Gladys Kalema Zikusoka safeguards human health, and the world's rarest primates

The wildlife veterinarian's community-based approach to raising the profile of great apes and other wildlife across Africa has been called 'revolutionary.'

The first time National Geographic Explorer Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka examined a primate up close, she was eight years old and playing the piano. In those days, Uganda permitted primates as pets, and the neighbor’s vervet monkey was her spectator. When she halted her song to test his reaction, he knuckle-walked to the piano bench, and without any direction, played a single note.

“He’s so intelligent,” she remembers discovering, “and his hands are just like mine. I got fascinated with primates from that time on.” 

Kalema-Zikusoka has since been helping the world understand the interplay between humans and animals, with a focus on primates. As a wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, her mission is to underscore the importance of dwindling wildlife populations for all of earth’s inhabitants, and find creative ways to save them.

In high school, she shared her intrigue with peers by starting a wildlife club, which is still active today as one of the more successful conservation bodies in Uganda. Following her formal veterinary training, she worked with zoo chimpanzees and conducted research on chimp communities in Uganda's Budongo Forest Reserve. 

Later, she provided veterinary care for gorilla populations at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the site of the majority of her work today and a place where the bushmeat trade, zoonotic diseases, and dwindling forest cover have threatened great ape populations.

She’s just returned from leading her first National Geographic expedition, guiding participants through the native habitats of the great apes of Uganda and Rwanda.

For Kalema-Zikusoka, who has led a decades-long trail of related conservation efforts across Africa, “it was a bit like going down memory lane,” she says. 

After more than 20 years, the expedition saw Kalema-Zikusoka reunited with an old friend. Kalema, an orphaned chimp who was named after her, was walking along the main road from Budongo Forest to Kampala with his owner when Kalema-Zilusoka first saw him in the 1990s. He had a rope around his waist, and was being fed human food.

“He was overweight!” Kalema-Zikusoka says, agreeing with her friends at the Jane Goodall Institute, a frequent project partner of hers. Most rescues turn up emaciated. 

Kalema-Zikusoka took him to the Entebbe Zoo, and later Ngamba Chimpanzee Island. Her last visit proved that thanks to a proper diet, he is in better shape, and second in command of his community. 

The recent expedition also called to memory Kalema-Zikusoka's experience as a mentor. She unexpectedly reconnected with a student she shepherded ten years ago. And again to her surprise, a book authored by Kalema-Zikusoka's mother was on the shelves of her expedition lodging at Volcanoe Safaris in Bwindi, nestled against Dianne Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist. 

The late Fossey, a world-renowned primatologist who greatly enhanced humans' understanding of gorilla societies, alongside Dr. Jane Goodall, famed for devoting her life to studying chimps, have been “great inspirations,” of Kalema-Zikusoka. “Her [Goodall's] work obviously inspired a lot of what I'm doing now,” including disrupting traditional views of women in the field. 

In the mid-1990s, Kalema-Zikusoka made her own mark in wildlife history in setting up the first veterinary department at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and becoming the first-ever veterinarian for the entity “who just happened to be female,” she says.

“I had to deal with a lot of traditional thinking,” she remembers. Resistance wouldn't deter her. “I would go out to treat the wild animals and they were like, ‘Whoa!’” she remembers. “Being a ranger was not a job for a woman, that's how it was when I started out.”   

Trying to promote wildlife conservation in poverty-stricken places is a challenge of its own, Kalema-Zikusoka explains. “People would ask me ‘why do you want to treat animals when people are suffering?’ but I became a vet because I hated seeing animals suffering.” 

“Animals don't have anyone,” she added to her reasoning. Healthcare would prove a successful entry point to make her case. 

“If you don't attend to the needs of the people who share their habitats with gorillas and other wildlife, it's very difficult to conserve wildlife in the future.” —Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

As a trailblazing woman in her field, Kalema-Zikusoka led a team that discovered the first scabies outbreak in critically-endangered mountain gorillas and traced their infection back to the source: humans living in and around Bwindi had passed the disease onto the giant primate—largely a result of the region's inadequate health services. It was proof that great apes are vulnerable to human contagions. The problem beckoned Kalema-Zikusoka to find a way to address human and animal well-being together. 

For nearly 20 years Kalema-Zikusoka has been the CEO and founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an award-winning initiative committed to educating locals on the link between healthy wild animals and quality human livelihoods.

“If you don't attend to the needs of the people who share their habitats with gorillas and other wildlife, it's very difficult to conserve wildlife in the future,” she explains.

CTPH promotes safe hygiene and sanitation practices, and family planning education for humans. On the animal side, the team engages in hard science–collecting stool samples, and conducting nest evaluations to monitor gorillas’ general health–mostly at Bwindi–a World Heritage Site and home to nearly half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. 

Acknowledging the inherent interdependence of human, animal, and ecosystem health has proved fruitful. With support from the Society, Kalema-Zikusoka's model has been applied to additional parishes around Bwindi, and CTPH has begun similar projects near Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and areas of Uganda’s Mount Elgon National Park. CTPH will continue to expand, Kalema-Zikusoka says. When wildlife thrives humans do too, she explains.

“If you keep wildlife populations healthy people can benefit from them, especially through tourism. A species like the mountain gorilla, people are willing to pay a lot to see them.” Through her efforts, people are understanding how protecting wildlife could get them out of poverty. 

Kalema-Zikusoka's organization has helped locals diversify their income streams; a need made evident as tourism-dependent economies plummeted with pandemic travel restrictions. Poaching resurged as visitors retreated in number, largely due to hunger, Kalema-Zilusoka explains. CTPH helped to address hunger during the pandemic by starting a program that distributed fast-growing seedlings.

The organization's latest project, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, is helping curb poaching by promoting coffee farming, and helping connect growers with bean buyers around the world. The project emphasizes support for women coffee farmers, with an aim at disrupting male financial dominance and stereotypes.

Kalema-Zikusoka is also passionate about educating youth, particularly in Uganda, which has one of the world's youngest populations. With funding from National Geographic, she's begun engaging with the new generation to plant an appreciation for wildlife and wild places, in hopes they will feel inspired to choose conservation careers and put conservation into practice early in life. 

Biruté Galdikas, Canadian anthropologist and another inspiration for Kalema-Zikusoka once told her, "follow your dreams and the rest will follow." It's a message she echoes for future generations. 

Like the great pioneers of primatology, Kalema-Zikusoka has been recognized globally for her work. In 2021 Kalema-Zikusoka was named a United Nations Champion of the Earth for revolutionizing conservation in Africa through her work with primates and zoonotic diseases. She was invited by Jane Goodall to visit the site where the world's most famous primatologist conducted her groundbreaking work, at Gombe National Park. She's also been the subject of a book on women working in male-dominated fields, titled Gladys Working as a Wildlife Vet. 

Her collection of milestones headline as chapters in her autobiography; her latest, but certainly not her last, major accomplishment. Walking With Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet will be published in February.

“And guess what?” she teases, “Jane Goodall has written the foreword.” 

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.