07 Dec Dr Gladys article in New Scientist (Q&A)
When veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka discovered mountain gorillas in Uganda were contracting disease from humans, she founded an organisation to promote healthcare in both.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The cats and dogs in my home were my playmates as a child, and at the age of 12, I decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian.
Explain your work in one easy paragraph.
We started Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in 2003 because I was concerned about disease transmission to the estimated 650 critically endangered mountain gorillas in existence. I led a team that traced a fatal outbreak of scabies in the gorillas to people living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. CTPH was one of the first NGOs in the world to address human, animal and ecosystem health together – now known as the “One Health” approach.
Why did you choose this field?
As a student, I worked with captive chimpanzees and then wild chimps in Budongo Forest and mountain gorillas in Bwindi. I was then hired as the first wildlife veterinarian in Uganda.
Did you have to overcome any particular challenges to get where you are today?
The main barriers were challenging society’s norms. Veterinary medicine was not seen as a viable career in Uganda because people did not want to spend money on pets or food animals. And for wildlife, it was thought natural selection should take precedence over welfare. Thirdly, wildlife veterinary medicine was not considered a suitable career for a woman because it involves dangerous animals and challenging conditions.
Were you good at science at school?
I won the school science prize, in an era when there were few women in science. This made me see that a career in science was worth pursuing.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on in your career?
I have had many exciting moments pioneering the first translocations in Uganda. In 1997, Kidepo Valley National Park had just six giraffes. We translocated three infants and, from that, the population grew to 35 giraffes and is still growing.
Is there a discovery you wish you’d made yourself?
Seeing the first self-medication by non-human great apes. We now know chimps swallow hairy Aspilialeaves when they have intestinal worms, which are then expelled in their faeces.
What scientific development do you hope to see in your lifetime?
I am fascinated by how gorillas medicate themselves and whether they share medicines with humans. I have now started work on this.
Do you have an unexpected hobby, and if so, please will you tell us about it?
I enjoy martial arts and got as far as a yellow belt in karate until the teacher left Uganda!
What achievement or discovery are you most proud of?
I am most proud of discovering the cause of the scabies outbreak, and setting up CTPH. We are proud to have contributed to the growth of the mountain gorilla population. There are now just over 1000, changing their IUCN conservation status from critically endangered to endangered.
If you could have a conversation with any scientist, living or dead, who would it be?
Dian Fossey, who pioneered the long-term study of mountain gorillas. My conservation work has built on her legacy by involving local communities more.
What’s the best thing you’ve read or seen in the past 12 months?
Becoming by Michelle Obama, because she describes her life so vividly that you feel you are in Chicago living all the challenges she faced to become a first lady in the US.
OK, one last thing: tell us something that will blow our minds…
Gorillas have babies once every four to five years. By the time the new infant is born, the older one can build its own night nest and transfer life skills to the infant. My husband and I spaced our two boys four and a half years apart for that reason. ❚