Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka illustration

Mountain gorillas in Uganda are thriving!

Uganda’s first wildlife vet and award-winning conservationist, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, shares her personal story about how her organization “Conservation Through Public Health“ has contributed to a steady growth of mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. That’s in addition to a major improvement in community health, a threefold increase in family planning use, and new opportunities for people living around the park to thrive in coexistence with gorillas and other wildlife.   

Gladys, you work in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, which is home to half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. The good news is that the population has been rising steadily since 1997. It must be an amazing place to work for any nature buff so you’re very lucky. I’m wondering what made you fall in love with gorillas? 

The turning point in my life was spending a whole month in the forest as a vet student. I felt a really deep connection to mountain gorillas while I was observing them. My job was to collect their faeces and study their parasites and bacteria. During that time I realized how few they were – only 650 in 1994 – and I decided to become a wildlife vet and work full-time with mountain gorillas and other wildlife.  

In Bwindi, gorillas and people live in close coexistence. Conservationists and tourists trek in the forest, and local people look for food and natural resources in the park. What threats do gorillas face nowadays? 

Before gorillas were habituated to tourism, habitat loss was the biggest threat. People did not see the use of gorillas so they kept on cutting the forests and they entered the park to poach. Once gorillas got habituated to tourism, the next threat to gorillas became diseases. Because humans and gorillas share 98% of genetic material, gorillas were suddenly more exposed to human diseases.

What illnesses can gorillas get?

They can get anything that we do, including a flu or Covid. One of the first illnesses that we observed on gorillas was scabies, which is a very common disease among low-income groups in Uganda. We found out that in order to prevent diseases between people and gorillas, we had to start improving community health and hygiene.

Do humans also catch disease from gorillas?

Yes. In Central Africa, gorillas died of ebola and people who ate them died of ebola too.

Is it hard to educate people to not eat bushmeat?

It’s hard when they don’t have any other options because if somebody is poor and hungry, it’s difficult to stop them from going into the forest and poaching just to feed their families. So besides zoonotic disease prevention we ended up also adding alternative livelihoods to our programs.

One possible alternative income is eco-tourism, right? Before the Covid pandemic, tourism made up 7.7 percent of Uganda’s GDP. Bwindi alone brought in $2m monthly and accounted for 60 percent of UWA’s revenue. But due to the pandemic, all the safari lodges, tour companies and souvenir shops closed down. Are there other ways for people to make money than from tourism?

Bwindi National Park was a best-practice model for how ecotourism works because the communities were benefiting so much from the tourism that they could not even think of harming the gorillas. The pandemic was a wake-up call that tourism is not the only way to provide sustainable financing for conservation. A lot of people used to survive by farming and selling produce but when tourism started they could make more money in one day than in one month from farming. When tourism disappeared overnight, people were starving. We realized we needed to help the coffee farmers to sell coffee internationally and not depend on tourists. We found clients in the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia. We also started giving out seedlings of quick growing plants to the local people so they aren’t hungry.

Besides providing alternative livelihoods, Conservation Through Public Health also works with local community volunteers to promote the health and well-being of the human populations living around Bwindi National Park. What have these volunteers achieved so far in terms of infectious disease prevention and education about hygiene practices and nutrition? 

When we started only 10 percent of people had a hand-washing station outside their toilet and now it has gone up to 75 percent. People are drinking boiled water and using drying racks. Latrine is used by more than 90 percent of people. This has helped the communities to be more hygienic and the gorillas to be healthier. Whenever we talk to the community we say that their health and the gorillas‘ health depend on each other. We don’t say that the gorillas are more imporant that the people. That’s a mistake that a lot of conservationists make. We say that when you improve your health, the gorillas will fall sick less often and you will benefit more from tourism. And if you improve your health, you spend less money on healthcare and you have a better quality of life for your family.

That’s so true!

We use the same argument for family planning too. If you have the number of children you can manage, you don’t need to rely so much on the forest to meet your basic needs. Your children can all go to school and they can become teachers, doctors, nurses, vets or park rangers instead of poachers. And your family can break out of the poverty cycle.

How do you explain this to people in your workshops?

We have a flipchart with two families on it. We first show them a family where the mom has eleven children, she’s still pregnant, half the kids go to school, the other half is chasing wildlife from the garden, the father has to go to the forest to poach, his children are caught poaching, they are arrested, there are teenager pregnancies, the children die early and there is domestic violence.

And then we show them a family which has four children instead of eleven, all the children go to school, they have a balanced diet, they don’t have to go to the forest to poach, when gorillas come out, they call the forest guardians to call them back. We then ask the community which one would you rather be? And all of them would rather be the good family. This method has resulted in a lot of behavioral change.

How many people have you addressed so far?

We’ve worked with 7,000 households, which amounts to 40,000 people. In the first 2,500 households where we have been implementing the Population, Health and Environment program since 2007 we found that only 22% of women were using family planning and it went up to 67%, which is three-fold (the national average went up from 30 to only 45% in rural areas). We extended the program to 4,500 households. We‘re working with 270 village health and conservation teams. 

How do locals view family planning?

It’s a bit of a controversial topic just like conservation because some people say „Oh, you want us to reduce the number of our children so that wildlife can have more land or because you want us to suffer.“ It can turn into that kind of debate but it depends on how you present it. We present it in a way that family planning reduces the poverty of your home. The men understand that it’s a better way for them to balance their budget and women understand that they can get more control of their body and they can do something else in their life. A lot of women want to feel liberated, they don’t want to have a baby every single year.

Do people have any objections to using contraception because of their religious views?

The Catholic church officially bans contraception but the Catholic priests in our region realize that there is so much poverty that for people to be happier and live in harmony, family planning is a good thing to embrace. We speak to religious leaders and they talk about the benefits of using contraception in their congretations on Sundays.

Now, I have a little personal question. What is your approach to family planning? Was your family open to it?

I never had a problem with family planning so I was lucky. We planned to have two children with my husband and we did. We spaced them the same way as we should be spacing children. And where did I learn that from? I learned about it from the gorillas. The gorillas space their children 4 to 5 years apart. This is logical because then the older baby is already independent by the time you have the second one, he can help mum babysit the younger one and he is emotionally independent so there is less fighting between them.

That’s super interesting! And it makes sense!

My husband and I tried it with our two boys and I think it works. 

Speaking of family planning, many countries have recognized family planning as one of the most cost-effective health and development investments because it reduces poverty, decreases pressure on the environment, and improves the health and welfare of women. I’ve read that the Ugandan population is growing by 3% per year currently. In that context, how is family planning perceived by Ugandan leaders?

Family planning is becoming more acceptable from the top leadership. In 2014, I attended a family planning conference where the president said for the first time that family planning is good and it has to be done in connection with education, healthcare and provision of jobs. The president of Madagascar became a real champion of family planning and people started having smaller family sizes.

There has to be a leadership from the top and at all various levels. In Kanungu district, where we do most of our work, the fertility rate of women is around 4, but it used to be about 7. I was very excited and honored when the district health officer said „Your work has contributed to the fertility rate in Kanungu dropping from 7 to 4.2.“ I felt that our work in Bwindi is really helping.

How has your organization helped mountain gorillas?

We found that as the health of the community has improved, gorillas have been falling less sick from the diseases of the community. People are much more willing to tolerate gorillas in their gardens because they get a benefit from them. People are poaching less because we provided them fast-growing seedlings and we buy their coffee and give them a good price. And their habitat is being destroyed less.

I‘m amazed by how CTPH is connecting the dots and finding synergies between work on conservation, public health and sustainable population. I’m really grateful that we could discuss your work in depth. Since we’re now heading toward the end of the interview, my ultimate question is:  In a world of environmental despair, what keeps you motivated?

The state of the environment can sometimes get depressing but what motivates me are the gains in conservation that we have achieved here. I‘m happy that we contributed to the growth of mountain gorilla population. The mountain gorillas used to be critically endangered and now they recently became „just“ endangered. They are over 1063. The population doubled over the last 25 years. That’s really great.

5 thoughts on “Mountain gorillas in Uganda are thriving!”

  1. This is such an inspiring interview with Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka from Conservation through Public Health in Uganda! A win-win for the environment and for the people living in the communities. I love it that Gladys said she learned about birth spacing from the Gorillas.

  2. Thank you very much for this really interesting article once again showing the interconnectness of things, in this case family planning and evironmental protection.

  3. Pingback: Conservation Through Public Health | Mountain gorillas in Uganda are thriving!

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