A Fascinating Story of Coffee and the Great Ape

Above: Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka conducting gorilla clinical observation at Mount Tshiabirimu, DRC August 2008

Published The East African – Nation media 25-31 August 2018


Kanyonyi, Silverback from Mubare Gorilla Group taken by CTPH (800x600)
Kanyonyi, Silverback from Mubare Gorilla Group Copyright CTPH

Picture: Kanyonyi, 21 year old leader of Mubare group, died on December 9th 2017 after sustaining serious injuries during multiple attacks by a solitary silverback named Maraya. He was one of Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s favourite gorillas.

It was ‘love’ at first sight. “It was the first time l saw Mountain Gorillas in the wild in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and there was Kacupira,” tells Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda. Kacupira was a silverback gorilla and in the Rukiga language that’s spoken in the area, it means ‘broken hand’.

“Kacupira was so calm and just watched us. Watching him on that day, I felt a real connection with him.”

This was in 1994. Kalema-Zikusoka, then studying to be a veterinary doctor at the University of London – Royal Veterinary College was doing field research at Bwindi.

But tragedy struck soon after. Kacupira’s group got infected with scabies and was wiped out.

“That’s when we realized that gorillas can get infected from the local communities who they share their habitat with. Before that we were more concerned about tourists infecting gorillas. Now another big threat was the local community.”

It was to embark the young woman on her mission to save the remaining gorillas. Mountain gorillas are like other great apes listed as ‘Critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee Coffee and view of Bwindi. Courtesy: Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Gorilla Crusader

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a soft-spoken young woman who can be lost in a crowd until you engage in a conversation with her. But when she talks about the Mountain gorillas, her voice is animated and her demeanour turns to that of a confident person on a mission.

Kalema-Zikusoka knew she wanted to work with animals from a young age. At high school in Uganda, she revived the Wildlife Club. Today she is the chairperson of Wildlife Clubs of Uganda, an offshoot of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, the oldest grassroot organization of its kind, started in 1968 to spread education in schools on wildlife and environment conservation.

It was a chance meeting in Nairobi at the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museums of Kenya where she was attending a Kenya Museum Society talk on the gorillas by the English couple – the Cooper’s – John (veterinarian and pathologist) and Margaret (animal lawyer) who worked with Louis Leakey as his unpaid volunteer on apes between 1950 and 1970. Leakey with his wife Mary made unprecedented discoveries of hominid fossils dating millions of years old and linked to human evolution. Sitting in the audience, l would have missed her if the Coopers’ had not pointed her out.

Almost everyone in Kenya and the world knows about the Leakey’s as the ‘first family of fossil finders’.  It was the late Louis who pioneered work in the great apes taking on his first three research assistants famously called the ‘trimates’ – Jane Goodall with the chimpanzees, Dian Fossey with the gorillas and Birute Mary Galdikas with  the orang-utans (in Indonesia-Borneo). Leakey believed that women made better field researchers then men because they had more patience.

Louis Leakey was convinced we had a lot to learn from the great apes. When Goodall documented chimps using stalks of grass fashioned to retrieve termites from a mound, it was ground-breaking news. For until then humans were thought of as the only tool makers and users. It led to Leakey’s famous quip, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

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Adult female gorilla Mitunu from the Mubare-family-2 Courtesy: Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Coffee and the Mountain Gorillas

With the demise of Kacupira and his group, Kalema-Zikusoka’s research led her to the coffee farmers around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. “They are poor and etching out a living as coffee farmers,” states Kalema-Zikusoka. The farmers way of keeping the gorillas away from their coffee farms was by donning the scarecrows with their old clothes. The dirty rags were infested with the highly contagious scabies-causing mite, Sarcoptes scabiei. Although easily treatable in humans, in the great apes it is lethal when not treated.

“It was the start of Conservation Through Public Health in 2003 because we realized that we had to improve community health if we were to save the gorillas,” continues Kalema-Zikusoka.

Since many people are unhealthy because they are poor, Kalema-Zikusoka saw an opportunity to improve the livelihood of farmers. Although coffee is a high premium cash crop, the farmers were receiving rock-bottom prices for the world’s best loved beverage.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee. Coffee farmer inspects coffee cherrie Courtesy: Gorilla Conservation Coffee

“If we could lift the farmers out of poverty by getting better prices for them, we could improve their living standards and save the gorillas. It became our focus,” tells the young woman.

It was the start of Gorilla Conservation Coffee in 2015, an idea that’s transformed the lives of the coffee farmers and the great ape.

“It’s a social enterprise started by CTPH,” tells Kalema-Zikusoka wearing the trademark T-shirt with a gorilla and a coffee bean. Members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Co-Operative receive higher prices for the high quality Arabica coffee. Branded as Gorilla Conservation Coffee it is sold at the Gorilla Conservation Café in Entebbe and many other outlets including lodges at Bwindi and on-line shopping.

The outcome?

“Since 2003, CTPH has not lost a single gorilla to scabies,” says the proud gorilla crusader. But there is still a long way to go as she says for there are many more farmers out there that need to be supported by Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

“The other good news is that Ugandans will not kill a gorilla now because of the income they receive from the great ape. We also generate income from tourists walking through the farmers’ coffee fields to reach the park.”

So next time in Uganda, enjoy a cuppa coffee that’s labelled Gorilla Conservation Coffee. Every sip means you’re drinking to the Great Ape.

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Gorilla Conservation Coffee cup Courtesy: Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Gorilla Update

The Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) numbers 1004 in 2018 from a low of 650 in 1994. They are found in the high volcanic range of  Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Virunga Mountains in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.

The Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) although more numerous at 100,000 is rapidly decreasing in its range in western and central Africa. It is also listed as Critically Endangered.

Biggest threat to gorillas? Habitat loss, infectious diseases, war, bushmeat trade, poaching and poverty. It needs a holistic approach to save a species that’s our closest relative.

Did you know?

The last time that a species of Great Apes trampled through the forests of Kenya was 10 million years ago in Samburu. Louis Leakey found a fragment of a jaw from the Great Ape and called it Samburupithecus.

For more read www.ctph.org and  www.gorillaconservationcoffee.org