Journey of a wildlife vet

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tells her remarkable story in her book, “Walking with Gorillas”.

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tells her remarkable story in her book, “Walking with Gorillas”.

Published Aug 12, 2023


Within the first year of setting up the Gorilla Research Clinic, we discovered that the Nkuringo gorilla group in the southern sector of Bwindi that was spending a lot more time in community land had a much higher parasite burden than the gorillas in the northern and eastern sectors of Bwindi and were likely picking up parasites from the local communities that have less-than-adequate hygiene. This discovery resulted in UWA recruiting twice as many members of the Human and Gorilla Conflict Resolution (HUGO) Team, a group of community volunteers who safely herd gorillas back to the park away from people’s gardens. These volunteers also received training in gorilla health monitoring. After all, they were well placed to take faecal samples and monitor those gorillas who foraged on community land. The following year, the parasite burden in Nkuringo gorilla group went back to the same levels as those of other gorilla groups.

We also conducted a study with support from Whitley Fund for Nature, which discovered that close to half of the homes in the two parishes bordering Bwindi Impenetrable National Park collect water from a source that puts them at great risk of getting intestinal parasites.

One of the benefits of the Gorilla Research Clinic was that we were able to support the local Bwindi Community Hospital. They would often receive cases of diarrhoea and while they offered drugs to alleviate the symptoms, they did not have time to research the cause of the infection. With our new facilities, we were able to step in and convince the hospital to allow us to analyse samples, which we would compare with the gorillas and local livestock samples. A veterinary student, Ryan Sadler from University of California, Davis, obtained a donation of faecal antigen ELISA test kits that he brought to Bwindi to conduct this research with CTPH.

We discovered that the most common cause of diarrhoea in people was giardia, a protozoan parasite that causes an infection in the small intestine and is spread through contaminated water. I was not all that surprised because I myself on a few occasions had contracted giardia at Bwindi; I felt like I was going to die of dehydration, from so much vomiting and diarrhoea. We found that as many as 40 percent of the samples from human infants were positive for giardia. We also found giardia in the cattle. We also looked for another intestinal protozoa, cryptosporidium, and found it in people, livestock, and the Rushegura gorilla group, though thankfully it was not causing clinical signs.

However, we knew the Rushegura group spent a lot of time in community gardens including Kyogo and Mukongoro villages, on the way to DRC where people had the poorest hygiene practices. This alarmed me and prompted us to recruit a second Village Health and Conservation Team member in those two villages to be able to reach a larger number of homes more frequently with critical information on hygiene, health, and conservation. As a result of our research, Bwindi Community Hospital educated families with children to collect water from protected clean sources.

With support from Primate Conservation Inc., Stephen taught the farmers how to build cattle water troughs away from human and gorilla drinking water sources, reducing the chances of picking up giardia and cryptosporidium.

Five years after implementing our One Health approach, people were becoming more hygienic, and gorillas showed markedly reduced parasite infections even when they foraged in community gardens.

Protecting wildlife involves so much more than administering health care, I had learnt. And now I was about to learn that it also involved not only developing immediate funding sources for programmes, but building and maintaining supportive lifelong relationships worldwide.

The Independent on Saturday