The Ugandan Vet Saving Gorillas & Empowering Communities

Local veternarian, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka in Uganda © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the Gorilla Conservation Café in Entebbe, Uganda, I order a latte while I wait for Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. It’s not just any coffee in my cup, and as the name of the locale implies, this is not just any coffee shop. Both the café and the coffee are part of Kalema-Zikusoka’s collection of social enterprises that support her non-profit organization, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

Kalema-Zikusoka, known to most as Dr. Gladys, is a pioneering wildlife veterinarian who has dedicated her career to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. She does so by improving the lives of the people who live on the edges of the gorillas’ habitat in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Kalema-Zikusoka’s unique approach to conservation embraces the inherent difficulties of motivating a community to reserve concern for animals when they, themselves, are struggling.

Kalema-Zikusoka arrives wearing a black T-shirt featuring the Gorilla Conservation Coffee logo and the slogan: “Saving gorillas, one sip at a time.” She’s become a savvy businesswoman—she earned her MBA with a focus on social entrepreneurship in 2016, and she’s often photographed in shirts that highlight her initiatives.

Kalema-Zikusoka tells me she’s been interested in helping animals since she set up a wildlife club in her Kampala high school some 30 years ago. She attended the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College in the early 1990s, where about half of her classmates were women. When she returned to Uganda at age 25, she was hired as the first female veterinary officer for the country’s national parks. But when she spoke to local veterinary classes, she realized all the students were men.

“When I first started working with wild gorillas, there were no female rangers—hardly any women at all,” she explains. “Now, about a third of the rangers, trackers, and wardens are women. There are more vets as well, but there is a long way to go.”

At around the same time that Kalema-Zikusoka was studying in London, the Uganda Wildlife Service was beginning to recognize the tourism potential of its large primates—mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only three countries with wild mountain gorilla populations, and none live in captivity. There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, and about 60 percent of them remain in Bwindi.

There are just over 1,000 wild gorillas left in the world © | Christina Newberry

Conflict between humans and gorillas has always existed on the edges of Bwindi. Gorillas come out of the forest to feed in the banana plantations, destroying the farmers’ livelihood. The animals pick up human diseases from dirty clothing on scarecrows. When the farmers are struggling, they enter the forest to hunt and gather wood for fuel, disturbing the gorillas’ habitat and creating more opportunities for disease transmission.

Kalema-Zikusoka identified human scabies as a fatal problem for the gorilla community during her early research in 1996. She realized that in order to improve gorilla health, she had to improve human health. When communities are healthy and thriving, there’s far less risk of disease spreading between the two species, which share 98.4 percent of the same DNA.

As a vet, Kalema-Zikusoka had the most health education of anyone in the organization, which had become the Uganda Wildlife Authority by the early 2000s. She created CTPH to provide sanitation and family-planning options for locals, who, at that time, had an average of 10 children per family.

“Family planning fit in very well with our mission in Bwindi,” Kalema-Zikusoka elaborates. “Only 20 percent of women were using modern family planning methods. Now we’re up to 60 percent. We present it as a way of balancing the family budget, so even the men in the household become interested. The women are happier. They feel liberated. It’s good for maternal health not to have babies every year.”

Dr. Gladys with Gorilla Conservation Coffee lead farmers, Vincent and Sam Karibwende © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the same time, Kalema-Zikusoka helped create a cooperative of about 75 coffee farmers, which provides production, training, and marketing support to brand their Gorilla Conservation Coffee as a premium product, and pay them a living wage. They earn 50 cents per kilo above market price for their beans, which are processed in Kampala, and $1.50 from every bag sold directly supports the work of CTPH. Participating farmers also offer a coffee safari program that teaches tourists who have come to Bwindi for gorilla trekking about how coffee is produced, and how the social enterprise supports community and gorilla welfare.

Bags of beans are for sale in the café as well as 60 other locations, including the duty-free shop at Entebbe International Airport. CTPH distributes trademarked Gorilla Conservation Coffee in the European Union, Switzerland, and the United States, where the beans are available from Pangols, a wildlife and sustainability-focused e-commerce site. Each bag of Arabica beans features the image of Kanyonyi, a silverback from Bwindi. His image also looms large in the café.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which both supports the local community and saves gorillas © | Christina Newberry

Through her work, Kalema-Zikusoka has strengthened the bond between gorillas and the people who live alongside them, improving the health of both parties along the way. In October 2018, she received a Sierra Club Award for her “Unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation.”

In November 2018, mountain gorillas were removed from the critically endangered species list, though they are still endangered. The World Wildlife Fund cited “Community engagement, prevention of disease transmission and law enforcement” as key factors in the gorilla population rebound. “Gorillas are so similar to us,” Kalema-Zikusoka adds. “We want people to feel inspired to protect them forever.”

This story originally appeared in the 4th issue of Unearth Women magazine, now available for purchase in our online store.

From human-wildlife conflicts to a human-gorilla friendship

Ruhondeza, the gorilla that lives on in the hearts and minds of the Bwindi community

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a national park in Uganda, an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, and an Eastern Afromontane Key Biodiversity Area. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, through a small grant facilitated by BirdLife International, supports Conservation Through Public Health in their effort to reduce human-gorilla conflicts in and around the park, and avoid the transmission of diseases. This story describes how a potential drama turned into a unique friendship between local people and a legendary animal…

By Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka – Founder and CEO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH)

I have been working with mountain gorillas since 1994, when there were only two gorilla groups called Mubare and Katendegyere, habituated for tourism at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Now 25 years later, there are 17 gorilla groups habituated for tourism. Mubare gorilla group was headed by the silverback Ruhondeza, given that name because he liked “sleeping a lot”. Though Ruhondeza was smaller than the other silverbacks, he had the largest number of adult female gorillas to himself and was calmer than the Katendegyere gorilla group and therefore easier to habituate.

Katendegyere gorilla group eventually reduced in size, because there were too many males and only one female, and two years later the lead silverback, Mugurusi, meaning “old man” and named because he was very old when habituation began, eventually died of heart and kidney failure. I was called to check on Mugurusi when he could no longer keep up with the group and did a post-mortem on him a few days later. Fortunately, he did not have an infectious disease, however, a few months later his group developed scabies, a highly contagious skin disease more commonly known in animals as sarcoptic mange. This resulted in the death of the infant and sickness in the rest of the gorillas that only recovered after we gave Ivermectin anti parasitic treatments. The scabies was ultimately traced to people living around the national park who have inadequate access to basic health and other social services.


Kanyonyi, son of Ruhondeza © CTPH

In 2012, Ruhondeza also became too old, and he eventually could not keep up with the rest of his group. The Mubare gorilla group left him in search of food and he decided to settle outside the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in community land. When the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) park management called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to look into the possibility of translocating Ruhondeza back to the safety of the forest, we checked on him and saw that he was really settled and even if we moved him back, he would likely return to community land. We spoke to our Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs), volunteers who liaise between CTPH and their community, about tolerating Ruhondeza in the village – particularly since his calm and accommodating nature had enabled gorilla tourism to begin in 1993, changing the lives and future for many people in the Bwindi community for ever. In the meeting the VHCTs assured us that even when their own elderly become very weak, they look after them, so why should this not apply to Ruhondeza as well?.

This resulted in Ruhondeza being accepted in the Bwindi community where they tolerated him eating banana plants or the occasional coffee berry. When the fateful day came and Ruhondeza was laid to rest, the Bwindi community members all came to pay their last respects to a legend. To this day he is remembered through the Ruhondeza village walk and other community experiences and also through his son, Kanyonyi, who took over the Mubare Gorilla Group after he died. CTPH named the first blend of our Gorilla Conservation Coffee after him.

Ruhondeza truly signifies how far conservation efforts have paid off in Bwindi, and that true friendship between people and wild animals is, indeed, possible.

Watch Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka talk more about how CTPH is working with local farmers to reduce threats to Endangered mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park KBA 

BirdLife International runs the Regional Implementation Team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot (2012 -2019). See the interactive map of all projects implemented under the CEPF Eastern Afromontane Hotspot programme here.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. More information on the CEPF can be found at www.cepf.net.

Please see original article as shared by Birdlife International Africa.

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

#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 www.unboundproject.org

Written by DAVID KANGYE