In the remote corner of southwestern Uganda lies the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas reside. These majestic creatures, which generate about 60% of Uganda's tourism revenue, are highly intelligent and notoriously difficult to track and study. However, for the past three decades, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has dedicated her life to the survival of the endangered gorillas and their human neighbors.
Born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1970, as the youngest of six siblings, Kalema-Zikusoka grew up against the backdrop of Idi Amin's military dictatorship. Her father, William Wilberforce Kalema, a former cabinet minister under President Obote, was abducted and murdered by Amin's soldiers when she was just two years old. For her safety, Kalema-Zikusoka was sent to boarding school from the age of seven, variously in Uganda, Kenya, and the UK. In the 1980s, her mother, Rhoda Kalema, became one of Uganda's first female members of parliament, for the Uganda Patriotic Movement, and was arrested three times and jailed once for her politics.
As a child, animals were Kalema-Zikusoka's escape from the "cloud of terror," and she would retreat to the strays turned pets that her older siblings brought home. By the age of 12, her heart was set on becoming a vet – not a respected vocation in Uganda, she explains in her memoir. "People don't place much value on animals," she writes. But her persistence and drive paid off, and she eventually became Uganda's first-ever wildlife vet in 1996, at the age of 26.
At that time, there were only about 300 Bwindi gorillas left in the forest. After nearly three decades of tending to them, Kalema-Zikusoka now estimates a total of about 500 – the last census in 2018 counted 459, enough to downgrade the mountain gorilla from critically endangered to endangered.
Kalema-Zikusoka's approach to conservation has been trailblazing. She has been a trailblazer of "community conservation," notes Jillian Miller, the executive director of the Dian Fossey-founded Gorilla Organization, for which she volunteered while at the Royal Veterinary College in London, "stuffing envelopes late into the night." In the late 1990s, Kalema-Zikusoka took a different approach to conservation, one that was more collaborative and focused on the needs of the local communities. Her aim was to educate them about the value of conservation and involve them in decision-making about their natural resources.
Her work has not gone unnoticed, and she has been recognized for her contribution to science and conservation. In 2021, she was named the UN Environment Programme's Champion of the Earth, and in 2020, she won the Edinburgh Medal for her contribution to science.
Kalema-Zikusoka's memoir, Walking with Gorillas: The Journey of an African Wildlife Vet, chronicles her life's work and her dedication to the survival of Bwindi's endangered gorillas and their human neighbors. It is a humbling account of a life dedicated to the pursuit of sustainability and a more equitable world.
Her story exemplifies the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. These goals are a call to action for countries and organizations to work together to achieve a sustainable future for all. The SDGs address poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, economic growth, sustainable consumption and production, climate action, biodiversity, and peace and justice. Kalema-Zikusoka's work has contributed to several of these goals, including biodiversity conservation, poverty reduction, and sustainable economic growth.
Through her community conservation approach, Kalema-Zikusoka has helped to reduce conflicts between the gorillas and the local communities, which previously saw the gorillas as a threat to their livelihoods. She has also helped to improve the living standards of the communities through various sustainable development projects, such as ecotourism and agroforestry.
Kalema-Zikusoka's work is a testament to the fact that conservation can only be successful if it is done in collaboration with the local communities. By involving them in decision-making and educating them about the value of conservation, she has been able to create a sense of ownership and responsibility among the communities towards the natural resources that sustain their livelihoods.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka's journey to protect Uganda's mountain gorillas is an inspiring story of resilience, dedication, and community collaboration. Her innovative approach to conservation has not only helped to save the endangered gorillas but has also contributed to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction in the local communities. Her work serves as a shining example of the kind of leadership and action that is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and build a more sustainable and equitable world.