A Special Power for Wildlife: Web of Life

The web of Ashoka Fellows dealing with wildlife works with monkeys, gorillas, orangutans, elephants, tigers, capybaras, whales, manta rays, and much more. Each has developed a new, big-scale, pattern-changing approach. As entrepreneurs, they take every factor and force into account. For example, they know that if their model isn’t attractive to the local human population, they are highly unlikely to succeed.

Ashoka’s great power is the omnidirectional network effect of all these approaches and entrepreneurs (and their organizations and movements). They trust and like one another. They fit together comfortably -- with one learning from another and the whole increasingly learning how to come together in Ashoka’s now-central but still new collaborative entrepreneurship model. And they also have many synergies with the work of Fellows in other fields, be it community development or young people.

To convey a feel for the community of Ashoka Fellows dealing with major wildlife groups, here are a few examples.


Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the first female veterinary officer in Uganda, is showing how important it is to track and minimize the spread of diseases across three distinct populations: humans, domestic animals, and wild animals (gorillas). And how to do so.

Despite the fact that it is well known that diseases can spread from animals to humans (zoonosis) and from humans to animals (anthroponosis), this fact has been largely ignored in part because public health and wildlife efforts don’t connect. Because of their similar DNA structures, gorillas and humans in particular can contract a wide range of similar diseases and parasites – from chicken pox to tuberculosis to polio – as well as infect one another. By correlating health developments in both human and gorilla populations, Gladys and her organization Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) are better able both to prevent diseases jumping between these populations and
to know how to react when they do. 

CTPH analyzes hundreds of wildlife and livestock samples, working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to half the world’s remaining 880 mountain gorillas. Among other things, UWA rangers collect fecal samples of mountain gorillas in the park which are used to develop and continuously update an early warning system for disease outbreaks. This system has already led to a measurable reduction in cross species transmission. CTPH also works with the public health authorities in Uganda, sharing data, making recommendations based on its analyses, and building new cross-sectional bridges.

In parallel, Gladys and her team train pastoralists to improve the health of the livestock in their communities and educate others on how to detect and report disease before it spreads beyond a singular species. Tuberculosis is of particular concern because it is a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease that affects humans, gorillas, and domesticated herd animals. By studying its progression and transmission among wild and domesticated animals, Gladys is gleaning valuable information for use in disease control for all these groups.

One of Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s gorilla clients

A complementary approach to her work is to change public attitudes about health and sanitation. Gladys understood from early on that her results would be limited without healthier communities, especially those who live in close contact to gorillas and other wildlife, and that her team would otherwise be stuck reacting to disease outbreaks only. She formed Village Health and Conservation Teams in strategic locations with the express purpose of proactively educating the public, providing citizens with better health guidelines, and ultimately reducing the risk of transmission from humans who live within wildlife protection areas. Much of the work involves improvements in hygiene and sanitation, though its results are farther reaching, including a tripling in the use of modern family planning among women reached. To date, Gladys’ organizations have engaged over 100,000 people in three protected areas in two countries – Bwindi Impenetrable and Mount Elgon National Parks in Uganda and Virunga National Park in DRC.

Gladys loved animals and decided to be a veterinarian at age 12. While in high school she developed an interest in biodiversity and began her conservation career by reviving her school’s dormant wildlife club. While at veterinary school at University of London, she studied apes and conducted research on intestinal parasites in chimpanzees and parasites and bacteria in tourist-visited gorillas. Her current work was inspired by the observation that gorillas that came into close contact with tourists bore a larger bacterial burden than those that had little or no contact – which made it clear that there was an untold story in the interspecies communication of diseases.

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Gladys has many Ashoka colleagues with highly complementary work across the globe. In Indonesia, a Fellow has won sustained protection for the orangutan cousins of Gladys’s gorillas. He’s done so by restoring extensive native forests while also creating thousands of jobs tapping the extraordinarily productive arenga pinnata palm. The palm produces vast quantities of nutritious sugary water, is one of the most productive source of biofuels ever found (seven times as much ethanol as U.S. corn), has profoundly deep roots and is therefore stabilizing, and needs a diverse forest around it. Two Fellows in India and one in Nepal have also extraordinarily diverse approaches to protecting tigers, be they in the Himalayas or the Sunderbans coastal mangrove thickets of Bengal.


In 2009 two young Peruvian girls walking down the road made a landmark ecological discovery: the very first evidence of endangered green turtles in Peru.

These girls recognized the potential importance of their discovery and reported their finding back to their community so that the turtles could be protected and studied. They are part of a changing generation in Peru that has begun to see the preservation of ocean and marine life as an integral part of their responsibility. Much of this change in mindset is due to Kerstin Forsberg, an Ashoka Fellow, and her organization Planeta Océano.

Kerstin Forsberg

Ashoka Fellow since Jul 2011

Kerstin believes that the well-being of marine life and local communities are interconnected. Via Planeta Océano she has created a community space where people can come together to learn about marine ecology, conduct research, share ideas, identify problems, and co-design solutions. Through this innovative conservation model citizens of all ages are rediscovering the ocean from an ecological and conservation perspective and are leading initiatives that have already changed local business practices, government policy, and cultural attitudes toward conservation. Planeta Océano also redirects economic activity from extractive practices toward those that actually benefit the environment. For example, until recently local fisherman had been catching giant manta rays for food. They otherwise knew very little about these sea creatures including the fact that giant rays are at a high risk of extinction. Giant rays take 7-10 years to reach maturity, and they birth single pups only every 2-7 years. The total number of manta rays  is in the low thousands, and the largest population is found in northern Peru. As a result of education and development efforts, local fisherman have effectively re-engineered a sustainable income stream from manta rays by shifting their commercial activities from fishing to running an eco-tourism association that brings international tourists to  observe the rays.

Manta ray (Peruvian coast)

At a differnt level, Planeta Océano has collaborated with teachers to develop marine education materials which Kerstin and her team are now working with the Peruvian  Ministry of Education and the Peruvian Ministry of Environment to incorporate into the national curricula. Many of the educators in Planeta Océano’s Network of Educators
have risen to become school directors and leaders of regional environmental initiatives that extend beyond the classroom. Yilmer Roque, one of the educators, launched a school-wide initiative for cleaning local river basins and is now collaborating with schools in neighboring Ecuador.

Young students themselves are now inspired to make their own contributions, including Josue Granda, a fourteen-year-old boy who has been around Planeta Océano volunteers like his older sister since he was only four years old, and who recently founded the first environmental club in his community that organizes mothers, siblings, and fathers, many of whom are fishermen, in the cleanup of beaches.

Kerstin has cemented her community work into national policy by successfully lobbying the Peruvian government to pass a law in 2015 to protect the endangered manta rays. Additionally, Kerstin has partnered with UNESCO to expand her community-led marine education model globally next year, and has started collaborating with the International Ocean Commission to spread ocean literacy. Kerstin knows that once local leaders, be it fishermen, young people, or educators, take on the role of environmental stewards, they will create a multiplier effect across their community by engaging their peers, siblings, neighbors, and parents.

Kerstin Forsberg, Peru (2011)