She has an infectious smile, a wicked sense of humor, and don’t even get her started talking about gorillas. That would be Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who organizes intimate gorilla treks for Adventure Consults in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She knows mountain gorillas like nobody else in East Africa and has dedicated most of her adult life to ensuring their survival.
“We estimate there are 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild and around half of those are in Bwindi,” says Dr Gladys from her office near Lake Victoria in Entebbe. “The population is definitely growing both in Uganda and Rwanda.” She attributes the turnaround to several factors including “increased protection, the elimination of almost all poaching and the fact that we have been able to show local communities how saving the gorillas is beneficial to local health and the local economy.”
As the head veterinarian for Uganda’s national park service, she discovered a distinct link between human and primate disease and health issues. In 2003, Dr Gladys and her husband founded Conservation Through Public Health a unique organization dedicated to fostering human and animal health and wellbeing in and around Uganda’s national parks. “We also show people how wildlife tourism can improve their economic situation.”
CTPH currently has pilot programs in Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth National Park, about half a day’s drive to the north. The cornerstones of these projects are improved sanitation and hygiene in local villages. The organization also treats gorillas stricken with potentially fatal human diseases like scabies and actively lobbies for measures that keep gorillas from wandering into human-occupied areas like banana groves or vegetable gardens. “One of the things we encourage,” says Dr Gladys, “is buffer zones around the park planted with tea – which gorillas find hard to cross.”
Bwindi supports 30 different mountain gorilla groups or families. Most of these are not habituated to human contact. Led by CTPH staff and Premier Safaris guides, the four-day Dr. Gladys Gorilla Experience includes a trek to find and photograph a gorilla group and collect dung samples from a gorilla nest. The following day, participants help analyze the samples at the CTPH lab and visit frontline human communities that have almost daily contact with gorilla families. For an extra fee, Dr Gladys is available to accompany the group.