Balancing at a 45-degree angle, with an army of ants nipping at her ankles, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is scooping gorilla poo into a plastic pot. As jobs go, it’s hardly glamorous, but her research work is vital for the health of Uganda’s great apes.
Monthly samples are collected from each of the 18 troops habituated for tourism in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. And it’s surprising how much information is contained in the brown sludge: runny “fear dung” is an indication of fighting and banana fibres suggest crop raiding, but most concerning is evidence of human parasites and bacteria – signs of transmitted disease.
Conveniently, gorillas defecate in their nightly-changing nests, which stack up a steep slope like a pyramid, leading to the silverback’s crowning throne. But scrambling to reach these leafy beds is a challenge.
“You see how hard it is?” winces Gladys as she slides through a cluster of stinging nettles. “It’s easier for us to go to the doctors than the gorillas.”
Once collected, samples are analysed at a research laboratory, part of a hill-top base where simple rooms can be booked by tourists eager to experience gorilla conservation first-hand. Sitting in the clouds, it boasts the best views in Bwindi; up here the canopy exhales wisps of cool, condensed air and bird song is amplified.
Twenty-five years ago, the now 49-year-old mum of two visited Bwindi as a student, and later became Uganda’s first full time gorilla veterinary doctor. Identifying a link between diseases in humans and gorillas, mainly contracted when troops ventured out of the park and into settlements, she founded NGO Conservation Through Public Health in 2003. Her ground-breaking approach was to integrate community, animal and environmental health into a holistic One Health programme.
Along with providing health care and hygiene education, CTPH has trained a Human and Gorilla Conflict Resolution Team (HUGO) to chase away apes from farmland and launched social enterprise Gorilla Conservation Coffee.
“Not everyone can benefit directly from gorilla tourism,” she later explains, when we join farmer Sam Karibwende on a coffee safari, picking ripe cherries and following the cultivation process from bean to cup. CTPH markets the tour to tourists, but also buys beans from a co-operative of 500 farmers at a higher-than-market price.
“Once you have community benefits, people are more tolerant to gorillas destroying their banana plants,” explains Gladys, as we walk through surrounding villages where children are chasing newborn piglets and men are squatting at a stream making waragi (banana brandy) using a homemade still.
It’s a side of Bwindi many foreigners overlook, but Gladys realises gorillas will always be the region’s big draw, and tourism has played a very important role in saving the species from extinction.
The following morning, I join her on a trek. Several times a year she accompanies tourists in the park and – controversially – is leading a campaign for all visitors to wear masks.
Giggling as two juveniles roll into a boisterous ball of black fur, Gladys admits she still gets excited by gorillas, even though she’s seen them more than 300 times.
This encounter, though, is special. One of the youngsters we’re observing is the only surviving offspring of a famous silverback called Kanyonyi, who died in 2017. “He was my favourite,” recalls Gladys, who was so saddened by the loss she posted a tribute on Facebook and made the “wonderful, well-mannered” male the face of her Gorilla Conservation Coffee.
Given their uncanny human characteristics, it’s easy to forge relationships with these animals, some of whom Gladys has known longer than her own children.
“Every time I see them, I learn something new; you can’t know enough,” she says, taking a selfie with Kanyonyi’s son Masanyu in the background. Her beaming smile is fitting for an animal whose name translates as “joy”.
How to watch the awards
The TUSK Awards 2019 will be streamed live on facebook.com/tusk.org on the evening of Thursday November 21, 2019.