For the last 24 years, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (right) has carried out projects that have scooped multiple awards and received recognition from reputable organizations such as 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, writes Eric Kyama .
As a teenager in the 1980s, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka had already made up her mind what direction her life would take.
Her love of nature steered her ambitions and catapulted her today to a position of prominence as an assertive, and eloquent crusader for wildlife.
She maybe small in stature, but her reputation is huge both at home and abroad.
Last year, she became the first Ugandan and second African, after Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, to be awarded the prestigious Sierra Club’s Earth Care Award.
The award recognizes individuals or organizations that have made a unique contribution to international environment protection and conservation.
In 2019, she was also a finalist for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa.
The 50-year-old veterinary doctor and conservationist had always been passionate about animals. At 12 years old, her dream was to become a veterinary doctor.
“I had since childhood been a lover of animals. So, when it manifested itself during my advanced level of education while at Kibuli Secondary School, it was not a surprise to people who had known me very well,” Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka told Nnyonyi.
Born in 1970 to Rhoda and William 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 A-Levels. After her secondary education, she pursued a veterinary medicine degree at the University of London, Royal Veterinary College.
Later, in 2003, she obtained a Masters Degree 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. In 2016, she acquired a Master of Business Administration, jointly from Tangaza University College in Kenya and the University of Milan in Italy.
Much as Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka started out to protect wildlife, founding Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) was the vehicle that gave her a strong platform to become more proactive about conservation. CTPH is a non-profit organization she founded in 2003 with her husband, Lawrence Zikusoka and Stephen Rubanga.
The organization is based both in Uganda and the United States and was formed with the aim of protecting gorillas and other wildlife from human and livestock disease risk.
Some of the organization’s accomplishments include the introduction of family planning among the locals; something that has helped to reduce the human population growth in areas surrounding wildlife habitats. This was done to ensure the wildlife habitat is not encroached on by human activities such as seeking land for re-settlement.
“When I finished my Master’s degree, I felt I 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 (UWA) exposed me to the sad truth. Wild animals of different species were losing their lives due to diseases and poachers who stayed around the parks,” she says. Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka adds that human health was another crucial issue to tackle in the communities, noting that one of her very first assignments upon joining UWA was to set up a veterinary department.
She says, “I had to deal with the very first scabies skin disease outbreak in the mountain gorillas. We 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.”
In 2015, she also embarked on a social enterprise called Gorilla Conservation Coffee through CTPH.
Under this arrangement, her team has been able to improve the livelihoods of the surrounding community by assisting them to get markets for their Arabica coffee. With increased incomes, the community’s illnesses and disease burden is reduced. A donation from every coffee bag sold improves community health in the whole 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 during gorilla treks.
She said, “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. 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 around the park.
This would help us protect wildlife from poaching as an alternative way of making a living.” As a newly-founded organization, their biggest challenge was funding because their approach was multi-sectored. This made their work quite complex, but subsequently, they managed to cope by steadily taking on skilled people to perform specialized tasks.
She says, “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.
The other challenge we faced and 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, but so far, we see some results.” she added. A recent gorilla census released on December 16, 2019 revealed an increase in the number of mountain gorillas living in the Bwindi-Sarambe ecosystem.
The ecosystem, which straddles the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), registered 456 individuals from 400 that were last recorded in 2011. An earlier survey of the other population living in the Virunga Mountains of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda showed that gorilla numbers there are also on the rise. Scientists believe there are now at least 1,063 mountain gorillas living in the wild. This led to a change in the sub-species status on the IUCN Red List from critically endangered to endangered.
For the last 23 years, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka and her team have carried out projects that have scooped multiple awards and received recognition from reputable organizations such as 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.