Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown | Celebrating Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s Memoir
July 5, 2023 | Kampala | (As prepared for delivery)
It is wonderful to be with you on this special occasion, celebrating this fascinating and important memoir written by my friend, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
Today’s event is particularly meaningful for me because it combines two of my favorite things: reading and wildlife conservation. Allow me to speak first about conservation. Most of us are familiar with the pivotal role Dr. Gladys plays in Uganda’s conservation story, and her own inspiring story of turning a passion for wildlife into an amazing career. Beyond being Uganda’s first ever wildlife veterinarian, she is one of the world’s foremost experts on mountain gorillas and human-wildlife interaction.
Because of her expertise in this area, her memoir, in addition to being a riveting read, provides us with a wealth of critical and timely information that affects not only the mountain gorillas, but also human beings – in Uganda and beyond.
Through her years of experience, Dr. Gladys helps us see clearly how landscape changes and biodiversity loss bring humans and wildlife into contact at increasing rates. While this contact can be great for tourism and can help to be a catalyst for conservation in its own way, it also comes with a new reality that we need to understand.
This includes a better understanding of the complex relationship between wildlife and humans in matters of health. With major recent public health outbreaks and pandemics in Uganda and worldwide, understanding this relationship is more important than ever. Both animals and humans are at risk for emerging infectious diseases, both those they get independently and ones that they can transmit to each other. In the book, Dr. Gladys shares her own experience with COVID-19 and that of gorillas in captivity who were infected. And that is why the U.S. government provides resources to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks in Uganda, including through the Field Epidemiology Training Program, FETP, with public health “disease detectives” conducting timely investigations on disease outbreaks stemming from human-wildlife interaction throughout the country. And there are our investments in Ugandan laboratories, like the Bio Safety Level 2 Laboratory in Queen Elizabeth National Park which we upgraded in 2021 to enhance the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s detection and surveillance abilities, which means better and earlier detection of, and faster responses to, disease outbreaks in Uganda, including zoonotic diseases.
These outbreaks – and the increasing number of human-wildlife interactions that can lead to them – are closely linked to our changing planet. The Earth is changing due to shifts in populations and economies, as well as climate change, all resulting in biodiversity loss. In the face of these changes, conservation education is more critical than ever.
This is why the U.S. government continues to invest in programming to combat illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking, to prevent destruction and deforestation of protected areas, and to strengthen systems for conservation and natural resource management. By assisting communities, the Government of Uganda, and the private sector to conserve and manage biodiversity, the U.S. government wants to ensure lasting environmental and economic sustainability for generations to come.
Alongside substantial investments in health security, our support for wildlife conservation preserves and protects animals, plants, and their habitats. These efforts not only bolster Uganda’s economy but also ensure that future generations around the world can enjoy the beauty of the natural world and the incredible species that live within it.
I should also note that we’ve been active in this space for quite some time. The “Bwindi Trust,” developed and supported by USAID, was conceived in 1991 to ensure the long-term conservation of the protected area and the mountain gorillas that reside within. The contributions that gorilla tourism makes to individual livelihoods and development, for example through the income gained from gorilla-tracking tourist activities in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, generate important revenue for the surrounding communities and further conservation.
Let me turn now to my love for reading, which fuels a passion that I have for literacy and education – something I’ve tried to emphasize during my time serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda. Although Dr. Gladys’ memoir is not a children’s book, I see it nonetheless as being an excellent resource for Ugandans of all ages, including the youth.
Our young people need heroes and mentors, and Dr. Gladys’s life story provides an inspirational example of how far a person can go through hard work and the power of learning. Dr. Gladys has accomplished so many of her goals, thanks in large part to educational opportunities, and cultivating her strong interest in reading.
We know that there are many potential ‘Dr. Gladys’s’ in Ugandan schools today, but they need help to realize that potential. This is why the U.S. government continues to invest in early grade reading in Uganda, in preventing school-related gender-based violence, and in strengthening child protection systems. We partner with Ugandan schools, families, and communities in 79 districts to make sure that children and youth living in vulnerable conditions have access to education, health and social services, and other forms of support they need to become the person they are meant to be, the person they want to be. We remain in ongoing dialogue with our government of Uganda counterparts to encourage increased public funding for education, particularly at the primary level. Working together, we hope to see more children reading at grade level, and more primary students making it to secondary school than we do today. This is especially important for girls; so many failed to return to school after the COVID-19 pandemic.
So with that, I’ll return to where I started, and express my gratitude once again to Dr. Gladys for her groundbreaking work in conservation and all she has done to spread the knowledge accumulated over her decades of service and study. I also commend Dr. Gladys for being so open in sharing with readers some of her struggles along the way – for example when exam results were not what she expected and how she rebounded. These lessons on overcoming adversity are critically important for young people and especially for young women, who still are not given the same opportunities to fail and start over that are afforded to men.
I also have to appreciate Dr. Gladys’ camaraderie and generosity which manifest in so many ways. In her book, she recounts her early experiences working with Peace Corps volunteers and USAID, and I am so very pleased that the strong partnership with the U.S. Mission continues today. In fact, I first met Dr. Gladys when she served as a judge for our zoohackathon event, a competition that challenges young people to use technology to address conservation challenges. And, of course, one of my most memorable experiences in Uganda was having Dr. Gladys lead me on a gorilla-trekking experience. Her memoir describes the excitement she felt the first time she encountered a gorilla group. What a delight to not only have the same feeling but to also see it in Dr. Gladys after all of her years of experience – even when the silverback charged us. Thank you for giving me that once in a lifetime opportunity. And thank you again for inviting me here today to celebrate with you. It is my honor and I congratulate you and your family, who are so critical to your successes, on this special milestone.