Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka Copyright UNEP/Kibuuka Mukisa
Copyright UNEP/Kibuuka Mukisa

Meet the wildlife vet saving Uganda’s endangered gorillas

By Doloresz Katanich
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Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has recently won the UNEP'S Champions of the Earth award.


Uganda's first wildlife vet Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has a unique way of protecting nature; she heals the local community. The UNEP has just awarded her efforts with the prestigious Champions of the Earth prize.

Dr Gladys knew that she wanted to work with animals from an early age, and after completing her studies in her native Uganda, she became the first-ever wildlife veterinarian of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Today she is a recognised world authority on primates and zoonotic diseases.

© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa
Income from local gorilla tourism helped to almost double the number of gorillas in the region.© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa

Over the past 25 years, Dr Gladys has been protecting endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. "When I first started working with them, there were only about 600. And now there's 1,063," says Dr Gladys.

At the beginning of her career, Dr Gladys was healing gorillas who got infected by scabies, a disease they picked up from the local community. The lack of sanitation could have caused many more outbreaks, so Dr Gladys, as she is called by everybody, started working on tackling the root cause.

In 2003, she has founded an NGO Conservation Through Public Health which has a One Health approach.

"We need to improve community well-being. And one way that we do it is by improving their health, which in turn also protects the gorillas."

© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa
The NGO's programmes have helped 30,000 people so far.© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa

Throughout their work, Dr Gladys has helped improve healthcare and create hundreds of jobs, turning many locals into partners in conservation.

She has also founded a social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, after she learned that local farmers were not being given a fair price for their coffee. This made financial survival hard, and forced them to use the national park to meet their basic needs for food and fuel wood.

Recently, global lockdowns hobbled the tourism industry in the country, so Conservation Through Public Health provided fast-growing crops to families, allowing them to at least grow enough food to feed themselves and avoid poaching.

© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa
"When I first started working with them, there were only about 600. And now there's 1,063," says Dr Gladys.© UNEP / Kibuuka Mukisa

Recognised globally for her work, Dr Gladys and her programme have recently been awarded the UNEP'S Champions of the Earth award in the Science and Innovation category. She hopes this award will help to spread the 'One health approach' all over the world.

Watch the video to learn more about this project.

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