She has Dedicated her Life to making Human Beings Co-exist with Animals

You don't need to have fully read Dr Gladys Kalema's profile to comprehend her love for wildlife. The gorilla sculptures at the reception of her office, speak volumes.

It is not by accident that today, she is one of the most popular conservationists of our time. Back in the day, when she joined Kibuli Secondary School, she helped revive the Wild Life Club which had gone quiet. She confesses to have been a passionate lover of cats when she was a child.

Right now Kalema holds a number of awards for her contribution to saving the most endangered species of gorillas.

This conservationist is a mother of two. Her six month-old baby boy lay in a baby carrier when I went to interview her.

Her husband Lawrence Zikusoka was with her in the office, and he helped with the baby while we went through the interview.

Upon graduating she worked as a veterinary officer at the Uganda Wildlife Authority. She is celebrated for having set up a veterinary unit to care for animals in national parks.

As a result today, there are many people being trained in wild veterinary. "I remember when I started out; I was the first full time wild veterinary. I had to go to all the parks whenever there was a sick animal," she recalls.

Her organisation, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), helps prevent the spread of diseases from human beings to animals and vice versa.

Gorillas and humans have a 98 per cent genetic resemblance, making transmission of diseases between the species highly probable.

The 39-year-old doctor, trained at the University of London's Royal Veterinary College, has won accolades from Africa to the US. In 2008, she was honoured with the San Diego Zoo's "Conservation in Action Award."

She investigated the first scabies outbreak in Bwindi gorillas, following the death of an infant. Her suspicion was that the infant had been infected with human skin mites. She found that gorillas visited by tourists had a higher parasite rate than those not visited, implying that tourism can have a negative impact on mountain gorillas' health.

Some of the programmes her NGO runs include; wildlife health monitoring, human public health, and information education and communication a programme that has seen community Tele-centres set up in Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth National Parks. But while she has dedicated her efforts and time, to see that wildlife is sustained, she cites a number of challenges that hinder the industry.

Human encroachment around the parks, she says has been the biggest problem. Because of this, lions eat people's goats, elephants destroy people's crops and in return human beings also want to revenge by killing them, either directly or indirectly.

"For as long as there is competition for resources; people wanting to go and collect firewood in the parks and animals coming to raid people's gardens, the future of wild life is not so great," she laments.

She adds that, there is need to promote family planning in general but more so, around the protected areas, because that is the only way we can fight the poverty cycle and that means there is less pressure on the natural resources. Accommodation facilities in the parks are also not enough, she says.

In her moments of service, she recalls the day she went to treat a sick elephant in Kidepo National Park, which ended up chasing her. "As I approached to treat it, it chased us and almost caught us. I was with a game ranger and another German vet- and I out-ran all of them," she says with a huge smile across her face.

It has not been easy for her. First the big challenge she faces as a conservationist is to raise the money. "It is hard to raise money for conservation. It is frustrating when you don't have enough money to accomplish your goals. Then convincing people that it is important to treat animals which are wild." This she says because most people used to think that when a wild animal died, it was only natural, a mentality which she has helped to change.

"You see, even in the field of conservation veterinary care is a new thing. If there is a sick zebra and you want to treat it for instance, they will tell you; it might have been the next meal for the lion why are you treating it?" she says.

Above all this, however, Kalema says that Uganda has enormous potential, to return the glory it had in the 1970s as Africa's top tourism destination. "We have two charismatic great apes; the mountain gorillas, chimps, beautiful forest habitats and savannah all in one area which creates a very unique contrast. We have tree climbing lions, a good climate; it is not too hot neither too cold, and we have our unique cultures," she says of the reason Winston Churchill named Uganda the Pearl of Africa.

But still, there is hope for wildlife as Kalema says, stakeholders have so far done a good job sensitising Ugandans about conservation.


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