily essentials like firewood, but since joining the cooperative in 2016, she can afford to buy firewood instead.

Read more: Can renewable energy save Uganda’s Rwenzori glacier?

Struggling with cash flows and pests

Despite the gorilla logo that distinguishes Allen’s coffee on supermarket shelves, neighborly relations with the endangered primates aren’t always smooth. Occasionally, they invade her farm and destroy her crops. She also wishes Gorilla Conservation Coffee could provide its farmers with loans so they could increase production. “Sometimes I want to grow more coffee but I don’t have [enough] money,” Allen says.

Musimenta Allen of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Uganda Musimenta Allen would like to be able to invest more money in her coffee plantation

And Joseph is concerned that Gorilla Conservation Coffee cannot always afford to buy all the coffee from its farmers, leaving them frustrated.

Kalema-Zikusoka concedes this is a problem. Gorilla Conservation Coffee relies on donor funding to buy coffee up-front and cut out the middlemen. But that means it doesn’t always have the cash to buy as much coffee as it could sell. “Because we don’t have enough money to buy coffee from the farmers, we aren’t able to fulfil the demand,” she says.

Byarugaba would also like to see the social enterprise provide more technical support. It teaches farmers better practices, but doesn’t provide experts to evaluate their farms. “Sometimes there are pests and diseases that we don’t understand, and the coffee trees get dry,” he says.

Read more: Africa’s Green parties bet on international help

An ethical choice over the thrill of the chase

And there’s something else about Byarugaba’s life as a farmer that leaves him wanting. He misses the old days, the thrill of the chase as his dogs gained on an antelope, the sound of hunting bells, and days trekking through a forest he rarely visits nowadays.

Coffee cherries, Bwindi, UgandaThe ripening cherries of a Bwindi coffee plant. Commanding a premium price, the crop offers viable alternative to poaching

“I like poaching, most of the things I enjoyed in my life was poaching,” Byarugaba says, looking out over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and breaking into a chuckle. Yet, on balance, he says it’s worth the sacrifice: “With coffee farming, I can always be assured of school fees for my children.”

Bwindi’s gorilla population has now grown from fewer than 300 in 1995 to over 400 . So, as well as paying a decent living, Byarugaba feels his decision has contributed to a greater good.

“In past years, I regretted [my decision] because we could get much from the forest,” he says. “Then I started earning some money and I don’t regret anymore: this life is better than the first.”

Author: Caleb Okereke-DW.COM