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'Gorillas in Her Midst': Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka visits the St. Louis Zoo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2008 - Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a leading conservationist and mountain gorilla expert as well as the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health . A Ugandan nonprofit, CTPH promotes health care for wildlife and for the people in the nearby communities. She will visit the St. Louis Zoo on Tuesday, Dec. 9, and give a lecture entitled “Gorillas in Her Midst.”

Q: What is the talk going to be about?

A.: I’ll mainly be talking about the work that I have been doing with the mountain gorillas, which began in 1994. I started out as a vet student looking at parasites in gorilla dung. And then working as a vet in the Uganda Wildlife Authority and going on to set up a nonprofit called Conservation Through Public Health.

I’ll be talking about the kind of work we’re doing with CTPH, plus giving a background of mountain gorilla conservation in Uganda. It really started to evolve in 1992, when the gorillas were habituated for tourism.

I’ll also talk about the work we are starting to do in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And a little bit about how we hope that it will help to create peace in the conflict that is going on in Congo.

Q: How did Conservation Through Public Heath come to be? It seems that wildlife conservation and human public health are a unique combination of things to be doing in one organization.

A: I think we combine them together because of the experiences I had when I worked in the Wildlife Authority.

I got into conservation from a veterinary perspective. It’s very important to monitor the gorilla’s health and make sure that the tourists who come to visit them and the community members who take the tourists to visit them don’t end up making them sick. So, I set up a vet unit in the Uganda Wildlife Authority. We didn’t want the very program that’s set up to sustain the gorilla’s conservation to compromise them.

One of the very first cases I had to handle was a scabies skin disease outbreak. Scabies is caused by mites that burrow under the skin, causing scaly skin and the hair to fall off. In this situation, the infant gorilla ended up dying of pneumonia secondary to the scabies. Everyone started to wonder where this could have come from.

I spoke to human doctor friends and they said that scabies is a very common disease in low-income groups of people in Uganda because of poor hygiene and crowded conditions. So, we treated the rest of the gorillas in the group. They got better. Then a few years later, another group got scabies. When samples were taken from people and from that group of gorillas that got scabies, we found that it was the same. So, we confirmed that it came from the people.

But even before the second outbreak, I was asked to launch some education workshops in the communities that border the park. Because not only were the people likely to give the gorillas scabies, they were also unhygienic in other ways. So, when the gorillas come out to the people’s gardens to eat, we think they found dirty clothing and other waste. People will have clothes on the scarecrows in their gardens to chase away the wildlife. And the young gorillas are very curious. So, we think that’s how they got in touch with the human scabies mite.

When we held these education workshops, we talked to the communities about the benefits the park has for them and the importance of gorilla conservation. And we also talked about health education. That was my first introduction to public health work and community work. I realized that if we’re going to keep the gorillas healthy and the wildlife healthy, we have to also think about the people who are living around the particular areas. So that’s how we came to setting up CTPH. It is a wildlife conservation organization looking at disease transmission between people and animals.

Q: What success has made you the proudest?

A: I’m probably most proud of the fact that we are changing the attitudes of the community around the national park. We’re actually seeing the people becoming advocates for gorilla conservation through our work. And I’m very excited about that.

For example, we have a program where we put on drama shows. We had some brochures from the Wildlife Authority about the risks of human and gorilla disease transmission. We got in touch with two local drama groups and just gave them the brochure and asked them to develop a play around it. And they did a really good play -- better than we would have done if we’d tried to do it. They go out to the communities and act this and it’s fantastic. Everybody laughs and everybody is educated and entertained at the same time.

Q: What’s your typical day like?

A: I don’t really have a typical day. I love working with the gorillas, but getting up the mountains to where the gorillas are is pretty exhausting. They’re far away. You can’t get there by car, you have to hike. I’m always saying “Why am I doing this?”

I realize that I’m doing it because I really want to get to the gorillas. I love the gorillas -- that’s why I’m doing this. At times when you have to treat them, it can be strenuous, because they get very disturbed. It’s quite an emotional experience. The times when we don’t have to treat them, which is most times, it’s just so nice and relaxing being with them. It’s very therapeutic.

The gorilla work is very physically demanding, but even the community work is a bit demanding because many of the places where the people live, there are no roads. Sometimes you still have to get out of the car and hike to someone’s home. But it’s very rewarding visiting somebody and asking them how they’re feeling and finding out about their life. That’s always very interesting.

When we host drama shows, it’s very interesting the questions that the people ask. We learn a lot about what they’re thinking. What they really think about conservation issues.

When you’re with the other animals like the buffalos in Queen Elizabeth Park, it’s very different. You’re dealing with big dangerous animals. Once you’ve taken samples, you have to make sure everybody’s in the car. It’s quite intense. So I don’t have a typical day. You have to switch gears the whole time.

Q: What would you most like people to know about your work?

A: I’d like them to know that the gorillas need a lot of help and they can make a difference. The people living around the gorilla park are very much a part of gorilla conservation. And the goal is also to help the people living around the park. That’s the take-home message. That helping the gorillas is about helping the people. It has to go hand in hand.

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare. 

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