21 Mar Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka on Walking With Gorillas Exclusive Interview
Why is this subject, “Walking With Gorillas,” important in the world?
This subject is important because of poverty, disease, and high human population growth at biodiversity hot spots and other wildlife-rich habitats, particularly in developing countries. There is also an increase in the frequency of pandemics and other fatal zoonotic disease outbreaks; habitat loss is accelerating because of high human population growth rates, and all of this is contributing to the loss of species, which is all linked to climate change.
What is the pressing issue, right, and how are you addressing it?
Zoonotic diseases jumping back and forth between animals and people, habitat loss, human and wildlife conflict, and poaching are pressing issues causing species decline and worsening climate change. We are addressing these issues through a One Health approach that improves the health and well-being of people, animals, and the environment.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka Biography
What is your background in this subject?
I have been working with critically endangered mountain gorillas for 27 years. I was hired as the first veterinarian for the Uganda National Parks, which eventually became the Uganda Wildlife Authority, at a time when Gorilla tourism had just begun, and the government was concerned that people were going to make gorillas sick because we are so closely genetically related and share over 98% DNA. In 1994 I got an opportunity to study the mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, comparing parasites and bacteria in two gorilla groups visited by tourists and one gorilla group by researchers. This was a turning point when I became a full-time wildlife veterinarian. While working as Uganda’s first wildlife vet, I led a team investigating a fatal scabies disease outbreak in the then critically endangered mountain gorillas traced to people living around the park who have limited access to basic health and other health social services. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park does not have a buffer zone in most areas, so there is a hard edge between the national park and the local community. Once gorillas lose their fear of people, they tend to forage outside the park into community gardens and eat banana plants and the bark of eucalyptus trees. This was the third turning point in my life when I realized that it was impossible to protect the gorillas and other wildlife without improving the health and well-being of their human neighbors.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
Having spent so much time with the mountain gorillas, I have learned much about parenting. They have an interbirth interval once every four to five years without modem family planning methods. By the time the next baby is born, the older one is emotionally independent and can help babysit the younger sibling. I decided to space our children like gorillas, our two boys are four and a half years apart.
When I get behind the wheel, I like driving fast, perhaps indicating that I am a risk taker and like adventure!
What are your passions outside of your career?
I am passionate about photography and often take photos of animals and my children. My favorite time is when I have an opportunity to get absorbed in a book, particularly nonfiction books. I also love swimming, which helps me to relax and bond with our two sons. A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised that my great-maternal grandfather was a fisherman.
Are there any social causes that you believe in and support?
The social causes I believe in and support through our non-profit – Conservation Through Public Health and social enterprises – Gorilla Conservation Coffee and Gorilla Conservation Camp – are the urgent need to improve the health and livelihoods of people in and around protected areas and wildlife-rich habitats and empower people to conserve wildlife and protect the environment. I also feel strongly about educating the girl child and empowering women to fulfill their potential, particularly in conservation and sustainable development.
What is next for you?
I want to expand our model and have other organizations expand it to other countries in Africa and the developing world through training and advocacy. I would also like to spend more time building African leadership in primate conservation and research, where I am the vice president of the African Primatological Society. I feel strongly about empowering and mentoring girls and women to fulfill their potential as leaders in One Health and the conservation and environment sectors, and I am a member of the Women for the Environment – Africa leadership council.
I would also like to write more books, dig deeper into some of the chapters in “Walking with Gorillas,” and continue sharing what I am learning and advocating for along my leadership journey.
Walking With Gorillas
Tell me about your book.
“Walking with Gorillas” is a memoir and charter about my leadership and conservation journey shaped by One Health. It is divided into four parts signifying turning points in my life, starting with how I got involved in wildlife conservation by setting up a wildlife club at my high school in Uganda and how this led me to pursue a career as a wildlife veterinarian and set up the veterinary unit of Uganda Wildlife Authority. The third part focuses on establishing an award-winning NGO and non-profit, Conservation Through Public Health, and the last part reflects on sustaining conservation through tourism and social enterprises, including Gorilla Conservation Coffee, that we set up to provide sustainable financing for conservation. I also discuss the importance of engaging women in conservation and building African leadership to reverse the disturbing trend of species decline and climate change.
Where can people buy the book?
The book release date is 14th March 2023 in the USA, then April 2023 in the UK. People can buy the book on Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, and other platforms where Simon and Schuster distribute the book in the USA. They can also buy the book on Amazon UK and Waterstones in the UK and on the Simon and Schuster distribution networks in the UK, Uganda, and worldwide.