Kampala — HER inspiration is not rooted in big names, but a pet. This pet, a cat, did not even have a name. Pussycat is all it went by. But its meek disposition and tenderness infused love into people around it. Young Gladys Kalema was one such of the pet's biggest fans.
Growing up in Kampala as the youngest of six children, Kalema fell in love with the pet. And in a blink of an eye, she had made friends with all the pets at their home - and given them names too - Pillie the cat, Tina the dog, name it.
One day, Poncho, a naughty Vervet monkey from the neighbourhood sat outside the window watching little Kalema play the piano. When she briefly stepped out of the room, Poncho sneaked in, settled down at the piano stool and played one note - 'taa.'
"I was excited and surprised at how humanised Poncho could be," says 38-year-old Dr Gladys Kalema, now Kalema-Zikusoka, owing to her marriage to Lawrence Zikusoka.
It is from such milieu that animals became her friends. Little did she know this was a precursor into an animal conservation career.
She also did not know that about three decades down the road, she would be the proud recipient of a San Diego Zoological Society conservation medal - The 2008 Conservation-In-Action Award.
This, she received on May 15, 2008, for her outstanding conservation work in Uganda, under her brainchild, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).
A private non-profit organisation, CTPH promotes conservation and public health by improving people and animal primary healthcare in and around protected areas in Africa.
The organisation helps to prevent the spread of diseases from wild animals to humans, and vice versa. This is its main approach although it looks at other aspects geared towards making a difference in people's lives.
Kalema-Zikusoka's prize adds her onto the list of celebrated previous winners of the award, including Michael Werikhe The Rhino-Man, who walked to raise funds for rhinos in Kenya; Dr. Jane Goodall, who started the first wild chimpanzee research in Tanzania; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was President of the World Wildlife Fund and Sir David Attenborough, a BBC TV presenter on wildlife.
With its headquarters in Kampala, CTPH's main emphasis has been on the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the communities within the park's vicinity.
Considerable effort has also been put on the human and wild animal communities of Queen Elizabeth National Park, while other resources are being put together to extend to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.
The idea, as portrayed by CTPH's logo, is for humans to co-exist with these wild primates without being dangerous to each other since they are in one habitat circle and share genetic component up to 98%.
It stems from these animals' dilemma of being highly endangered by human activities like armed conflict, poaching, encroachment on their habitats and diseases they contract from humans and their livestock.
Having grown up as an animal lover, Kalema-Zikusoka realised these problems way back in high school, but as a mere student, she could not help.
But to show concern, she revived the Wildlife Club of Kibuli Secondary School.
As chairperson of the club, she organised seminars, where students debated about the endangered animals. Kalema-Zikusoka also set up bird-feeding tables at the school.
In doing all this, she looked forward to a time when she would save the endangered animal species.
And her first hands-on approach took the form of a primary research during her Bachelor's degree in Veterinary Medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London (1990-1995).
The research centred on intestinal parasites and bacteria in mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a comparison between tourist-habituated and non-tourist-habituated gorillas.
She also did a survey on Intestinal Helminth Parasites of wild chimpanzees in Budongo Forest. These studies enlightened her about infections in wildlife.
Upon graduating, Kalema-Zikusoka got her first job as a veterinary officer at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) where she set up a veterinary unit to care for animals in national parks, game and forest reserves and controlled hunting areas.
Part of her main responsibilities included the support of endangered species and disease surveillance, a thing that shaped her current initiative during her four-year service there (1996-2000).
Kalema-Zikusoka investigated the first scabies outbreak in Bwindi gorillas, following the death of an infant.
Her suspicion was that the infant had been infected with human skin mites, which made it lose its hair and develop scaly skin by the time of its death.
The conclusion was that scabies and pneumonia were the resultant cause of death, diseases that humans suffer from.
Subsequently, 15 more gorillas contracted scabies, which alarmed her so much that when she left UWA, she founded CTPH in 2002, to prevent the animals from dying from human diseases and vice-versa. Such diseases include scabies, measles, dysentery, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, flu, among others.
To address the issues, CTPH took a three-fold approach to foster interdependence of wildlife health and human health in these protected areas.
The mutual dependence consists not only of disease transmission from one species to another, but also looks at the cycle in which people who live near the protected areas (and their health), depend on livelihoods created by a hatching ecotourism industry that, in turn, depends on a healthy wildlife.
As villagers' livelihoods develop, so do their health practices, thus the focus on the three approaches: wildlife health monitoring, community health care and community education through technology capacity-building.
At Buhoma village in the low-lying ranges of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a field office that doubles as a tele centre, stands proud helping coalesce the three approaches.
The wildlife health monitoring approach involves the collection and analysis of fecal samples of the gorillas to detect and treat the animals' infections and guide the locals on prevention.
This has been made possible by the projects' field laboratory, located a few metres from the field office.
Thomas Ssemakadde, the laboratory technician, says they have analysed more than 3,000 fecal samples from gorillas, using high-tech lab equipment donated by Colgate and Cornell universities in the US, and treated infected animals in Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth National Park, where a similar facility is taking shape with savannah animal species, especially buffalos.
Kalema-Zikusoka, however, says treatment of the animals is done selectively.
"We treat the gorillas if the infection is fatal or could spread to or from humans. But if the infection is part of a natural characteristic of the animals, it is catered for by their immune system and adaptations in the wild," she says.
The small, but highly effective laboratory at Bwindi, has become a reference point. More veterinary scholars and conservationists with queries about the animals are turning to the facility for answers.
At the laboratory, we found a team of 12 students and three professors from Colgate University on a fortnight's research about gorillas in Bwindi.
There were three other veterinarians and wildlife managers from the DRC who had brought fecal samples for analysis, following the death of two gorillas in the Mt. Tshiabisimu gorilla reserve, where CTPH plans to extend.
The project has involved UWA rangers and human-gorilla conflict resolution teams by facilitating workshops where they are trained on fecal sample collection, detection of abnormalities in gorillas and cautioning them on allowing people to get so close to the animals since it facilitates cross-species disease infection.
The rangers are also trained on gorilla tracking, a process that helps habituate more gorillas for a more rewarding ecotourism.
The community healthcare approach takes the form of educating local communities on good hygiene and the risk of disease transmission between people, their livestock and wild animals.
For instance, residents are discouraged from grazing their cattle or sharing watering holes with wild animals to avoid disease infection.
Using plays acted by existing drama groups and lectures over Kinkizi FM, a local radio station, over 7,000 people have embraced CTPH's call for healthy living, with at least 60 enrolled onto the tuberculosis testing and treatment programme which is run by the Ministry of Health.
"We do not pay for the testing and treatment services. All we do is encourage the people to embrace it. Today, you find a big number of those we have reached lining up for service at the two health centres that are dispensing the service: Bwindi Community and Kayonza health centres," Kalema-Zikusoka says.
The project has also involved 24 couple peer educators and four community reproductive health workers, who specifically dispense know-how on family planning.
Here, locals are taught and referred to specific health centres where they are signed up on a suitable family planning method like the use of condoms and contraceptive pills.
In partnership with Straight Talk, an AIDS education periodical for the youth that CTPH supplies to the schooling Bwindi communities, the project is planning to set up a community radio to sensitise residents.
CTPH's third approach - community education through technology capacity building - introduces Lawrence and the community tele centre into the picture.
While pursuing a Master's degree in Specialised Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University/North Carolina Zoological Park, USA, between 2000-2003, Kalema-Zikusoka fell in love with Lawrence, who was also pursuing a Master's degree in Information Technology (IT) in the US.
Following their marriage in 2001, Lawrence, from sitting through Gladys' this-and-that of her veterinary world and conservation dreams, eventually got sucked in.
They were to open CTPH a year later and make each other's specialty complement the project's undertakings.
Having earlier worked as an IT expert in India, Lawrence incorporated his know-how into CTPH by establishing a tele centre to take care of the project's information and technology needs.
The centre boasts of internet-connected computers that provide the locals with a means of communication to the outside world. Every now and then, locals trickle in to exchange emails with the tourists they met in Bwindi.
David Matsiko, the tele centre officer, says they have trained 171 residents, including students who picked interest in conservation. The students went on to start wildlife clubs in their schools.
The centre's community website http://bwindicommunity.ctph.org, a current innovation, enables tourists to book online. The website, which links into the Queen Elizabeth National Park community website, also disseminates information packaged in the community's local languages on health, environment and sanitation-related issues in form of thematic questions and answers.
For her initiative, Kalema- Zikusoka has received over five conservation awards, including Skal International. She has also got signed up as an Ashoka Fellow.
Ashoka is a global organisation that recognises and supports leading social entrepreneurs for their innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society through sheer selflessness.
Supplementary to Ashoka's support for CTPH includes USAID, MacArthur Foundation and others, some of them past sponsors.
But with or without sponsors, the love-some twosome are determined to serve both humans and wild animals. And their unequalled love for the two animal species has strengthened the chemistry between them.
That is why on a good weekend day, the two will be out at a concert or a Karaoke event singing each other love ballads, with Lawrence going Good Morning Beautiful, and Gladys replying with a coy I Love You.
Kalema has loved animals since childhood
During high school, she revived the Wildlife Club of Kibuli SS
She holds a Master's degree in Specialised Veterinary Medicine from North Carolina State University/North Carolina Zoological Park, USA
She founded CTPH in 2002, to prevent animals from dying from human diseases and vice-versa
CTPH uses three approaches: Wildlife health monitoring, community health care and community education through technology capacity-building
Her husband, Lawrence Zikusoka, set up a tele centre in Bwindi to enable residents communicate with the outside world