Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda, is one of the most inspiring conservationists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. She has won many global awards for her work—she’s a National Geographic Explorer, a UN Champion of the Earth and an Ashoka Fellow. She received the Aldo Leopold Award from the American Society of Mammologists, the Sierra Club Earth Care Award and the San Diego Zoo Conservation in Action Award. And the list goes on.

In her new memoir released this year, Walking with Gorillas: Tales of an African Wildlife Vet, Gladys details her path from childhood to becoming one of the most influential people in the conservation world. As a Nat Hab traveler with an interest in conservation, you will likely find this book fascinating not only because of Gladys’ unique story but also for the things you will learn about the complex world of wildlife conservation in Africa.

The memoir also highlights the many barriers she broke along the way. Gladys is a woman setting a new bar in the male-dominated world of veterinary medicine. She is a Black woman in a sea of white conservationists, with a holistic approach to conservation in an era when funders want to support projects with narrowly defined scopes. But through it all, I am convinced that Gladys has succeeded through the sheer force of being a genuinely kind and caring person who will do whatever it takes to protect wildlife, particularly the mountain gorillas she has dedicated her life to.    

silverback gorilla endangered primates Uganda Rwanda

Silverback gorilla © Richard de Gouveia

Wildlife Clubs of Uganda

Gladys attributes much of her passion for wildlife conservation to her early involvement with Wildlife Clubs of Uganda—an environmental education program that gets Ugandan youth to take an active role in local conservation projects and educates them about the value of wildlife in the country. Her school didn’t have a chapter of the club, so, showing her leadership skills early, she decided to start one. Today, she is a board member for Wildlife Clubs of Uganda.

This club has inspired many Ugandan conservationists over its history. When I was interviewing national park guides as part of my Master’s research in Murchison Falls National Park in northwestern Uganda, nearly every single one said they first got interested in a career in conservation through participation in Wildlife Clubs of Uganda. I see it as a tribute to the power of environmental education for youth and an indicator of the importance of programs like Nat Hab’s Monarch Scholarship.  

Uganda’s First Wildlife Veterinarian

Partly through her involvement with Wildlife Clubs of Uganda, which offered her some of her first chances to visit national parks, Gladys knew from an early age that she wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. However, at the time, there were no existing pathways in Uganda to make that dream come true.

Fortunately, she came from an influential family that never settled for the status quo. Her mother, who graced the inside of a jail cell on several occasions due to her political activism, helped to create the system that reserves Member of Parliament positions for women. Her grandfather was assassinated for his work in support of the Kabaka (King) of the Buganda tribe, and her father was one of the many political victims of Idi Amin’s brutal regime.

With the support of her family and several helpful mentors, Gladys was able to enroll in the esteemed veterinary program at the University of London Royal Veterinary College and subsequently received a Master of Veterinary Medicine from North Carolina State University in the U.S. Throughout her studies, she stayed true to her desire to treat wildlife, not just pets and livestock, and was fortunate to gain experience with these animals through placements in zoos that would support her future work in the savannas and rain forests of her home in East Africa.

That is, once she convinced the administration of Uganda National Parks that they needed a vet at all. 

baby gorilla

Gladys is quick to point out that she wasn’t just Uganda’s first female wildlife vet—she was Uganda’s first wildlife vet, period. This seems shocking in a country where tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner, constituting 7% of the GDP, and most of the industry is built around wildlife.

However, before her work with Uganda National Parks (now known as the Uganda Wildlife Authority), the general (and understandable) attitude was that the death of animals is a natural occurrence and nature should be allowed to play out the way it has forever. It was believed that the limited resources of the park administration were better spent preventing poaching and keeping game tracks open than pursuing injured animals through remote wilderness to treat injuries.

Nature doesn’t always work the way it used to, though, especially when wild animals are trying to share space with an ever-expanding human population. The injuries and illnesses suffered by wildlife are now often caused by humans, and Gladys helped the wildlife authority develop their existing policy that animals would be treated if humans were the cause. This, of course, necessitated the creation of a veterinary department within the national park system. Gladys had created her own dream job.  

One Health Approach

Early in her career with the park service, Gladys was called on to figure out why gorillas were dying in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It turned out that the gorillas had been foraging in local agricultural fields and coming into contact with homemade scarecrows that carried scabies. The scabies transferred to the gorillas, which caused hair loss—a life-threatening condition in their cold, mountainous habitat, and pneumonia was becoming widespread.

Fortunately, scabies is treatable, and with her help, the crisis was quickly brought under control. But through this process, she came to a realization that would guide her work to this day—you can’t protect the gorillas without helping the people around them.   

Wildlife ranger poses next to gorilla Uganda Rwanda endangered species conservation

Wildlife ranger protecting Uganda and Rwanda’s great apes © Richard de Gouveia

She and her team developed an approach to conservation that she called the One Health Model, where community educators embedded in local villages help families learn how to maintain proper health and hygiene at home, which reduces the risk of diseases being transferred from humans to gorillas when they come into contact with each other.

Over time, they also helped reduce the birthrate in the Bwindi area—a region that previously had one of the highest in the world. Reduced birth rates translate directly into better education for girls (school in Uganda is expensive relative to average income, and if families can’t educate all their children, they are most likely to educate their sons), better nutrition (fewer mouths to feed from a limited plot of land) and more empowerment of women (they can be more active in the workforce).  

Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Gladys also recognized the importance of creating more economic opportunities in the communities around the national park. If people have a sustainable income, they will not need to enter the forests to gather resources or to poach bushmeat. This means that fewer people will come into contact with the mountain gorillas, and the risk of disease transmission and gorillas accidentally getting caught in snares will be reduced.

The high and fertile landscape around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is excellent coffee-growing terrain. Many farmers were growing Arabica coffee, but both the quality of the coffee beans and the market to sell them were inconsistent.

local farmers in Uganda tending to tea and coffee crops

© Richard de Gouveia

Gladys knew there would be two benefits to helping the communities develop their coffee industry. First, it could bring in a steady income with a product already being grown in the area. Second, coffee is an excellent buffer between forest and agricultural fields. Mountain Gorillas don’t seem to appreciate the wonders of coffee. When they feed, if they come across the bitter leaves of coffee plants, they will turn back to more delectable forest species like bamboo, wild celery and stinging nettle.

With funding from WWF, she started a project called Gorilla Conservation Coffee. She organized the farmers into a cooperative, had the best farmers teach the others how to improve the quality of their coffee beans, and developed a branding campaign to market the end product internationally. The farmers are paid a premium for their beans, and a portion of every sale contributes to mountain gorilla conservation.

When I first heard about this project, I immediately contacted Gladys to see if I could bring a Nat Hab group to visit, and her team organized a fascinating program for us. I didn’t realize until I read the memoir that our visit was the first coffee safari ever offered by Gorilla Conservation Coffee. You can order this coffee to be shipped to your home and “save gorillas one sip at a time.” 

Nat Hab traveler grinds freshly roasted coffee beans with the help of a local expert. Photographed during a safari visit to the Gorilla Conservation Coffee project.

Nat Hab traveler grinds freshly roasted coffee beans with the help of a local expert. Photographed during a safari visit to the Gorilla Conservation Coffee project © Mark Jordahl 

Value of Tourism

Gladys has also been a tireless advocate for the importance of tourism as a tool to help protect mountain gorillas and other wildlife. In Walking with Gorillas, Gladys brings us into the frightening early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was assumed that COVID-19 could be passed to the mountain gorillas, as so many other respiratory diseases are. The immediate reaction was to shut down mountain gorilla tourism completely.

However, many people in the communities around Bwindi rely on the tourism industry for their livelihoods. They work in the lodges, they act as porters on the treks, they sell produce to restaurants and hotels, etc. When this source of income dried up, many were forced to resort to poaching to feed their families, and the risk to the mountain gorillas and other wildlife became worse because of the elimination of gorilla trekking. Mountain gorillas are the only great ape species increasing in number, and their success is largely due to tourism.

If you want to feel truly inspired, take some time to read Walking with Gorillas: Tales of an African Wildlife Vet and then join us on a mountain gorilla safari in Uganda or Rwanda!

Nat Hab travelers on a gorilla trek in Uganda Rwanda Africa wildlife photography

Nat Hab travelers photograph a baby gorilla © Richard de Gouveia