Meet Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: Uganda’s Gorilla Doctor

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“When I first started working with gorillas, there were no women at all working in conservation in Uganda, there were no female rangers at all. Now we have female rangers, trackers, and porters. More women are getting involved in conservation in that way. I’m pretty happy about that,” says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

Over time Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, known as ‘The Gorilla Doctor’ has shifted her focus to also working in public health because it turns out community health and gorillas go hand in hand. In Uganda’s forest communities inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, there’s tension between humans and wildlife. People are living in very close proximity to the gorillas, and Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka has made it part of her life’s work to educate locals on the importance of health and hygiene for both themselves and for the conservation and future of Uganda’s mountain gorilla population. She does this through her NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). And, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise that’s part of CTPH was launched after Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka visited farmers living adjacent to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Here she learned that the farmers were not being given a fair price for their coffee and were struggling hard to survive, forcing them to use the national park to meet their basic family needs for food and fuel wood.

COVID-19 helped people to understand just how devastating the effects of human-to-gorilla transmission of a virus can be, but this is something the pioneering wildlife veterinarian has been working on for many years prior to the pandemic. Today she continues to work, day in and day out, to protect the health of gorillas, as well as that of the communities with whom they co-exist—with a strong focus on empowering women by improving their livelihoods through access to healthcare.

A female mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Uganda is home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. There are 587 of them in Bwindi. Image by Alicia-Rae Light.

Alicia-Rae Light: How did you get your start as a veterinarian?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “I always wanted to be a vet since—I grew up with lots of pets at home. I started a wildlife club in high school, and it took off from there. We took kids to the national parks and I thought, I want to be a vet who works with wildlife. Someone at the wildlife club offices told me about the mountain gorillas and I was so excited to hear about them but they told me we couldn’t visit them because they weren’t yet habituated for tourism. That was in the late eighties. Later when I went to the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, I got to choose an animal to work with during training and I chose Uganda’s mountain gorillas.”

Alicia-Rae: Was it hard to get involved with working amongst the gorillas since they weren’t yet habituated?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “It took a few years. Between the time I heard the gorillas weren’t yet habituated to the time that I was in vet school, they had habituated two families for tourism. A doctor who worked in mountain gorilla conservation in Rwanda came to set up the International Gorilla Conservation Programme office, an NGO, in Uganda. She was my supervisor and mentor, and she was very instrumental in ensuring that healthy, safe practices were set up to ensure that people weren’t making gorillas sick with human illnesses. I was looking at that closely, seeing how tourism was affecting gorillas by looking at their fecal samples, which I was given permission to do by the director of Uganda’s National Parks. Eventually, I was hired as the first-ever veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.”

Alicia-Rae: What was it like spending time with these incredible primates when gorilla tourism had just begun?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “It’s been a journey. It was a really exciting time as they had only been working with them for about a year, so the gorillas were not as habituated as they are now, they were quite a bit shyer. It was just an amazing time to be there and there were very few tourists. Not that I don’t like tourists, but it was quite nice to have so few people there and the locals are so charming, friendly, and hospitable.”

Alicia-Rae: When did the gorillas first come in contact with a human illness?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “The first disease that came to gorillas from people was scabies, a skin disease that came from people living around the park who had very little access to healthcare. That’s when we knew that we needed to improve community healthcare. I made it an imperative part of my work, improving the health of people who interact with the wildlife and live in close contact with them.”

Doctor Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tracking gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Image courtesy of Conservation Through Public Health.

Alicia-Rae: Tell me a little bit about Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), the NGO that you co-founded with your husband Lawrence?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “With CTPH, We realized that we also needed to look at people’s livelihoods because many people are unhealthy because they were poor. So now we have an active wildlife health program and an actual community health program. We treat the livestock as well and strengthen community-based healthcare for people and get them to also do conservation outreach. We’re integrating human health and animal health together and meanwhile, we’re also integrating wildlife conservation or everything together.

The fact that now people know that COVID-19 can spread from people back to the wildlife, especially the closely related wildlife, like the gorillas and chimps, and even onto cats and other species.

So that got everyone thinking about what we’ve been talking about for so many years: The impact of genetic disease on conservation and on public health. Finally, people really started to understand what CTPH has been trying to do all these years and advocating for. When the pandemic began I was getting calls from people saying or emails saying, ‘Oh, we understand what you’re trying to do now you know, human health equals wildlife health.”

Doctor Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative. Image courtesy of Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

Alicia-Rae: Tell me a little bit more about Gorilla Conservation Coffee?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka:  “My husband Lawrence thought it would be a good idea to help coffee farmers around Uganda. We noticed that a lot of the coffee farmers were not being hired and so they weren’t benefiting from being close to gorillas like other community members who could get jobs as rangers or porters who carry tourists and luggage, sell crops for meals, or work at different accommodations. The coffee farmers were being left out and were still going into the forest to poach and collect firewood just to survive.

So, we started to engage them as well. That also became a tourist activity because tourists could now go to coffee safaris and visit the coffee farmers. The tourists ended up being the main people who were buying the coffee. Not only the ones visiting Bwindi, but also in other parks because it was being sold in lodges all over Uganda, even the shops in Kampala, and Entebbe Duty-Free.

When we started the Gorilla Conservation Coffee enterprise, we thought most of the sales were going to be outside Uganda, because Ugandans don’t really drink coffee that much, we mainly drink tea.

So it’s all been part of sustainable tourism because we give the farmers better prices than the market price. But the coffee has to be very good so that we get repeat customers. Some people will buy the coffee to say, ‘Oh, let’s help the poor people living next to the gorillas. And then they’ll just buy once because it doesn’t really taste good, thinking they’ve just done something good for the gorillas, but what brings them back is that the coffee tastes really good.”

It’s like even if you can’t come to visit the gorillas, you can support them by buying Gorilla Conservation Coffee because then we’re able to provide an income for people who would otherwise be poaching during the pandemic. So, because of gorilla conservation, it meant that some people got an income during the pandemic during lockdown—the coffee farmers.”


Alicia-Rae: Can travelers come to visit any of your projects in Bwindi?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We have a camp in Buhoma called the Gorilla Conservation Camp with the best views of the forest. Our office is based right in the park! It’s where pre-pandemic we hosted students and researchers who are studying the gorillas. They get an immersion when they’re with us because we work with the gorillas and they also learn about the community issues and get more involved in our work.

It’s rustic, it’s not like the high-end accommodation you find in Bwindi, but to me, it has the best view in Bwindi of the forest—it’s amazing. People can also go to the  Gorilla Health Center and learn about the community work we’re doing. That’s something that we offer to tourists and also the students and volunteers who come to visit. Some come and stay at the camp, but even if they don’t stay at the camp, they can still come to meet me, see the health center and we do a presentation or a seminar.”

Alicia-Rae: How are you educating the community and what kind of impact has it had on the gorillas since the most recent, unfortunate poaching of Rafiki was poached—a 25-year-old silverback who was part of the Nkuringo gorilla group?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We have become much more intensive about it since the pandemic. There wasn’t much poaching in Bwindi before COVID-19 because there was so much tourism. But when the pandemic began and tourism had to be suspended for six months, not only because of the global lockdowns and preventing people from making each other sick but to prevent people from making the gorillas sick. During that time poaching went up drastically and that’s what led to the spearing of Rafiki. It was very sad, but after Rafiki was speared, we realized that we now needed to address hunger.

Rafiki’s killer was given 11 years in jail, which is the longest anyone has ever been given for killing a wild animal in Uganda. It was a very strong message, but as long as people are hungry and desperate because tourists stop coming, it will keep happening. Their whole livelihood was focused on tourism. People were very hungry and the money from tourism that was helping them to buy food wasn’t there. People had stopped doing things like farming since tourism came along, and took jobs as porters instead because in one day you could make what someone farming could make in one month or one week.”

Dr. Gladys In the field in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Image courtesy of CTPH.

Alicia-Rae: So how have you addressed the issue of hunger with a long-term solution in the region?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We realized that we needed to address hunger immediately so we started to provide them with fast-growing seedlings. We first went to the most vulnerable—the people from the village where the poacher came from, the Nkuringo Sector. We selected about 1000 homes there together with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, wardens, rangers, and village conservation team to identify the people who were the poorest. Of course, that included the poacher’s wife, a young woman in her early twenties. She’s the poorest of the poor, everyone there has a piece of land, and she doesn’t even have that. She’s living on her grandfather’s land in a small hut with three children under the age of three. When we gave her the seedlings she created a garden to put her crops in.

But those are the kind of people who find it worth it to go into the forest to poach for food, during covid, because they were hungry and could feed their families, or because they could sell the meat they poached at the local market.

We’ve done a small survey and we have our volunteers following up on them to see how they are growing. One thing that came out of the survey is that the biggest impact COVID has had on them is hunger.”

Alicia-Rae: What if something like Covid happens again? What can be done to protect those communities going forward because they’re so heavily reliant on tourism?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “Well, that was part of the reason also where we provided them the fast-growing seedlings—we gave them 10 different types to plant. It wasn’t just emergency food relief for them to have something to eat today. But it was also for them to get back into sustainable farming, which they used to do before tourism began, that was the only way they survived. So that when tourists come back, the money from tourism doesn’t go to feed their stomachs as they’ll have their own food source. Instead, that money can go towards other things, like paying school fees. Hunger is the most basic human need followed by other things. If the only way that they can feed themselves is through money from tourists, then that’s a dangerous situation to be in. This way they will always have food, and the money from tourism does other things to support their work.”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka hard at work in Entebbe. Image courtesy of CTPH.

Alicia-Rae: I know that you’re very involved with women in conservation in Uganda, can you tell me more?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “I think it’s important to engage women in conservation and Ride for Women in Bwindi is a shining example of that. We need to remember that women are half of the equation. If we’re only engaging the men, like the reformed poachers, which is another group we started to engage a lot more after Rafiki was killed, we’re missing the mark. When we approached them, the wives said, ‘Look, we tell our husbands to go and poach because we need the food for our home.’ So, we know we really need to engage the women because they are the ones who their husbands will listen to when they say don’t go back to poach.”

Alicia-Rae: Are there many opportunities for women to work in Bwindi?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “There wasn’t but Ride for a Women provided that. During the pandemic, a lot of them were about to be laid off but we got them to make masks for the rangers and everyone else instead of the traditional Kitenge clothing and tablecloths that were being sold to tourists pre-pandemic.”

Alicia-Rae: Are there rangers who are women?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “There are many rangers who are women, but the majority are men. When I first started out working with gorillas, there were no female rangers at all. It was not the job for them; the mindset was a female ranger or tracker doesn’t take people to the gorillas. Now there are more female rangers, and we even have female trackers and porters.”

Member of the Batwa Pygmy Tribe in Bwindi who used to peacefully co-exist with the mountain gorillas until Bwindi became a protected national park. Image by Wildplaces Africa.

Alicia-Rae: What was it like being the only woman in a field traditionally dominated by men?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “They used to say women can’t go to the gorillas, but I did. And other women are doing it now so I’m really pleased about that.

I was so excited about being with the gorillas and the work I was doing for conservation. That it didn’t bother me too much, but. And the men were very kind, you know, they would walk slowly so that I don’t get tired because they’re not necessarily fitter than women. I have to say. So that’s just how we were made.

It’s good that we’re having more women getting involved in conservation in that way— I’m pretty happy about that. When I first started out like twenty-five years ago, there were no women working here working in conservation. But eventually, I’m glad that I inspired other women.”

Alicia-Rae: Tell me about CTPH’s health education workshops?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We realized that if the gorillas could catch diseases from humans they could also catch it from other things. Like if people don’t cover their rubbish heaps or they defecate in their gardens, or if they leave dirty clothing, or scarecrows, and the gorillas come into contact with it, they are going to pick up other diseases. So, I was tasked with that job to hold these health education workshops about this issue—and that was my first time working in public health. And that was a turning point in my life.”

Alicia-Rae Light: Then what happened?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “We selected the villages where gorillas were coming out of the forest and going into the human communities. Together with the district health authority, we were talking to the communities talking about hygiene, community conservation, and how their health and hygiene affect conservation. Talking about why this was a problem, helping them understand. I was about to say this is the solution until the warden touched my arm and said, let them come up with the solution.

They came up with much more varied and better solutions than I was proposing for them, which was a big eye-opener for me as a vet trained to solve people’s problems. I wasn’t trained to listen to what people have to do to solve their own problems.”

Alicia-Rae Light: What were their solutions suggested and how were they different from yours?

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “One thing that they said to me that I didn’t expect to hear is that they wanted health services to be brought closer to them—and that was not among my solutions, mine was to be more hygienic, don’t defecate in the gardens.

And I just thought, wow, that’s amazing—I just didn’t realize that they didn’t get health care. I knew that the further away you go from the capital city, there are fewer services but I didn’t realize that they had no health services at all.

They were like, look, you need to continue to give us this education, it shouldn’t just be a one-off that you come today, you should be continuous.

And then also they said that we needed to strengthen the human gorilla conflict team and get them gumboots and make sure that they’re motivated.”

Alicia-Rae Light: The young women in the villages must have been very inspired by you…

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: “The women were whispering to each other saying wow, we must educate our girls. Look at her, you know, she’s standing up in the communities and talking to us. She’s leading a team of men. They really liked that.  Girls there get pregnant at 15, and become a wife of someone, there was hardly any girl’s education. And that’s important because once the girls are educated, they influence their families a lot. You know, when you live in a home, few women are educated.”

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