In June's social media takeover we talked COVID-19, Gorilla Conservation Coffee and Black Lives Matter.
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka protects the health of mountain gorillas and the people with whom they share space, resources and 98% of their DNA. She was Uganda’s very first wildlife vet and, since winning her 2009 Whitley Gold Award and additional Continuation Funding, has become an internationally recognised conservationist.
We caught up with her for our June #TakeoverTuesday. Read more about Gladys’ life and work below then rewatch our live Q&A covering COVID-19, Gorilla Conservation Coffee and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Q1. What inspired you to pursue a career in conservation?
I decided to get into conservation because I like animals and hate to see them suffering. I grew up with many cats and dogsand got introduced to primates through a vervet monkey called Poncho that used to come to our home. It was our next door neighbour’s pet.
Q2. What was your first encounter with a mountain gorilla like?
My first encounter with the mountain gorillas was in 1994 – an incredible and life changing experience. I was studying parasites and bacteria in the Bwindi mountain gorillas as a veterinary student from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. Kacupira, the first gorilla I met, was a silverback with a broken hand from a previous fighting injury and was very calm.
Q3. What do you love most about mountain gorillas?
What I love most about the mountain gorillas is their gentle and accommodating nature, which has enabled people from all over the world to visit them. This has made it easier to conduct research, to protect them, and to raise income from tourism. Part of the tourism revenue goes to the local communities, giving them an incentive to coexist with the mountain gorillas.
Q4. What is the main threat facing mountain gorillas?
The main threat to the mountain gorillas is habitat loss, disease from closely related humans when they get too close to habituated gorillas inside or outside the park, and poaching for other wild animals in the forest including duiker and bush pigs where gorillas accidentally get caught in snares and occasionally get speared.
Q5. Why is it so important that we protect mountain gorillas?
It is so important to protect the mountain gorillas because they are only just over 1000 individuals remaining in the world. Thankfully, successful conservation efforts have almost doubled their numbers from 650 when I first started working with them to 1063. This positive growth trend led to the downgrading of their IUCN status from Critically Endangered to Endangered.
Q6. What is the project achievement you’re most proud of so far?
I am most proud of establishing my NGO Conservation Through Public Health in 2003, to improve the health of people and gorillas together. This was after leading the team that brought under control the first scabies skin disease outbreak in the mountain gorillas, which was traced to people living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park who don’t have enough healthcare.
Q7. What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
The biggest challenge we are facing right now is not having enough resources to do address new threats brought about by the COVID-19 crisis. As a result of lockdowns and loss of tourism income, a poacher tragically killed the lead silverback of Nkuringo Gorilla Group. We are designing emergency projects to reduce hunger such as distributing fast growing seedlings in the Bwindi local communities.
Q8. How has winning a Whitley Award impacted you and your project?
Winning the Whitley Gold Award in 2009 brought attention and international recognition to the value of our One Health approach to conservation. Ten years later this has proven to come in useful; the strategic programs and structures that WFN funding has helped us to build have enabled us to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from people to mountain gorillas.
Q9. How has/is COVID-19 affecting you and your project?
COVID-19 has disrupted my life along with everyone else in the world and has made it more difficult to continue our field programs. However, we have strengthened collaborations with health and conservation partners to address the COVID-19 pandemic through our One Health approach to conservation.
Q10. Describe a normal day for you.
I don’t have a typical day, and as a CEO I have to do fundraising and oversee programs and operations. However, what I enjoy most is being with the gorillas and spending time at our Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Centre. I get inspired by meeting the Gorilla Guardians, Village Health and Conservation Teams, coffee farmers and other members of the Bwindi community who we support.
Q11. What can the public do to help your mission?
The public can help our mission by visiting us in Uganda, signing up for our e-newsletter, following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, spreading awareness about our work, donating to Conservation Through Public Health and buying Gorilla Conservation Coffee.
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