Empowering indigenous communities to save mountain gorillas
Tucked away in a remote corner of southwestern Uganda lies a hidden gem, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional biodiversity, it is home to nearly half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
A forest oasis in the midst of one of Uganda’s poorest and most densely populated regions, Bwindi faces enormous pressure from an expanding human footprint. Subsistence farming, deforestation, poaching, and disease transmission between humans and wildlife threaten this delicate ecosystem and its gorilla inhabitants.
Despite these challenges, a remarkable story of hope is unfolding in mountain gorilla conservation. In 2018, with a population of over 1,000 for the first time in recorded history, mountain gorillas were reclassified from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, through her passion for nature and her fierce determination to make a difference, has played a pivotal role in moving these intelligent and charismatic primates one step further away from extinction.
Founder of the award-winning NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a UN Champion of the Earth, National Geographic Explorer, and recipient of the Edinburgh Medal, Gladys shares her extraordinary story from wildlife veterinarian to One Health pioneer.
One planet, One Health
During a break from her veterinary studies at the Royal Veterinary College in London, Gladys went home to Uganda to study the mountain gorillas of Bwindi. Her time there coincided with the emergence of gorilla trekking, and she witnessed firsthand the transformative power of tourism on local communities.
“A lot of rangers were former poachers, and they were so happy to have a regular job. It showed me how tourism can help communities, which helps conservation. I was able to learn about conservation medicine in action.”
Appointed as Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian, Gladys made a ground breaking discovery. The potentially lethal skin disease – scabies – was being transmitted from humans to mountain gorillas. The revelation that diseases were being spread between humans and animals, termed zoonotic disease transmission, ignited her commitment to a holistic approach, intertwining the well-being of both humans and gorillas.
“Once the gorillas are habituated, they spend a lot of time outside the park. They come out for the bananas and because they have lost their fear of people. So, there’s a lot of mixing of gorillas and people.”
Before the concept of One Health – a holistic framework that unifies human, animal, and environmental health – entered the conservation mainstream, Gladys was aware of the critical role public health played in safeguarding the gorillas. She joined with health authorities, park rangers and community leaders to launch health education workshops for the local communities.
“I explained why the gorillas got sick and was about to tell them what we needed to do, but the ranger touched my arm and said, ‘Let’s see what they have to say.’ They may be poor and not formally educated, but they had a lot of solutions which were even better than I was going to propose. They knew what they needed. That was a humbling experience for me as a veterinarian.”
In 2003 Gladys and her husband founded CTPH, contributing $100 as the initial donors. The organisation is focused on three core programs: Gorilla Conservation, One Health, and Alternative Livelihoods. Its mission is to tackle poverty and enhance rural public health, to protect biodiversity.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2023, the long list of prestigious awards for the One Health approach of CTPH is a testament to Gladys’ unwavering commitment, to empowering local communities, enhancing public health, and fostering coexistence between indigenous communities and wildlife.
Building bridges: Empowering indigenous communities
Gladys radiates joy when she speaks about the heart of her work – sharing moments with the gorillas, connecting with local communities, and witnessing transformative change.
Reflecting on the recent 20-year celebration of CTPH, Gladys shares, “We had about 400 people attend, 300 gate-crashers! I don’t know how we found enough food, but we didn’t turn anyone away. They were all community members who truly wanted to be there. It showed what we’re doing is making a difference, and they feel a part of it.”
In a landscape where relationships between conservation organisations and indigenous communities have often been strained, this stands as a compelling testament to the positive impact of CTPH. Gladys expresses excitement about changing the cultural perception of conservation in local communities.
By empowering people to lead their own conservation efforts, CTPH has initiated a shift in mindset, promoting ownership and sustained commitment.
“You can’t just have outsiders coming in and telling people how to look after their wildlife. Even if there’s no donor money or NGO support, communities need to feel that it’s important to keep doing this.”
Navigating challenges: The art of fundraising
“The biggest challenge is fundraising,” Gladys candidly acknowledges. Operating at the intersection of human health, animal health, conservation, and public health, CTPH’s challenge lies in conveying the interconnectedness of these fields to donors.
With an ever-growing human population, there is more and more encroachment into previously wild areas. This surge in human-wildlife contact amplifies the threat of zoonotic disease transmission – a challenge at the heart of CTPH’s mission.
“The COVID pandemic brought conservation and public health together,” reflects Gladys.”During the pandemic, we made a breakthrough. Donors started calling and saying, now we know what you are trying to tell us. Now we get it !”
Innovative solutions to combat poaching and deforestation
The pandemic also laid bare the vulnerability of overreliance on tourism for economic stability. As tourism plummeted, local economies collapsed and, in desperation, people turned to the park for food and other resources.
“There was no tourism, the economy went down. Poaching went up. Deforestation went up. Everything went crazy!”
In 2021 the silverback Rafiki was killed, speared by a poacher. Gladys realised that people were poaching to feed their families and needed better options. They needed food security and access to alternative livelihoods.
In response, CTPH distributed fast-growing seedlings through their Ready-to-Grow Program and expanded the market for Bwindi coffee farmers connecting them to UK consumers, through the social enterprise Gorilla Conservation Coffee founded by Gladys in 2015. Where banning poaching failed, creating food security, alternative sustainable livelihoods, and inspiring people to care for the animals is working.
Gladys’ recently published book, Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet, is not just a memoir; it’s a call to action. Inspired by one of her mentors, Jane Goodall, Gladys aimed to transcend boundaries and make conservation accessible to all.
“So many people know about Jane. She made it simple for people to fall in love with conservation. It’s more challenging to communicate beyond your discipline, but I believe more of us need to do it. It allows a larger audience to understand what conservation is about because it affects us all.”
Gladys is grateful that her book has touched people of all ages and from all walks of life and hopes it will inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
“We need to have more kinds of people in conservation. A lot of people think to be a conservationist, you have to have studied conservation biology. The truth is, you can be a conservationist in any profession.”
As part of her One Health approach, she talks about the importance of working with other sectors. “You have to work with the health sector, the agriculture sector, the tourism sector, the clean energy sector… it has to be interdisciplinary, not just conservationists talking to themselves.”
Gladys also opened up in her memoir about the importance of diversity in conservation. She shares about the considerable obstacles she has had to overcome as an African woman in a field traditionally dominated by men from the Western world.
“I knew I would be judged as an African woman, an even greater rarity in the world of conservation, but I was determined to succeed. I never let my colour or gender stop me.“
Involving women in community-led conservation was key to CTPH’s success in implementing family planning and curbing poaching.
“My thirty-year journey in conservation has shown me that when you don’t engage and empower women, conservation is unlikely to work in the long term.”
Gladys is also committed to uplifting other women in conservation as a role model of the importance of educating girls in Uganda and a member of the Women for the Environment – Africa Leadership Council.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
For those aspiring to embark on a career in conservation, Gladys recommends joining a wildlife club or volunteering with an organisation that inspires you.
“Some of the best staff we have are the ones who started as volunteers. We took them on because they were passionate, and we taught them how we wanted things done.”
There are opportunities to join CTPH as an intern, volunteer or researcher.
Interested in learning more about a career in community-based conservation?
Check out our Careers Advice Blog for more webinars, articles and podcasts on community-based conservation.
Featured Image: Adult black back gorilla. Credit: Jo Anne McArthur.
Author Profile | Emily Fyfe
Since completing her veterinary degree from the University of California Davis in 2013, Emily has spent the last 10 years dedicated to the health and welfare of domestic animals and wildlife. Fueled by her passion for nature, she is transitioning into a career in wildlife conservation to help protect biodiversity and life on this planet. As part of this career journey, she has recently begun an MSc. in Conservation Medicine through the University of Edinburgh, has joined the UNEP Great Ape Survival Partnership as an intern, and is working on a study with the Office de Biodiversité Francais to investigate the emergence of distemper in wildlife in France. Emily is particularly interested in a One Health approach to conservation, conservation medicine and community-based conservation work.
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