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Conservation through public health
  1. Gladys Kalema Zukosa

Abstract

Realising you cannot protect wildlife without meeting the needs of the people with whom they share a habitat was a ‘Eureka moment’ for Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of the charity Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH)

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I DECIDED that I wanted to be a vet at the age of 12 because we had many pets at home in Kampala, Uganda. During secondary school, I revived the ‘wildlife club’, a regional grass- roots non-governmental organisation (NGO) for conservation education of school children. Not only did I want to be a vet, I wanted to be one that worked with wildlife.

I studied veterinary medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, London, which gave me the flexibility to do projects of my choice during the holidays. I used this opportunity to see practice with vets at Twycross Zoo, Longleat Safari Park, and London Zoo, where I also benefited from the opportunity to sit in on classes with students doing a Masters in wildlife health.

When I came home to visit my family, I worked for the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre caring for orphaned chimpanzees, and then, finally, carried out my first wildlife study in Budongo Forest, investigating intestinal helminth parasites in chimpanzees. Two years later, I worked on a similar study in Bwindi with mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species. In Bwindi, my research focused on comparing intestinal helminth parasites and bacteria in habituated gorillas visited by tourists, and unhabituated gorillas not visited by tourists. This helped me to understand the important role of ecotourism and community involvement in supporting gorilla conservation.

Gladys and a team of community-based animal health workers examine a buffalo for disease surveillance purposes

First job

After graduating, I became the Uganda Wildlife Authority's (UWA's) first veterinary officer. We investigated the first scabies skin disease outbreak in mountain gorillas, which was eventually traced to people living around the park.

At that time, the UWA was severely under-resourced. I was not given enough resources to do my work, so I contacted many potential donors to seek support for wildlife veterinary issues. I successfully raised funds and support from UK-based NGOs, including the Gorilla Organization, where I had volunteered as a veterinary student. The charity provided our first darting equipment, and Care for the Wild UK gave us our first vehicle for the UWA veterinary department. By the time I left the UWA I had become good at fundraising!

Community involvement

Four years later, I was invited to design and conduct health education workshops for Bwindi communities, focusing on the risks of disease transmission between humans and mountain gorillas. People living around protected areas in Uganda have little healthcare or information about preventable infectious diseases, which are often zoonotic, such as tuberculosis, scabies and diarrhoea. As we share 98.4 per cent of our genetic material with the mountain gorillas, it is easy to see how human disease can spread to these animals.

Park rangers observe Rushegura group gorillas outside Bwindi National Park in Uganda

The workshops had a participatory format, where local communities came up with solutions for the problems that were presented to them. Communities that benefited from tourism were willing to listen to what was said because they saw that improving their health and hygiene was not only helping them, but also protecting a sustainable source of ecotourism. The local communities asked for health services to be brought closer to them, and to have access to safe water; they also asked for strengthening of the human and gorilla conflict resolution team, which chases gorillas foraging on community land back to the park.

This was the moment I realised that you cannot protect the wildlife without meeting the health and livelihood needs of the people they share a habitat with.

While completing a Masters (in zoological medicine) at North Carolina State University and North Carolina Zoological Park, I had the opportunity to improve my clinical skills, especially in zoo and wildlife medicine, anaesthesia, pathology and research, which are the most important aspects of wildlife medicine. I also learnt how to write scientific papers and give presentations, as we gave seminars to students and faculty as part of our training.

During my studies, tuberculosis research at the human/wildlife/livestock interface again demonstrated the need to address disease issues in people and animals. As a result of my experiences I set up Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and registered the charity in the USA and later in Uganda. It is a grassroots NGO, with the vision to ‘control disease transmission where people, wildlife and animals meet, while cultivating a winning attitude to conservation and public health in local communities’.

My supervisors allowed me to spend part of the last year of my studies completing a certificate in non-profit management at Duke University, while North Carolina Zoological Park provided the initial funding for CTPH. The funds were used to hold a strategic planning workshop with key stakeholders, who helped to develop a strategic plan.

The other founder members were my husband, Lawrence Zikusoka, who has a background in international relations and telecommunications, and Steven Rubanga, a veterinary technician working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

Current role

As for most vets, every day is different, which makes my job interesting. On top of designing the programmes for CTPH and then making sure that they get implemented, with adequate monitoring and evaluation, I also have to do a lot of fundraising, finance and administration to keep them going.

One day, I might be at our headquarters in Kampala writing a report for one donor, while writing a proposal to another. The next day, I might travel to Queen Elizabeth National Park to immobilise buffaloes for tuberculosis testing. A few days later, I might be tracking gorillas in Bwindi, while training park staff in clinical observations and identification of gorillas.

Regular meetings with our Community Conservation Health Volunteers doing public health and livestock work in their community are another factor of my job, as is giving presentations to ecotourists about our work to raise awareness and funds for our charity.

This variety allows me the freedom to exercise my creativity, and make positive changes at different levels. We work closely with the government and communities to set up systems for long-term monitoring of the health of the wildlife, and improving community health and the health of their livestock. At another level, we work with policy-makers to change attitudes and approaches to coping with disease issues at the human/wildlife/livestock interface, as well as related issues such as family planning, livelihoods and the value of community-based interventions to sustain the programmes. This is possible because we are an independent NGO, with a dynamic board, and not a big bureaucracy. We can make decisions quickly when we need to; it makes our working environment dynamic and fulfilling.

We are currently raising funds to employ an operations officer who can deal with the operational aspects of CTPH, giving me time to focus on what I love most and am best suited to do: the veterinary work and big picture issues, including programme innovation, strategic planning and fundraising.

CTPH is addressing an important issue of global concern – disease transmission between wildlife, people and livestock, with great potential to promote conservation, public health, ecotourism and sustainable livelihoods. We are also bringing about long-term benefits through positive behavioural change in our community programmes, which have a strong education component toward better conservation attitudes and public health practices, as well as improving human health and livelihoods.

Awards

Gladys has received international recognition for her work including: the 2010 World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders; the 2009 Whitley Gold Award for outstanding leadership in grassroots nature conservation; the 2008 British Council Outstanding Young Alumni Award; the 2008 San Diego Zoo Conservation-in-Action Award for her work in gorilla conservation; and the 2009 Medal of Achievement from King's College Budo, where she had attended secondary school in Uganda. In 2007, she also received Recognition of Excellence for her outstanding contribution to the promotion of tourism and empowerment of women in Uganda on World Tourism Day, and Seed magazine named her one of its eight ‘Revolutionary Minds in Science’. In 2006 she became an Ashoka fellow. In 1999, she was chosen as a Forum for African Women's Educationalists ‘Model of Excellence’, promoting education of girls in Uganda by establishing a role model mentorship programme. In November 2008, she was selected to be one of nine international environmental leaders to write a letter to the next US President in the November/December issue of the environmental magazine Sierra.

▪ More information about CTPH is available at www.ctph.org

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