Gorillas were losing hair and developing white, scaly skin. The baby gorilla had lost almost all its hair and was very thin. And the mother had also lost almost all of her hair where she was carrying the baby,” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls. “The baby was also making crying sounds, which is extremely abnormal for gorillas. I actually went and visited a human doctor friend of mine, because they could have picked it up from people. And she said it was scabies.”
Scabies is a minor skin infection for humans, but gorillas were new to the disease. For Kalema-Zikusoka, it was the first time she saw a human disease jump to mountain gorillas with fatal consequences. Recognizing this link between wildlife health and human health marked a turning point in her thinking.
“It made me realize that you can’t protect the gorillas if you don’t think about the people living around the park, who have very little health care,” she says. “And because we’re so closely related genetically, we can easily get diseases from each other. The only long-term and sustainable method to improve the gorillas’ health is by improving the health of the people living around the park, and not just the people, but their livestock as well.”
“When you go to visit them in the wild, you actually feel like you’re connecting. They look at you. You look at them, and there’s some kind of connection. It’s actually very therapeutic watching them. And the infant gorillas are very playful, just like humans. When I see them playing, I think of my two children.”
Kalema-Zikusoka has received a number of honours, awards, and other public recognitions of her environmental and humanitarian work. In 2009, she won the Whitley Gold Award, the top prize awarded in what is considered the "Green Oscars". The San Diego Zoo gave her its Conservation-in-Action Award. Seed magazine named her one of its eight "Revolutionary Minds in Science."
Kalema-Zikusoka was profiled in the BBC documentary, Gladys the African Vet. She has also been featured in documentaries in National Geographic, Animal Planet, MNet and Uganda Television.
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