It’s almost uncommon for Ugandan youth today to passionately involve themselves in anything related to nature or wild life. A modern day average youth in Uganda will easily get enthralled by tech-gadgets and entertainment among other things that they would find quite attractive. This may, however, not be said of a youth who was raised between the years 1960 to the 80s. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a wildlife veterinary doctor in Uganda and conservationist, is one such a person who grew up passionate about wildlife having been actively involved in wildlife clubs throughout her school life. At a tender age of 12 years, her dream was to become a veterinary doctor given that she loved animals.
“I had since childhood been a lover of animals. So when it manifested itself during my advanced level of education while at Kibuli SS, it was not a surprise to people who had known me very well,” the 49-year-old recalls.
Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka made a decision to take on a career in veterinary medicine in 1982 when she had just turned 12 years. Then, she believed that becoming a veterinary doctor would get her more involved with animals. This perhaps explains why she has a fulfilled career as a wildlife veterinary doctor.
The veterinary doctor turned wildlife conservationist’s work has got her recognized internationally. For instance, just last year, she was the first Ugandan and second African after Kenya’s Wangari Muta Maathai to be awarded the prestigious Sierra Club’s EarthCare award. The award recognizes individuals or organizations that have made a unique contribution to international environment protection and conservation. In 2019, she became a finalist for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa. For the last 23 years, her projects have managed to scoop multiple awards and get recognized by powerful organizations like the World Economic Forum, Whitley Awards, International Scientific Seed Magazine, World Summit Award, Conde Nast Traveler Magazine and Wings World Quest Women of Discovery Humanitarian Award.
Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka has done most of her projects of conservation through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit organization she founded in 2003 with her husband Lawrence Zikusoka and Stephen Rubanga. The organization based in Uganda and the USA was formed with an aim to protect gorillas and other wildlife from human and livestock disease risk. Some of its accomplishments since it was formed, according to Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, include the introduction of the local use of family planning something she says has helped to reduce the human population growth in areas surrounding wildlife habitats. She further explains that this was done with an aim of ensuring that the wildlife habitat is not tampered by humans while seeking land for re-settlement.
“We have encouraged people in the area to start using family planning. Of course, at first they were hesitant to start using family planning, but now they have finally embraced it. This has helped to reduce the human population growth in areas surrounding wildlife habitats,” says Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka.
More still, through CTPH, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka has also been able to educate people about the environment using ICT. She says this has been done with an aim to engage them in protecting the lives of gorillas and other wildlife.
Much as Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka had started off being engaged with saving lives of wildlife animals, founding CTPH gave her a more active role as a wildlife conservationist that she has used collectively with other people within the organization to protect wildlife.
“When I finished my Master’s degree at North Carolina State University in the US, I felt had to engage myself more with protecting gorillas and other wildlife in Uganda. This was because the years I worked as the first wildlife veterinary doctor in Uganda Wildlife Authority exposed me to the sad truth. Wild animals of different species were losing their lives due to diseases and poaching from people who stayed around the parks,” she says.
In 2015, she also embarked on a social enterprise called Gorilla Conservation Coffee through CTPH. Under the arrangement, the social enterprise has been able to improve the livelihood of the surrounding community through assisting the local community get market for the Arabica coffee crop grown by the local people. With increased incomes, the community’s illnesses and disease burden is reduced. A donation from every coffee bag sold improves community health in the area. This has reduced the diseases transferred to the resident gorillas. Also, a small fee is charged and retained by the farmers whenever tourists traverse their gardens when on gorilla treks through the community.
“We recognized how closely linked poverty, human health and conservation were. We would not be able to protect the gorillas without the support and involvement of the communities, and by protecting the gorillas and their habitat, we could also help locals thrive economically. The park was an ideal coffee-growing land and it still is, and even as you are tracking gorillas, you walk through coffee farms. It is for that reason that CTPH decided to start a social enterprise that would help people living in the communities around the park. This would help us protect the lives of wildlife animals from poaching since people are thriving,” she says.
Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka also adds that human health was another crucial issue to tackle in the communities surrounding the national park saying that: “One of my very first jobs was setting up the veterinary department of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and shortly after entering the job, I had to deal with the very first scabies skin disease outbreak in the mountain gorillas within Bwindi National Park. So when CTPH was founded in 2003, we were aware that scabies was prevalent in the local communities around the park, we, therefore, ultimately figured out that in order to protect the gorillas, we first needed to improve the health of the communities that interact with the gorillas. This would help protect gorillas from diseases of that kind,” she adds.
“One of the challenges we faced as a newly founded non-government organization was fundraising because our approach was tackling more than one sector. This made our work quite complex but in the years that followed we managed to pick up slowly. Additionally we also lacked people with expertise. Our funders preferred that we work with people with expertise in wildlife so we had to train people or recruit people with the required skills. Then the other challenge our organization faced was, and is still, facing is advocating to local people that saving lives of wild animals is important. Some people just wouldn’t understand us. We have had to persist. So far we see some results,” says Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka
Born in 1970 to William Wilberforce Kalema and Rhoda Nakibuuka Kalema, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka was raised in a family of six. She went to Kitante Primary School and later joined Kings College Buddo for O-Level education and Kibuli Secondary School for her A-Level. After her secondary education, Kalema-Zikusoka went on to pursue Veterinary medicine degree at the University of London Royal Veterinary College. Later, in 2003, she obtained a Master in Veterinary Medicine from North Carolina State University, USA. She also holds a certificate in the management of non-profit organizations, obtained from Duke University. Her most recent academic achievement is a Master of Business Administration, obtained in 2016 jointly from Tangaza University College in Kenya and University of Milan in Italy.