Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Interview with Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the award-winning conservationist and veterinarian who is the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

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A leading conservationist, veterinarian, founder and CEO – Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has always loved animals. Even before she reached her teens, the precocious young student established a wildlife club at her school in Kampala, and organised trips to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Her dedication to the natural world only grew as the years went by, culminating in a scholarship to the Royal Veterinary College in London. Between 1996 and 2000, she set up the first Veterinary Unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, serving as the country’s first full-time veterinarian. Today Kalema-Zikusoka holds a Masters in Veterinary Science, a Masters in Global Business and Sustainability, and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management – all of which have prepared her well for her role as Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

CTPH is not just any conservation organisation. Marrying wildlife conservation with initiatives designed to improve public health and provide alternative, sustainable livelihoods for rural communities in Uganda, this integrative approach has met with considerable success. For her role in driving the organisation, Kalema-Zikusoka has received a number of awards and distinctions. In 2008 she was presented with San Diego Zoo’s Conservation in Action Award, and a year later received the 2009 Whitley Gold Award (known as the “Green Oscars” of the conservation world) for outstanding leadership in grassroots nature conservation. A trailblazer for women in conservation and the business world, she received the 2011 Wings World Quest Women of Discovery Humanitarian Award and was named Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Government in 2014, in the Medicine and Veterinary category.

She didn’t stop there either. 2017 saw Kalema-Zikusoka receive two honours: first, the World Wildlife Day Award from Uganda’s Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities for her outstanding contribution to conservation in Uganda. Then, on International Women’s Day, the Golden Jubilee Award was presented to Kalema-Zikusoka by Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, for her distinguished service to the nation as a veterinarian and conservationist. Most recently, the decorated doctor was honoured with the prestigious EarthCare Award from the Sierra Club, and was inducted into the ranks of National Geographic’s Explorers, receiving a grant that allowed her to expand the integrated gorilla and human health model at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park that she and the CTPH team have helped to pioneer.

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Natural World Hero Interview

What made you first realise the connection between conservation and public health?

In 1996, whilst working as a veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), I led a team that identified the first scabies outbreak in the mountain gorillas of BINP. Despite acting quickly to treat the affected gorillas, the outbreak very sadly resulted in the death of an infant gorilla. Thankfully the rest of the gorilla group recovered with Ivermectin treatment. The fatal disease was traced back to the local communities living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, likely passing scabies on to the gorillas through scarecrows they made from old clothes and placed in crop fields to dissuade birds and wildlife from eating the crops. Since gorillas sometimes ventured out of the forest and into crop fields, it is likely they came into contact with scabies then.

A few years later, in 2001 and 2002, another scabies outbreak occurred. Fortunately, there were no deaths because we were more prepared. With only 650 critically endangered mountain gorillas remaining in the wild at the time, I asked myself how we could prevent similar situations in the future and realised that conservation efforts could not be fully realised or successful without also involving and supporting the improved health and wellbeing of community members, particularly those living in close proximity to the wildlife. What resulted was the founding of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003 with other concerned Ugandans. CTPH is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that focuses on the interdependence of wildlife and human health in and around Africa’s protected areas.

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What are the main public health issues facing the people of Uganda today, and how is CTPH working towards solutions for said issues?

Our public health interventions focus on the communities located in and around protected wildlife areas as the people living there tend to be amongst the poorest and most marginalised in Uganda. People in these remote communities lack access to basic health and social services.

Through our village health and conservation teams (VHCTs) of community volunteers, we provide household-level health information and services, focusing on issues around improving hygiene and sanitation (dysentery and related illness and death is still rife in many Ugandan communities), preventing illness (through sterilising water appropriately, taking precautions against malaria, disposing of waste properly – including human waste), and controlling illness through referring people suspected to have tuberculosis (TB), scabies and other infectious diseases, and improving access to family planning (many Ugandans in remote communities lack access to appropriate contraceptives to plan for, prevent and allow for healthy spacing of children).

Our VHCTs are trained to be able to administer injectable contraceptives on site for those who would like them. We have a referral system in place for more serious concerns such as suspected TB, scabies, malaria and HIV infection. With the emergence of Ebola as a health concern in central Africa, our VHCTs are also being trained to include key Ebola prevention strategies as part of our routine household service provision.

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How can communities living around protected areas be assured of sustainable livelihoods that prevent the exploitation of natural resources?

Our alternative livelihood work involves working with community members to introduce them to sustainable and alternative income-generation activities, which provide viable alternatives to a dependence on natural resources to meet basic needs. We have had a lot of success with the VHCT village savings and loan associations, and VHCT group livestock projects – this has been recognised with the Global Development Network Japanese Award for Most Innovative Development Project for scaling social service delivery.

We also engage coffee farmers in CTPH’s social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which seeks the highest purchase price globally for coffee farmers around BINP, buying their coffee at premium, above-market prices to ensure a sustainable future for Bwindi’s coffee farmers, many of whom are reformed poachers. This goes hand in hand with community sensitisation on the importance of protecting Uganda’s wildlife and habitats, including for both our national and local economies. CTPH works very closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which transfers a percentage of profits from gorilla tracking permits to community endowment funds and projects, ensuring the community reaps some of the financial benefits of gorilla tourism.

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In terms of wildlife conservation, you work primarily with the mountain gorillas of Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Does the Bwindi population face different threats to their survival than the mountain gorillas living in Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda's Mgahinga National Park?

All our great apes and primates are under significant threat from humans, primarily in terms of habitat encroachment, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases (Ebola currently creates a major concern for our gorilla populations). Thankfully, the gorillas in Uganda are not directly hunted for meat like some of the primates in other parts of Africa, such as the DRC. They are, however, still affected by hunting and poaching for other bushmeat as they often become injured or killed by snares set for trapping other animals.

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Humanity presents both the best chance for mountain gorillas' survival (through conservation and ecotourism) and the greatest threat to their survival (through disease, poaching and habitat destruction). How can we ensure the balance tips the right way?

Indeed, humanity presents both the greatest opportunities and threats to primate survival. Together with other conservation partners, we recently hosted the African Primatological Society Conference in Entebbe, during which we participated in a Primate Ecotourism Roundtable and discussed these issues in details. Uganda has had a lot of success with primate ecotourism and has important lessons to share. Broadly, it was agreed that primate ecotourism can be very successful if viewed through a conservation lens which places protection of the primates in question as the foremost priority.

One recommendation from the roundtable that we are pursuing is for visitors to wear masks when viewing gorillas, chimpanzees and other apes to prevent risk of disease transmission – as well as for safe viewing distances to be properly observed and enforced. Working together with the government authorities and private partners, I believe we can strike a balance which involves all partners collaborating to capitalise on the potential of primate ecotourism, whilst ensuring that it is done in a way that preserves and protects primates and their habitats and causes no undue harm.

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You must have spent a lot of time with gorillas over the years. Do these charismatic primates have any funny or interesting quirks that we might not know about?

Their great similarities to humans are always striking – particularly the way adult female gorillas interact with their young, comforting them when they are tired, chastising them when their playfulness becomes overly boisterous – it’s just like human mothers and their babies! Gorillas are better than humans at family planning. Gorillas have a baby once every four to five years without modern contraceptives. It is very logical because by the time the next infant is born the older one is emotionally independent and able to build its own nest.

It is easy to connect with gorillas because of their accommodating nature. Our flagship blend of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, the Kanyonyi blend, is named after one of my favorite gorillas who I have known since he was born in 1996. Kanyonyi was part of the first group to be habituated for tourism in Uganda, the Mubare gorilla group. His father Ruhondeza was the lead silverback of the group until Kanyonyi replaced him when he died in 2012. I successfully operated on Kanyonyi’s older sister, Kahara, when she had a rectal prolapse. Kanyonyi sadly died in December 2017 after not being able to recover from injuries and infection from falling off a tree and fighting with Makara, a lone silverback, that eventually took over his group. Kanyonyi’s legacy lives on through the first coffee blend for Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

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Is there scope for the successful methodology of CTPH to be replicated in other parts of Africa?

We very much believe so. Whilst our focus to date has been primarily on Uganda (with some work in Virunga National Park in DRC as well), we believe the recently recognised Population, Health and Environment Approach, which our methodology embodies, is applicable not just across Africa abut worldwide. The approach encompasses what we have been articulating since inception – that we cannot, as conservationists, succeed in our conservation efforts without acknowledging the important interactions between people, wildlife, livestock and habitats. We must focus on multi-sectoral, integrated approaches which take into account the complicated interactions between all parts of an ecosystem, humans included.

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CTPH has strategic programs dedicated to wildlife conservation, community health and alternative livelihoods. Whereas some organisations focus on just one of these, you include all three. How are these integrated so that all are given the attention they deserve?

We run all our programs simultaneously and the integration of our programs is mainstreamed throughout each which helps to ensure we keep a balance. What we find most challenging about our integrated approach is fundraising. Many donors are focused on one area, e.g. conservation, and don’t want their funds to be used for health and vice versa. We keep pushing the integrated PHE agenda though as we have seen that it works.

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In 1996, you become the Uganda Wildlife Authority's first full-time veterinarian. Since then, you have earned a number of awards as a female entrepreneur and conservationist. Have the fields of business and conservation changed for women in Uganda over the course of your career?

I think Uganda is becoming more accepting of women leaders in business and conservation but there is still a long way to go. My mother was a great source of inspiration for me and encouraged me to follow my passion and dreams to become a veterinarian because she realised that I love animals, having grown up with lots of pets at home. This was at a time when veterinary medicine was not popular in Uganda and there were hardly any women veterinary doctors. She herself was one of the first female members of parliament in Uganda and inspired many women to join politics – Uganda now has among the highest number of women MPs in the world.

After conducting research with mountain gorillas, I decided to become a veterinarian who focused on wildlife, which inspired other veterinary students in Uganda to take up a career in wildlife veterinary and conservation medicine. I got encouraged to become an entrepreneur by learning about other female entrepreneurs in Uganda, such as Irene Mutumba, an Ashoka Fellow who founded Private Education Development Network. She nominated me to become an Ashoka Fellow and in 2006, I became one. Ashoka supports leading social entrepreneurs. As the number of female role models is growing, more and more women are having careers in business and conservation.

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Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

Dr. Jane Goodall is my own personal natural world hero because she conducted original research on chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, in Tanzania, at a time when women were not expected to conduct pioneering research in remote locations. I have been inspired to follow in her footsteps through our work with the mountain gorillas of Bwindi impenetrable National Park.

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What has been your best natural world experience to date?

My best natural world experience has been coming face to face with the critically endangered mountain gorillas, whose status has now been downlisted to endangered as the only gorilla subspecies that is showing a positive growth trend.

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What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

It is difficult to protect wildlife without taking into consideration the needs of the people who they share their fragile habitats with. To achieve long-term conservation gains you need to also address the needs of people living alongside the wildlife and inspire them to become conservation champions.

If you've been inspired by Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and CTPH, and want to see gorillas in the wild for yourself, speak to one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your safari.