In Uganda’s forest communities, tension and conflict with wildlife can be common. And living closely together can mean that illnesses pass between humans and animals.
The one health approach recognises that human, animal and environmental health are interconnected. Years before this concept was thrust into the spotlight by the outbreak of Covid-19, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka was putting it into practice.
The pioneering wildlife veterinarian has just been named a Champion of the Earth for science and innovation — the highest honour from the UN Environment Programme. As the founder of Conservation Through Public Health, Kalema-Zikusoka works tirelessly to protect the health of mountain gorillas while improving the lives and livelihoods of the communities who live with them.
Tell us about your journey to becoming Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian.
When I was 12, our next-door neighbour had a pet vervet monkey called Poncho. One time I was playing the piano and Poncho came and also played a note. That monkey was very special. It was my first introduction to primates and how intelligent they can be and why it’s important to protect them.
I went to veterinary school in the UK, at the Royal Veterinary College. When I graduated, I started off as the first vet for Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). I came at the time when Uganda National Parks was merging with the Game Department to create the UWA. At the time, the reason why we had never had vets for wildlife is, they were wild animals. You’re not supposed to treat them, they’re supposed to be in the wild.
So, I spent a lot of time in my first few years explaining why it’s important to have a vet in wildlife — because people are affecting wildlife so much, either directly through setting snares, or disease. And actually, one of the main reasons UWA was thinking about having a vet is because tourism had just begun and they were concerned tourists would give the gorillas a fatal flu.
As a zoonotic disease expert, how have you been able to inculcate your research in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensure that the animals are safe in their habitats?
When people have open defecation in their gardens and gorillas visit those gardens, they can pick up parasites. So, you end up having hookworms; even bacterial diseases that cause cholera and typhoid. And so, we felt it was important to regularly collect faecal samples from the gorillas and find out early enough if they’re being infected by people.
We have a Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Center in Bwindi, with a field laboratory at we analyse samples from gorillas every month; we collect samples from every gorilla group and look for what [diseases] they could have, and what they could be picking up from the local community. And then we’re able to address it in the local community, or directly in gorillas, or in the livestock — they can pick up parasites from the people’s cows or goats, not just from the community.
We have used the same approach to address Covid-19. We started off at the UWA by advocating that whoever visits the gorillas should wear a mask and maintain a 10m distance. We got the local entrepreneurs to make the masks.
Tourism had to stop for six months; poaching went up — but at least those people making masks for rangers and gorilla guardians, they kept going. We also trained our village health and conservation teams who are community health workers — if you’re sick with scabies, tuberculosis, HIV, they give advice on what they should do. We’re testing the gorillas and the people for Covid-19 and trying to make sure that they’re not making each other sick.
You’re on the leadership council of Women for the Environment Africa. What unique role do you think women should play in environmental science and policy?
We started Women for the Environment Africa because we felt that women should have more leadership positions. In the conservation and environment space, there are very few women. And something really needs to be done about that. When I first started working in wildlife, there were no female rangers out in the national park, and now it’s about 20% — which is good, but there’s still a long way to go.
I’m motivated by the fact that I want to change the world; by wanting to make the world better for wildlife and for people who share their habitat with wildlife. I studied veterinary medicine because I like animals. But I wanted to contribute to conservation beyond being a vet, by setting up an NGO [Conservation Through Public Health] that also supports the communities. I’m combining my veterinary knowledge and my passion for wildlife and wanting to develop the country.