Saving gorillas by saving people: how Gladys Kalema transformed her teenage passion for animals into a radical social innovation

As a new graduate from veterinary school, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka invented her first job

As a new graduate from veterinary school, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka invented her first job. She wrote to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, laying out her research explaining just how critical it was to create a role for a veterinarian within the organization. Prior to her letter, the general practice was that wildlife should be left to the circle of life, without any intervention.

At the same time, public health programs were managed separately from conservation programs in wildlife-protected areas, using a parallel set of institutions. This traditional approach overlooked their interconnection, specifically the problem of zoonotic transmission of diseases between human beings and wildlife that threatens the success of conservation programs. Gladys’ letter made an impact. As the home to 400 of the world’s 900 Mountain Gorillas, it was clear that animal welfare needed to be made a priority. As the Wildlife Authority’s first vet, she was given a desk and told to get to work.

At just 26, she immediately began fundraising and organizing activities in addition to her more typical veterinary duties. While others may have been overwhelmed and intimidated at the thought of setting up an entire department, Gladys could rely on her past experience creating a new venture as a teen. In high school, she started a chapter of The Wildlife Club. With time on her hands during a school break, Gladys wanted to channel her love of the natural world into something concrete. She noticed the local secretariat of the Wildlife Club and starting hanging around to learn more about their activities. Once her studies started again, she was tapped to lead the new chapter in her school.

After borrowing money from her mother (still unrepaid as she is often reminded) to create stickers to build interest in the group, Gladys recruited more than 50 students to join the club. Her first adventure with the group was to take 20 students into a national park. While the trip was a success, it certainly wasn’t without its challenges. On the way home, their slow-moving train derailed. No one was injured, but it did cause Gladys and her fellow club members to arrive 8 hours late back to the station. Gladys stayed calm in the crisis convincing her family members to come with cars to ferry everyone back to school.

Even these sorts of tests couldn’t dampen Gladys’ enthusiasm for her club. To be in charge of the club’s organizing, marketing, and inevitable problem solving made her confident, excited, and ultimately see a vision for her future career. While previously she had simply wanted to be a vet for pets and domesticated animals, her time in the Wildlife Club inspired her to look outside the box and work with the critically endangered animals she first engaged with while starting her chapter of the Wildlife Club.

Today, Gladys runs her own organization, Conservation through Public Health. In many wildlife-protected areas in Uganda, communities and wildlife are sharing habitats, living closer and more interdependent lives than ever before. Gladys’ team links Uganda's wildlife management and rural public health programs to create common resources that benefit both people and animals. Conservation through Public health has provided more than 3,000 people in rural communities with internet access for conservation and health education purposes. They have also educated more than 7,000 Bwindi community members about the links between conservation, public health, ecotourism, and sustainable livelihoods.

Gladys credits her time building the Wildlife Club in high school as her driving force behind her motivation to launch her own organization. Just as her mother supported her efforts back when she was in high school, Gladys strives to provide her two sons with the opportunity to find their own power. She brings them with her to meetings and rural events to provide a foundation for the empathy they need to relate and work well with others. The skill of empathy coupled with teamwork leadership and changemaking are the skills she feels are key to getting ahead in today’s world. She’d happily lend her sons money for stickers any day, interest-free.

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