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Wildlife conservation and human health go hand-in-hand, says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka


Outward Voices is a collection of personal essays from individuals who are doing their part to protect our planet. For Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an organization dedicated to the co-existence of wildlife, humans and livestock in Africa, the success of mountain gorilla conservation is a lesson that human and wildlife welfare are inextricably connected.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel despondent about the planet’s future. We know that the Earth is warming up, that climate change is real and that it is happening under our watch. The evidence is irrefutable—we are now seeing and feeling the impacts of environmental damage on a daily basis.Everything from extreme weather conditions—such as droughts, floods and mudslides—to insect swarms and the emergence of new diseases are all attributable to climate change. It is a huge worry for us, for future generations and for all the species we share this planet with.However, we also have many reasons to be hopeful about our planet’s future. We have learnt so much about cleaner, greener energy recently—and the cost of renewable energy has reduced dramatically. Today’s generations and young people are also much more environmentally conscious, aware and concerned than previous generations. And under pressure from their constituents, governments are also more committed to a greener future, as are businesses that are having to adjust their products to meet the demands of their environmentally conscious consumers.This is all really exciting as it pushes us towards a positive climate action tipping point—a critical place when it comes to realizing positive and lasting change. When greener technologies and tools are so good and cheap, and consumer demand for cleaner, greener services and technologies is so strong, momentum is built and change is much faster.

In a recent report to the UN (March 20, 2023), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “Urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all. There are multiple, feasible, and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now.” This is really positive and motivates us to keep pushing for improvements.When I look back to the start of my conservation journey, I find hope in the story of the mountain gorillas. When I started out as Uganda’s first wildlife vet, they were critically endangered and widely predicted to be extinct by the turn of the millennium. It was a huge worry. However, in 2018—thanks to enormous efforts of all partners—mountain gorillas were reclassified from critically endangered to endangered, in recognition of their sustained positive population growth.Of course, the future of mountain gorillas is not yet secure, and the recent emergence of new diseases and viruses, such as COVID-19—examples of issues which are exacerbated by climate change and over-exploitation of resources—poses an increasing threat to their survival. Nevertheless, the redirection of their population trend to one of growth is one of the greatest conservation successes. It is something I am immensely proud to have contributed to.It also gives me hope at times when I feel overwhelmed by the continuing conservation and environmental challenges ahead of us. Nature is incredibly resilient and the more chance we give it to recover, the more it will amaze us with the speed at which it can. We just need to give it that chance.
The reclassification of mountain gorillas from critically endangered to endangered was a huge step for many individuals and organizations who had been working to secure a better future for these primates. Photo: Ryoma Otsuka
One of the most important things I realized at the start of my career in conservation—and the reason that I established Conservation Through Public Health to support co-existence between gorillas and humans—is that we cannot successfully conserve wildlife without improving the health and wellbeing of people as people cannot live without a healthy and clean environment.The health of people, wildlife and the environment is intrinsically interlinked; one cannot be addressed without the others. I talk about this in more detail in my recently published book and memoir, Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet about my journey in conservation leadership.As we consider our place on Earth, whether during Earth Month or beyond, I urge all readers to remember that their health, well-being and livelihoods are dependent on the conservation of our natural resources, environments and biodiversity—and to take action now to protect these for themselves and for their children and future generations. 

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