Q&A: Uganda’s first wildlife vet wants to change world

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In Uganda’s forest communities, stress and conflict with wildlife can be common. Living closely together can mean that diseases are transmitted between humans and animals.

The One Health approach recognizes that human and animal health and the environment are interconnected. Years before this concept came to light with the outbreak of COVID-19, Gladys Kalima Zikosuka was putting it into practice.

The leading wildlife veterinarian has been named “Champion of the Earth in Science and Innovation” – the highest honor from the United Nations 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 that live with them.

Gladys Calima-Zikosuka, a wildlife veterinarian. Image source: Halima El Othmani

How was your journey to becoming Uganda’s first wildlife vet?

When I was 12, our neighbor had a pet monkey called Poncho. Once I was playing the piano and the coat came and also played a tune. This monkey was very special. This was my first introduction to primates, how intelligent they are, and why it is important to protect them.

I went to veterinary school in the UK, at the Royal Veterinary College. When I graduated, I started as the first vet for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. I came at a time when the Ugandan National Parks were merging with the Game Department to create the Uganda Wildlife Authority. At the time, the reason there were no wildlife vets was because they were wild animals. You’re not supposed to treat them, they’re meant to be in the wild. So, I spent a lot of time in my first few years explaining why it was so important to have a wildlife vet – because people influence wildlife so much, either directly through setting traps or disease. In fact, one of the main reasons UWA considered getting a vet was that tourism was just beginning and they were worried that tourists might infect gorillas with fatal flu.

Learn more about Gladys Kalima-Zikosuka’s incredible adventures with gorillas in this episode of the SciDev.Net Africa Science Focus podcast

As an expert in zoonoses, how have you been able to infuse your research in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring that animals are safe in their habitats?

When people defecate outdoors in their gardens and gorillas visit those gardens, they can pick up parasites. Therefore, you end up getting hookworms, and even bacterial diseases that cause cholera and typhoid. Thus, we felt it was important to collect stool samples regularly from the gorillas and find out if they were infected early.

We have the Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Center in Bwindi, where we have a field lab where we analyze samples of gorillas every month, collect samples from every gorilla population and look at what they can have, what they can pick up from the local community. And then we can treat them in the local community, or directly into gorillas, or in livestock — they can pick up parasites from people’s cows or goats, not just from the community.

We have used the same approach to deal with COVID-19. We started by calling on the Ugandan Wildlife Authority so that everyone who visits the gorillas wear a mask and keep a distance of ten metres. We have local businessmen make masks. Tourism had to stop for six months, poaching rose, but at least those people who make masks for rangers and gorilla guardians, kept going. We also trained our village health and conservation teams of community health workers – if you are sick with scabies, tuberculosis and HIV, they give advice on what to do. We’re testing gorillas and people for COVID-19 and trying to make sure they don’t get each other sick.

You are a member of the Women’s Leadership Council for the Environment in Africa. What unique role do you think women should play in environmental science and policy?

We started Women for the Environment in Africa because we felt that women should occupy more leadership positions. In the field of conservation and environment, there are very few women. And there’s nothing to be done about it. When I first started working in the wild, there were no female rangers in the national park, now it’s about 20 percent – which is good, but there is still a long way to go.

I am driven by the fact that I want to change the world; With a desire to make the world a better place for wildlife and for people who share their home with wildlife. I studied veterinary medicine because I love animals. But I wanted to contribute to the environment away from being a vet, by starting an NGO [Conservation Through Public Health] that support communities as well. I combine my veterinary knowledge with my passion for wildlife and want to develop the country.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

This piece was produced by the SciDev.Net office in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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