13 Jan COVID-19 Heroine: Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a leading conservationist and scientist working to protect wildlife species, including the endangered mountain gorillas of East Africa. She is the Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit organization that promotes conservation by improving the health and quality of life of people living near protected areas of Africa, so that they can peacefully coexist with the wildlife.
Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka completed her veterinary training at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College, and between 1996 and 2000 she set up the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s first-ever veterinary department. She has received multiple awards and international recognition for her work and is currently a Member of the Leadership Council of Women for the Environment Africa, and serves as Vice President of the African Primatological Society.
Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka is also an expert in zoonotic diseases—infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice-versa. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus thought to have originated in bats, global awareness about zoonotic diseases has increased, thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka and others who have been working to educate the public about how such diseases spread.
We spoke with Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka for our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” series, and, as a zoonotic disease specialist, she shared with us her expert insights, and explained why her work in conservation and public health has been more vital than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read about the work Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka has been doing to protect the health of wildlife, as well as the health and wellbeing of communities living close to these animals and their natural habitats, in our interview below.
Q: You are a veterinarian, an epidemiologist, a health worker, and the Founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit organization which sits at the intersection of wildlife conservation and human wellbeing. Could you tell us a bit about your background, your career journey, and what led you to establish CTPH?
My journey is based on wearing many different—but related—hats. I’ve always had a love of wildlife, and even set up a wildlife club when I was in high school. After I graduated from London’s Royal Veterinary College, my first job was to set up the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s veterinary department. This was around the time when tourism to visit our gorillas first began, and there was concern that tourists would be carriers of diseases that could make the gorillas sick, endangering them even further.
One of the first issues I dealt with was a skin disease, which gorillas caught from local people when they roamed outside the range of national parks. As our population grows, people are living closer to the edge of national parks and protected areas, and the gorillas are more likely to find themselves in people’s gardens. So, to protect the health of the gorillas, it is also important to improve and protect the health of the people around them.
I then went on to obtain my Master’s in Specialized Veterinary Medicine from North Carolina State University, and I spent time at the North Carolina Zoo completing my master’s research on tuberculosis crossing between species.
We set up CTPH in 2003—myself, my husband, Lawrence Zikusoka, and veterinary technician, Stephen Rubanga—to address the challenges of diseases passing between people, wildlife, and livestock, and to also address the basic human need of healthcare. Conservation is rooted in earning the support of local communities who share a backyard with wild species. Many families living at the fringes of protected areas in Africa are already some of the most impoverished—and land encroachment, competition for food, and the spread of zoonotic disease between people, wildlife, and livestock all pose imminent threats to the survival of wildlife, of natural habitats, and to these communities themselves.
Q: As an expert in zoonotic disease, could you explain the inter-connectedness between public health, wildlife protection, and shared habitats—particularly in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic?
Generally, diseases can travel in both directions—from people to animals, and back again. COVID-19 is an example of a zoonotic disease that travelled from animals to humans: we think it could have passed from bats to an intermediate host, suspected to be a pangolin, and then to humans. It’s not the first recent example of a disease to do so; the first SARS outbreak in 2003 in Southeast Asia was caused by a disease passed to humans through the civet cat, but thankfully SARS didn’t spread so rapidly and widely across countries.
Zoonotic diseases spread when people bring wildlife into their own habitats, or when they interact too closely with animals in the animals’ habitats. This happens in particular when wild animals are put into overcrowded conditions in overcrowded human environments—in markets, for example; or when humans start encroaching on wild animals’ habitats, which happens as populations grow and cities continue to expand outwards into less-developed areas. In Uganda and other areas of East Africa, this transfer of diseases puts great apes, with whom humans share very similar biological protein make-ups, especially at risk.
Urbanization and air travel help to spread diseases. But, here in Uganda we’re not very urbanized, and this means that many people spend a lot of time outside. While this has likely made it harder for COVID-19 to spread from person to person, it has also rendered wildlife more vulnerable, as encounters with humans are much more likely.
If we don’t respect nature or improve animal welfare, we’re going to have more pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic has been truly terrible, and cases are continuing to rise, but the next pandemic could be even worse. If COVID-19 has shown us one thing, it’s that we need to urgently address the way we treat nature.
Q: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, you have worked to raise awareness and educate communities in Uganda about how to keep themselves safe while protecting and preserving wildlife. Could you talk about your pandemic awareness and relief efforts?
Like everyone else, when the pandemic began, we felt very anxious. However, at CTPH, we’d already been on a journey to discuss public health and educate people about the need for good hygiene to reduce disease transmission to gorillas. Among the first actions we took was making sure that everyone was wearing masks when they visited the gorillas—even before COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Uganda—and to increase the distance between people and gorillas, as well as taking temperatures, using hand sanitizer, and disinfecting boots. We were also able to buy masks from a local entrepreneur, Ride 4 a Woman, by partnering with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. So early on, we worked to implement our pre-existing health and safety measures to try and limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.
In terms of public health, we’ve also been working with health workers to improve people’s basic hygiene through the provision of better toilet and handwashing facilities in communities near protected wildlife areas. We also partnered with the Uganda Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 task force when we realized that a lot of diseases were being neglected during the pandemic—especially tuberculosis, which shares similar symptoms with COVID-19. By working together with the Ministry of Health, we’ve been able to make sure that people in these communities are still being seen and treated for illnesses that aren’t COVID-19.
In terms of conservation, we’ve had to educate people about what to do if gorillas come out from the parks and wander into people’s gardens—they don’t understand that there’s a risk of COVID-19 transmission. So now we have made sure that people know to contact our Gorilla Guardians, who safely herd the gorillas back into the parks, rather than coming into close contact with the gorillas themselves.
Another big challenge during the pandemic has been dealing with poaching. With gorilla tourism we’d been able to pretty much wipe poaching out, and a lot of the poachers had in fact become tour guides or rangers, making more money protecting the gorillas than they’d ever made as poachers. But without the tourists, many people lost their income and turned back to poaching. So, we’ve been intervening in an effort to help people earn money in different ways. One of the most successful initiatives has been helping local communities through Gorilla Conservation Coffee—CTPH’s coffee-farming social enterprise that supports farmers living next door to the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This enterprise has really grown during COVID-19 and we’re continuing to receive international orders for our coffee, which in turn continues to support farmers and protect the gorillas and their habitat. And, finally, to support local communities, we’re also helping people farm enough food for themselves and their families by distributing fast-growing seedlings.
Q: As an internationally recognized and renowned African woman conservationist, you are a trailblazer in many ways. Could you describe what you hope to see for the future of African women’s participation and leadership in conservation?
In Africa, people don’t often choose to pursue a career that focuses on animals. I think this has to do with the misconception that veterinarian school is for those who didn’t succeed in medical school, whereas in the United Kingdom, where I completed my veterinary training, it can actually be harder to get into vet school than medical school. I think societies also place different kinds of values on animals in Africa, versus in the West.
In Uganda, it’s also certainly not typical for a woman to choose a career which will require her to live in a remote location with few amenities, and in close proximity to wild animals. Even my mother, when I first told her I wanted to work with gorillas, was afraid they’d harm me, but nevertheless she remained supportive of me. She’s since visited the gorillas herself and now sees them as the gentle vegetarians they are. But this fear still exists within many societies in Uganda, and there are very few women vets and conservationists in Uganda, and few African women in leadership positions in these fields in general.
It’s my hope to empower more women to pursue a career in veterinary science, or conservation, as I was empowered to do. As a Member of the Leadership Council for Women for the Environment in Africa, I hope that, by increasing the visibility of just some of the women in senior leadership positions in African conservation, more women will be inspired to pursue the path they’re passionate about, even if societal and cultural norms say otherwise. Conservation is a complex issue that requires a holistic, long-term approach, and I think women are especially suited to help solve these kinds of problems because of our collaborative approach and our listening skills.
I think it’s important to mention that there is a lack of local representation among conservationists—not many conservationists are from the places that endangered animals are found. Whether it’s Africa or Asia—there are few local champions for endangered species. These are the people who will eventually become policymakers and decisionmakers for their communities and countries, who will determine the future of these animals’ survival. I became Vice President of the African Primatological Society with the goal of building African leadership in primate research and conservation. I really hope that I can inspire more African people to pursue careers in this area, as their participation is crucial. Last year, at one of the Society’s largest conferences that was organized by CTPH in Uganda, around 85% of all participants were of African origin, so this indicates we are making progress in this regard.
Q: Could you talk about what has served as your inspiration and motivation over the course of your career, and could you share any advice to other African women pursuing careers in conservation or similar fields?
I was very lucky that I had a mother who encouraged me to follow the career path that I wanted and supported my ambitions to become a vet. My mother was one of the first female politicians in Uganda and is such a strong woman—especially growing up, seeing women in such positions can really make a big difference to your aspirations.
I’ve also been supported and mentored by other women in conservation, to whom I’m grateful. The very first vet I worked with, Dr. Elizabeth Macfie, who was heading the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) in Uganda at the time, was able to really mentor me.
Three women in conservation have also been inspirations to me: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas. They began their work studying the great apes in the 1950s and 1960s, and really broke new ground so that people like me could follow. I have also been inspired by the late Professor Wangarĩ Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.
I was recently approached by the Malala Fund for a quote to share on their Assembly platform. The advice I gave to girls graduating in the Class of 2020 was to work hard at what you’re passionate about. I advise girls and women to follow their passion; to understand their dreams and act with purpose, without worrying about what other people think. We need to challenge cultural and societal norms—and that is not always going to be easy. Work hard, and be brave.