#EcoHeroine Series: Dr. Gladys, a warrior (and a softie) for gorillas

Nimble leadership pays off for gorillas and humans

Wildlife vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is passionate about protecting gorillas in Eastern Africa from the threats of human illnesses. As founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit organization which monitors gorilla health and offers alternative livelihoods to communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a remote, heavily forested region of Uganda, Gladys’ job demands equal parts courage, conviction, equanimity and strategic nimbleness.

“If you’re doing an operation with a wild animal in the field, you have to be more autocratic, because you have to get things done quickly,”says Gladys.“But if you’re trying to get people to understand a program and engage communities more meaningfully when they’re out in the field on their own, you have to be more democratic about it, and let your team come up with what needs to be done.”At other times, Gladys acts as a pacesetter, setting a high standard for performance:“I go out with my team in the field, and when they see you’re doing it, putting in the time and hard work, it makes your team feel empowered to do the same.”

“There’s a time when you have to let everyone give input, and there’s a time when you just have to make decisions.’ 

There’s no one size fits all approach to leadership. In fact, research shows that high impact leaders rely on a collection of distinct styles, applying each in the right measure at just the right time. During the pandemic, Gladys has been working much more closely with other conservation organizations and Ministry of Health officials to tackle coronavirus, support park rangers by fundraising for supplies and food rations, and lobby the Uganda government to regulate the wearing of masks by tourists as gorilla tourism reopens.“Covid 19 has shown us how we all have to work together and that we all need each other,” she says.“It’s motivated my team and increased their sense of urgency, and helped me see I need to delegate more and empower them as leaders.”

While women tend to be more collaborative than competitive in general, says Gladys, the pandemic has motivated her to reach out even more, and strengthened her negotiation and risk-taking skills.“We’re more willing than ever to make bold decisions and take a strong stand both in conservation and in public health.”

Shifting leadership styles gets results

The ability to shift leadership styles fluidly to maximize effectiveness in a given situation pays off in performance and results (check out six key leadership styles). While organizing a major conference of the African Primatological Society in 2019, Gladys initially focused on asking for people’s ideas, establishing rapport and trust, and making sure the right stakeholders, including the government and private sector, were at the table. While her stance as a democratic leader helped secure buy-in and build relationships, key decisions weren’t being made, at which point Gladys moved to a more authoritative style, assigning tasks and holding people accountable for getting them done.“As we got closer to the conference date, I started to worry because at the end of the day, everyone’s going to be looking at me, as head of the committee,” she says. “There’s a time when you have to let everyone give input, and there’s a time when you just have to make decisions.”

When the guest of honor, Uganda’s Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, was late for the conference opening, fellow organizers insisted they go ahead and start, but Gladys stood her ground.“We invited the minister because we want political buy-in to conservation,” she notes. “I had a lot of people challenging me, especially the men, but I said ‘it’s my decision and we’re going to wait.’”  To keep people engaged, she invited dancers from the Batwa pygmy tribe to perform, reasoning that the kind of people who come to primate conferences work in remote locations and “are used to waiting for hours for a monkey to move.” In the end, the minister showed up, the conference was a success, and “everyone felt excited to be a part of making that happen.”

The skills needed to shift seamlessly between leadership styles can be learned. Over the years, Gladys says she has deepened her listening skills, asks more questions, and has become more flexible in her approach to community engagement, where the goal is usually to change people’s behavior around poaching or deforestation.“You have to listen and understand why they are doing it and not be patronizing, because you may find that listening to what people are saying enables you to find the best solution,”says Gladys.“Just coming in and saying ‘you shouldn’t do this’ or ‘you have to do that’ doesn’t work.”

“Women tend to stick with things, they’re more holistic and take a long-term view, and Jane’s been studying chimps for 60 years and stuck with it!’

This lesson hit home for Gladys while working as head of the veterinary unit with the Uganda Wildlife department, where she led a team investigating the first scabies outbreak in mountain gorillas that resulted in the death of an infant gorilla and and sickness in the rest of the gorilla troop. Her team eventually traced the outbreak back to the people living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Gladys was dispatched to visit about 1000 villagers in communities around the park to raise awareness about the connections between human health and wildlife diseases, and the impacts on gorillas and humans alike, since gorillas can spread diseases, like Ebola, to people. From the outset, she had a clear plan of exactly what she was going to say: “This is the problem and this is the solution.” During one of the meetings, however, a local ranger touched her arm, and suggested they listen to what the villagers had to say.“The people came up with much better suggestions than I was going to tell them, more practical, and much more varied. They may be poor, disadvantaged, not formally educated but they know what is best for them.” Their ideas formed the basis for what was to become Conservation Through Public Health.

Nevertheless, she persisted

In the conservation world, leadership roles are usually filled by men in most countries, and the barriers to women are real.“The biggest barrier is that people think conservation is not a place for women,” she says.“In Africa, women are not supposed to be adventurous as men, they’re not supposed to go out there and live in tough conditions.It can be difficult for women, because there’s a general belief that a woman can’t do things as well as a man.”

Early on, Gladys’ family resisted her working with wildlife, especially her mother who discouraged her out of a sense of concern and protection. “My mom is a strong woman but she was really scared that I was going to work with gorillas,”she says.“In the end, when she saw them [gorillas], she was really sold, and now thinks that they’re wonderful giants.”

Gladys not only persisted, she’s been a trailblazer: At 25, she became the first wildlife veterinary officer of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Leading conservation organizations have also recognized her work: she is the recipient of the Whitley Fund for Nature Gold Award, the Jane Goodall Institute Award for Conservation, is a National Geographic Explorer, an Ashoka fellow, and was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. Gladys has also been awarded the Sierra Club’s EarthCare Award, Uganda Veterinary Association World Veterinary Day Award, and was a finalist for the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa in 2019.

“Covid 19 has shown us how we all have to work together and that we all need each other.’

In September, she became the first African to win the 2020 Aldo Leopold Award from the American Society of Mammalogists for outstanding contributions to the conservation of mammals and their habitats, a recognition that inspired Jane Goodall, one of her heroes, to send a personal note of congratulations. “I felt really elated, you know, because Jane Goodall is the icon of conservation for great apes, and an icon for conservation in general.” Jane’s persistence and patience are qualities that she admires:“Women tend to stick with things, they’re more holistic and take a long-term view, and Jane’s been studying chimps for 60 years and stuck with it!”

Of all her achievements so far, Gladys is proudest of setting up an award-winning NGO, “because even though there’ve been so many barriers and a lot of setbacks, and discouragement from all kinds of places, there’s also been a lot of opportunities.” It’s been a journey getting people to understand that CTPH’s One Health cross-sector approach, which monitors gorilla health, promotes health education in local communities, and seeks solutions to the socio-economic drivers of poaching and deforestation, is another path to achieve conservation. Local villagers who previously turned to poaching for money or food, for example, now grow coffee, which is sold for a fair price to Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise of CTPH. People and gorillas are getting sick less often, and in 2019, the global mountain gorilla population grew to 1,063 individuals, up from 600 in 1994, 25 years later.

“A lot of people, especially donors, they’re very used to doing things in a very traditional way, a single sector way, and they don’t want to be disruptive,”notes Gladys.“I was so pleased when I won the Whitley Gold Award because they really got it, and understood that when you do things holistically you’re more likely to achieve the goals.”

Image by Christine Photo by Sponchia, Pixabay

Paving the way, paying it forward

Being a visible leader and a wildlife vet, positions rarely held by women in Uganda, makes Gladys a strong role model for girls, and has even influenced the value placed on educating girls in the communities where she works. “Some of the villagers said they were inspired to educate their girls because of my role in those workshops, which was a nice unintended benefit.”  In love with animals since she was a little girl, Gladys has always known she wanted to be a veterinarian, later discovering gorillas in the wildlife club she started at her high school. “I call them gentle buddhas.”

“Speak louder than everyone else in the room so they can hear you.”

What advice would she give to young women interested in a career in conservation? “Stay focused, do not get discouraged and be strong. ”While she advocates for a collaborative approach, and the need to “listen to others, like policy makers, or people whose behavior you’re trying to change, and find solutions together,” she counsels women to “speak louder than everyone else in the room so they can hear you.”Amplifying women’s voices is a passion project for Gladys: as a member of the leadership council of Women for the Environment Africa, an organization that advocates for a more inclusive and collaborative model of conservation leadership, she is helping amplify the voices and empower women in conservation across Africa. As for her own voice, Gladys hopes to “grow myself as a global leader, and scale up the CTPH approach to other areas where gorillas are endangered.”

About Gladys: Bio in Brief 

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka (her twitter handle is @doctorgladys) is a researcher, conservationist, wildlife veterinarian, entrepreneur and founder and CEO of the non-profit Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), and a leading voice in the campaign to protect endangered mountain gorillas throughout East Africa.  In addition to addressing human-gorilla health issues, CTPH also runs Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a gorilla-friendly social enterprise that supports local farmers living around gorilla habitats. She’s a member of the leadership council of the Women for the Environment in Africa, an organization that empowers senior women conservationists in Africa through leadership development. Gladys holds a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London in the UK, and a Masters in Specialized Veterinary Medicine from NC State University, USA.

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