Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka noticed human health was a contributory factor to maintaining the health of the Gorillas she protected. She then founded Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to support the surrounding community. She also founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise of CTPH. In addition she has been a National Geographic Explorer.
We had a chill an chat to hear her personal story and here how it went!
- You were selected as a National Geographic Explorer. Sounds adventurous! What were you most excited about in anticipation of the experience?
I was excited to become a National Geographic Explorer, an organization founded over 100 year ago with a commitment to supporting discovery, exploration, pioneering research and conservation. I knew being a National Geographic Explorer would greatly help me and my team at Conservation through Public Health (CTPH).We wanted to improve our work with the endangered gorillas and local communities, and increase our impact in Uganda and other countries in Africa where CTPH is working or collaborating with other organizations to achieve shared goals.
- How did you get involved with the National Geographic Explorer program?
We submitted a grant to National Geographic to expand our integrated gorilla conservation and human health model at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to other parishes around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is home to the endangered mountain gorillas. I was greatly honoured to also be selected as a National Geographic Explorer.
- You have worked with many international organisations in different capacities from being featured on BBC documentaries to your position as an Ashoka Fellow. To what extent do you think they have prepared you for this position?
When I was setting up the veterinary department at Uganda Wildlife Authority, we had the first reported disease outbreaks in mountain gorillas traced to people living around the park, with limited access to basic health and other social services. I realised then that you cannot protect the gorillas without improving the health of the people who they share their fragile habitat with and that prompted us to found Conservation Through Public Health in 2003. It is a grassroots NGO and non-profit that promotes biodiversity conservation by enabling people, gorillas and other wildlife to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods in and around protected areas in Africa.
These experiences led to me being featured on BBC, Animal Planet and National Geographic.
In 2006 I was greatly honored to become an Ashoka Fellow for merging Uganda’s wildlife management and rural public health program to create common resources for both people and animals.
- What would be your advice to someone who is just starting out in their career who would love to be an Explorer?
I would advise them to follow their dreams and the rest will follow. I was given this advice by Dr. Birute Galdikas, also a National Geographic Explorer, who was the first person to study orang -utans in the wild.
- What are the top three things you focused on as an Explorer?
The top three things I focused on as an Explorer were:-
- promoting the conservation of gorillas and other wildlife through expanding our work and improving wildlife health, engaging local communities and conducting research on issues that affect conservation and sustainable development
- sharing my experiences as an Explorer with the general public through giving talks to schools, scientists, practitioners , and having our work featured in documentaries, radio, print media, and online media
- influencing decision and policy makers from the government, NGO, and private sector, through sharing lessons learned and best practices from our work
- You are also the CEO and founder of CTPH, how did you prepare yourself to run an NGO particularly with regards to finding staff that believed in your vision and with giving yourself the skills you felt you may have lacked coming from a traditionally scientific background?
Setting up a veterinary unit from scratch for Uganda Wildlife Authority (formerly Uganda National Park), exposed me to the fundraising aspects I needed for my job. As a Masters student in North Carolina, I had an opportunity to obtain a Duke University certificate in non-profit management, which prepared me well to set up an NGO. Furthermore, in 2011, I participated in the Social Entrepreneurship Program at INSEAD Business School. I also did an MBA in Global Business and Sustainability – social entrepreneurship track at University of Milan and Tangaza University College in Kenya.
- What advice can you give us about being fearless and following your dreams especially in STEM careers where new ideas are not always so easily accepted?
Don’t let anyone discourage you from achieving your dreams! I have been discouraged because the path I took working with animals and wildlife as a veterinarian and conservationist, is not typical for an African woman. I believed in myself and remained focused and was able to achieve what I set out to do.
- How important is it for you to mentor younger women?
I was mentored by older women in the fields of veterinary medicine, conservation, public health, social entrepreneurship and ecotourism, and therefore feel that I should also give back to other women to also improve gender equity while striving for a more sustainable and healthy planet.
- Do you believe women can have it all? How do you put into practice work/ life balance?
Women can almost have it all when they put their priorities right and choose the right partner. They also need to have supportive family, friends and colleagues to encourage them to achieve their dreams and make a difference.
I have a great role model in my mother, Honourable Rhoda Kalema, known as the Mother of Uganda’s Parliament who made significant strides in Women’s Empowerment as a minister and Member of Parliament.
Despite the heavy workload and having lost my father when I was 2 years old, she has always had enough time to support my siblings and I in what we feel God has called us to do.
My husband, Lawrence is very supportive and also a co- founder of CTPH and our two social enterprises, Gorilla Conservation Camp and Gorilla Conservation Coffee. My sons who are now 14 and 10 years old are very involved as well. They also sit in meetings we host, take photos and have become part of our team at CTPH where they have started to help and give advice on our programs and social enterprises.
- Having worked so closely with animals throughout your career what is one lesson they have taught you?
I have learnt a lot from the mountain gorillas, which I have been working with for over 22 years. They have taught me to be a better mother, and have the perfect inter birth interval of four to five years. I have put this into practice, and I am reaping the benefits!
- What is the last book you read and what was your greatest take away from it?
The Impenetrable Forest by Thor Hanson, a former Peace Corp Volunteer. He was habituating the second gorilla group for tourism and building trails at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. My greatest take away was that people are as important as the species we are saving, his book talked a lot about the Bwindi community and the park staff who he worked with for more than two years, many of whom I know, and how they enabled him to understand and appreciate that gorilla conservation is just as much about the people as the mountain gorillas who they share their fragile habitat with.
- What is the one simple thing we can all do today that would help make our planet a better place to live in for everyone?
One simple thing we can do is to spread awareness through social media about the importance of protecting our planet. Most people now have access to mobile phones and with the click of a button can send messages that can save the planet through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can support causes like Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise of CTPH.