As soon as the call came in that a gorilla was in trouble, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka was on her way.
Photo: Dr. Gladys with a park ranger in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
After a long, winding drive from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, she met Kahara, her patient, deep in a red-dirt forest. Kahara had a severe rectal prolapse. Only surgery would save her.
Kalema-Zikusoka had little equipment and no trained help, and the field rangers who’d called her disagreed over whether an operation should be attempted. Rectal prolapses are sometimes caused by inbreeding. Was it right to save a gorilla with bad genes?
And then it struck Kalema-Zikusoka:
The call was hers alone to make — she was the veterinarian, and she hadn’t become one to euthanize mountain gorillas.
A ranger acted as anesthesiologist, monitoring Kahara’s breathing. Table sugar served as a makeshift remedy for swelling.
“In 45 minutes, I was done and she was waking up,” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls. “And even those who said I shouldn’t do it ended up being happy that I did. When I presented [the case] at the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians meeting, everyone was like, ‘You did that yourself? You should have had a board-certified anesthesiologist, a board-certified surgeon.’ But I didn’t have that.”
Photo: Mist over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
“You just do what you can. You have to do it.”
Such is life in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Remote and impoverished, the area is one of the world’s last sanctuaries for endangered mountain gorillas, and it is where Kalema-Zikusoka has worked for more than 20 years to protect them. As one of her country’s first wildlife veterinarians, she has been a pioneer in her field. She has also championed a unique brand of conservation that has done as much for people as it has for animals.
In 2003, after discovering that humans were the source of a deadly scabies outbreak among Bwindi’s gorillas, Kalema-Zikusoka founded the nonprofit Conservation Through Public Health, or CTPH. Working in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, CTPH focuses on improving the health of both people and gorillas, and on lifting communities out of poverty.
Photo: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
While much of the rest of the world worries about diseases passing from animals to humans, Kalema-Zikusoka is acutely aware that zoonosis works both ways, from cryptosporidium to tuberculosis to Ebola. Her beloved gorillas, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with humans, are especially at risk.
“In these fragile areas where wildlife, people, and livestock intersect, a decline in any of them affects the survival of the others,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, who is affectionately known here simply as Dr. Gladys.
Today, we realize how wildlife, humans, and ecosystems are all interconnected.
This is the idea that CTPH is built upon. In addition to holding mobile clinics for people, the organization trains community volunteers to deliver public health services in villages near protected forests and to help families improve their nutrition and hygiene and seek care when they’re sick. CTPH also helps communities, such as the local Batwa people, raise their living standards. With local coffee farmers, for example, CTPH recently launched Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise that trains growers and connects them to national and international markets so they can sell their crops at higher prices.
Photo: Walking into the forests of the Batwa Pygmy communities.
“We want them to be able to have this livelihood,” Kalema-Zikusoka says, “because it keeps them provided for and out of the forests.”
CTPH has also added a significant family planning effort to help slow population growth and habitat encroachment and break the cycle of poverty in a place where the refrain about family size says: We have 10 children here. Five are for looking after the house and chasing the wild animals away, and five are for school. (CTPH encourages a maximum of four children.)
CTPH volunteers also provide house-to-house conservation education, changing attitudes by teaching people why it’s important to protect forests and gorillas and to limit contact with them.
“People used to kill gorillas in their gardens,” Kalema-Zikusoka says. “Now they don’t.”
Other community teams are trained to safely chase gorillas back into forests when they’re found foraging in villages, and to collect dung samples and report any clinical signs they observe — part of CTPH’s disease outbreak early warning system.
Photo: A gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable forest.
The samples, along with specimens from farmed animals and people, are tested for cross-species diseases at CTPH’s Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre. Set among tea and banana plantations and breathtaking views of deep green mountains, the centre includes a well-equipped clinical lab that supports CTPH’s robust research mission.
Taking on so much hasn’t been easy, Kalema-Zikusoka acknowledges. But her innovative, holistic approach is paying off. Health among humans and gorillas has improved. Families are having fewer children, and incomes are rising. Along with community conservation, law enforcement has gotten markedly better, so fewer animals are being snared.
In the 1990s, the wild mountain gorilla population was estimated to be about 650. Today, it is around 880.
“Sometimes it’s really frustrating,” says Kalema-Zikusoka, who has a wide smile, a calm presence, and a knack for listening and earning trust. “You go, ‘Why am I doing this? I must be crazy. I should just get a regular job.’ And then you hear about something the community did, or that the gorillas are getting better because of your work. It’s worth it.”
Kalema-Zikusoka was born in 1970 into a big, prominent family. A government minister who’d dedicated himself to developing Uganda, her father was murdered when she was 2 by the brutal regime of the country’s then-president, Idi Amin. Her mother, left to raise six children on her own, took years to recover but went on to become one of the first womxn to serve in Uganda’s parliament.
Growing up in Kampala, Kalema-Zikusoka remembers always having animals at home and being deeply concerned about their wellbeing. When one of her dogs or cats was sick, she’d refuse to go to school until she knew the animal was on the mend. By the time she was a teenager, she’d decided she wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. She trained at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College before establishing the first veterinary unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, then earning a master’s degree at North Carolina State University in the US.
“They’re very good mothers,” she says of gorillas. “Always with their babies.”
She admires their playfulness, too, and their curiosity and peacefulness. Yes, she’s been charged by gorillas unaccustomed to people, but she’s never felt truly threatened by one, and she’s never been harmed.
“I never get scared when they charge. They’re really nonviolent, the Buddhas of the great ape world. People say the chimp is who we are, and gorillas are who we want to be.”
Kalema-Zikusoka names Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai, and her parents as her inspirations. Her work has been featured everywhere from CNN to the BBC, and she has received numerous awards, including the Whitley Gold Award for outstanding leadership in grassroots nature conservation. She was chosen as an Ashoka fellow in 2006 (https://www.ashoka.org/en) and in 2018, became a National Geographic Explorer.
She is known all over southwest Uganda. Driving with her means stopping constantly to chat with waving people who are eager to greet and thank her.
“Helping animals helps people” she explains.
Among her hopes for the future is that CTPH will be able to work more extensively in DRC’s Virunga, where, unlike in Uganda, gorillas are routinely poached and rangers trying to protect them are often killed.
“We really need to extend our program there, but it’s difficult because of security.”
Photo: A park ranger in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
She says her biggest accomplishment has been getting even the poorest Ugandans to support conservation, and money that gorillas have helped generate for local communities has played a big part. While much of CTPH’s funding has come from international institutional donors, communities have gained a lot from the growth of responsible gorilla tourism, in which small groups of people are guided on expensive treks to see gorillas who have been gradually habituated to accept visitors.
Kalema-Zikusoka is deliberate about making sure communities understand how gorillas have helped them, and she has helped raise the portion of tourism profits that must go directly to locals.
“Obviously the veterinary work is very important to me, because that’s my passion,” she says. “But then you realize the veterinary work can only help the sick, wild animals, but we’re really trying to save all the gorillas.”
She offers the story of a male gorilla named Ruhondeza who was dying of old age. He knew his time was close, so he’d distanced himself from his group and had settled close to a village.
“We spoke to our volunteers, asking, ‘OK, please educate your community that Ruhondeza is here to stay until he dies. He’s here because he trusts you. He’s seen you for over 20 years. He’s brought you a lot of wealth,’” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls.
Photo: The Gorilla Coffee plantations and agriculture in southern Uganda.
“And they understood. They said, ‘Oh, when one of our own gets old, we look after them.’”
“And they looked after him until he died, and when he died, they called and told me. We came to do the post-mortem and everyone in the community came to look at his grave and pay their last respects.”
Learn more about Conservation Through Public Health and support their work: www.ctph.org
Text by Corinne Benedict. Interview and photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.