So long. For now

As we depart Kibale after our final day in the forest we are loaded down with over 1,500 fecal samples from 6 different species across the 795 km2 moist, mid-altitude forest in the western part of Uganda. We have encountered all the diurnal primates (i.e., those that are active during the day) in the park and spanned pristine old growth forest as well as young regenerating forest. We have relied on the help of countless park rangers, the strong team of field assistants that make research in Kibale possible, the goodness of random strangers as well as the support of many colleagues. We have used funding from the Explorer Club’s Eddie Bauer Youth Grant, the National Science Foundation, The Canadian Research Council, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We worked closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority who granted permission to conduct this research and who maintain and manage the park. In particular, without the help of Dr. Patrick Omeja and Dr. Dennis Twinomugisha, both in the field and behind the scenes, not nearly so much work would have gotten done.

The central idea of our research is that understanding the effects of environmental change on natural populations is critical for making informed conservation efforts. The climate of Kibale National Park is changing; Kibale receives ~300 mm more rainfall per year than it did at the start of the 20th century, there are less frequent droughts, an earlier onset of the rainy season, and a 4.48°C increase in average maximum monthly temperature over the last 40 years. In a few months we will have analyzed these 1,500 samples and will be able to understand a piece of the puzzle and what the effects of these changes are on the primates of the park. By incorporating disease information into a spatial epidemiology analysis, will enable us to understand the environmental and behavioral factors that predict primate diseases across the landscape. We hope to get a sense of where the areas of risk for disease emergence are as well as the environmental and human factors responsible for this elevated disease risk. Ultimately we hope this research will inform conservation initiatives and allow for better management of the park, not only for the primates living within its borders but also the people who live around the park.

As I am heading back to the lab to analyze samples and continue working towards my Ph.D, I would like to offer a thousand thanks (or in Rutooro: Webale Mono!) to all those who made this project possible and who made this expedition such a great success.

If you would like to contribute to conservation efforts in Kibale and Uganda, I recommend the Kibale Health and Conservation Clinic, a small clinic inside the boundaries of Kibale National Park. The purpose of the clinic is twofold, first to provide much needed medical care and treatment to a region in desperate need. The life expectancy here is only 45 years of age and over 30 percent of deaths among young children are caused by malaria, which can be easily prevented. The second major goal is to improve relations between the National Park and the villagers living around it, hopefully aiding in conservation and creating the foundation for a lasting and sustainable relationship. Unlike many charities, the clinic has no overhead costs; every single penny goes to the people in Uganda who need your help by providing medical supplies, bringing a nurse to the clinic, and promoting education initiatives on the ground. Every little bit helps and a little goes a long way in Uganda; for example fifty dollars can pay the school fees of a small child, enabling a child that would otherwise not be able to attend a school to have the benefits of a formal education. Please contact me or Dr. Colin Chapman if you are interested in paying school fees or contributing to the clinic.

Thanks to all of you for reading and feel free to get in contact if you have any comments, suggestions or ideas.

Arrival in Kibale

A little over a week ago we left Nabugabo for Kibale National Park, an 8 hour drive into the mountains crossing Queen Elizabeth National Park and passing the crater lakes. We spotted zebra, Ugandan kob, hippos, elephants, baboons, crested cranes and all sorts of other animals as we made our way slowly into the mountains.

Photo courtesy of Whitney B. Reiner.

After a quick stop in Fort Portal to stock up on supplies, we went through tea plantations that turned to Eucalyptus plantations that gave way to Kibale National Park.   We were greeted by a large group of baboons that were roaming the road and sitting on the houses. Red colobus, black and white colobus, and red tails are all easily spotted from the main road. We will spend the next month working with the field team here to collect samples from the major diurnal primate populations across the park. We hope to understand the factors that contribute to primate diseases across the park. Combined with long-term data we hope to understand how things have changed and may continue to change in the face of a changing climate.

Photo courtesy of Whitney B. Reiner

Colin and his colleague Tony Goldberg at the University of Wisconsin have discovered several new viruses that infect the primates of Kibale, including several strains of SIV, the monkey equivalent of HIV. Recent research suggests that disease crossover is possible between primates and the humans and livestock surrounding parks, but little is known about these areas of transfer. In addition, little is known about the distribution of primate diseases across a landscape.

Photo courtesy of Whitney B. Reiner

The days start early here; we are usually out on the road or in the forest by sunrise. Often we follow the paths of the elephants in the forest, as they tend to clear the undergrowth as they go. Two days ago, as we were tracking a group of red colobus in a regenerating forest fragment we heard the elephants crashing through the bush. Amazing animals but dangerous and we do our best to steer well clear of them. On another occasion while Colin and a field assistant were following mangabeys they almost ran into a 4-meter long python. There are more pleasant surprises though; while we were collecting samples in the old growth forest we stumbled upon a group of chimpanzee mothers with infants having a feast in a fig tree.

Photo courtesy of Whitney B. Reiner

Yesterday we had the pleasure of having Tom Struhsaker, one of the original people to work on primates at Kibale, join us in the field. We were headed to the southernmost point in the park, Nyabitusi, where Tom had conducted transects in the early 1970’s but hadn’t returned to since. As we trekked across the savannah and into the Iron Wood forest (aptly named as apparently the trees can only be cut with a diamond tipped blade), he pointed out where they had camped and we got within 300 meters of his old study site and were only stopped by the severely flooded Dura river. Tom is currently concerned with population growth and how this will impact conservation initiatives and the ability of the Ugandan people to sustainably make a living in the future. As some areas around the park having sustained a tripling in population size since he conducted his initial fieldwork, there is certainly reason for concern. On the other hand organizations like the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and the FACE foundation are making great headway in conservation, having replanted large areas of forest that are now being used by primates and other wildlife. The Kibale Health and Conservation Project is also having a huge impact by working to provide healthcare to the villagers surrounding the park and improving the relationship between the park and those living around it. With continued research and the efforts of countless dedicated individuals there is certainly hope.

Arrival in Uganda

After a long day of traveling I found myself in Africa; to the best of our knowledge the continent of our origins, land of chimpanzees and gorillas, macaques and red colobus, and my home for the next month and a half. Our flight took us over the Sahara desert as well as seemingly endless jungle and even included a short stop in Rwanda that required the chemical sterilization of the plane (a process that we were assured was mostly harmless). I shared the flight with a PhD student from Uganda who had been studying abroad in Sweden for a month; her research focuses on the long-term effects of the sexual abuse perpetrated during the long conflicts that plagued Uganda in the past. She had many interesting stories to tell, both tragic and uplifting, and it was interesting to talk with someone who was in the process of finishing their travels abroad, just as I head out on my own.

Ugandan customs went smoothly; the officials seemingly eager to get home at the late hour ushered us through the process quickly. As I wandered out of the airport I was greeted by the strong smell of smoke from cooking fires and burned garbage that would follow me until we left the city. Together with a post doc working on cichlid fish and her mother a nurse coming to work at the Kibale Health and Conservation Centre, we bundled into some cabs and headed to our hotel. With bags of donated gear for the field assistants and park rangers and medical supplies for the Kibale health clinic, we were anything but traveling light. Somehow we managed to get all our bags stowed away and after a quick night of sleep we were off to lake Nabugabo, requiring a quick jump across the equator.

The Nabugabo Research Station just came into existence due to the hard work of Colin and Lauren Chapman, as well as Dennis Twinomugisha who oversaw most of the design and construction. Lauren studies fish and Colin studies monkeys, and Nabugabo has no shortage of either. The Research Station overlooks the lake and the research boat leaves some 50 meters from the new kitchen building. The vervet monkeys are equally close by and regularly make excursions through the yard, ever searching for left out food and any other trouble they can stir up.

This is the maiden field season for the research station and Colin and I were in the midst of creating a field project from scratch. Unlike the primates living in protected areas that are the focus of most scientific research, the vervet monkeys here are of particular interest because they live in such close proximity to humans, regularly raiding crops from farmer’s fields, and running from dogs and other livestock. As a result they are habituated to humans and climb on top of the houses and try to get in while they search for food.

It is great to be at a field site in its infancy and to partake in the process of choosing study groups, identifying individuals and choosing research questions. We spent the first days walking around the villages and forest, meeting farmers who have their crops raided as well as the potential vervet study groups. There is a wonderful field assistant here, Matovu, who Colin and Dennis hired to start working with the groups a few months ago, noting where they go and any easily identifiable individuals. This gave us good head start and we are building from there.

We will be examining the nutritional benefits of crop raiding as well as whether crops are the preferred food of vervets or just a fall back food for when the food supply in the remaining forest runs low. This is important to know if one wants to minimize crop raiding by conserving forest or planting fruit trees in the forest. If the vervets prefer the crops to their usual forest fruits and leaves, then increasing the availability of food in the forest will have little effect. In addition, it will be interesting to understand how the humanized landscape and the presence of dogs, people and livestock interact to determine where the monkeys go, how they spend their days and how this effects disease transmission.

We are focusing on examining the disease side of things. More specifically we are going to try to disentangle two potentially confounding effects of crop raiding and interactions with humans on vervet parasites. First, there is a potential increase in nutritional intake due to consumption of high quality crops, which can potentially increase their immune system response, thus decrease parasite susceptibility. On the other hand, there is the potential for increased exposure to human and livestock diseases.

After a little over a week we had the basic behavioral and disease protocol established, the phenology transects of food trees and crops set up, and could begin data collection. I am amazed at how fast things have gotten off the ground and are up and running. The lake is beautiful and in the evenings after work we can jump in for a swim. Lauren and her graduate students are out on the water working with the fish every morning starting at 6:30. We buy fish from the fishermen just down the road and we even have electricity sometimes; the deluxe field life! In the midst of learning about a new species and a new forest, I am learning bits and pieces of Luganda, the local language in the region. People here are incredibly friendly and kind. Tomorrow we are off for Kibale National Park to collect data for the spatial epidemiology project; more on that will follow as soon as the internet allows.

Music makers!

Bent by elephants and the Potential

A few days ago I happened upon a new set of songs from a friend whom I met over the summer while visiting in the Chapman lab; Bent By Elephants. Great music by good people, I would certainly recommend to give them a listen and their live shows are phenomenal if you are lucky enough to have them coming through your area.

My brother and his band The Potential also just came out with their first album and are working on their second which should be done by the end of the summer. Guitar and a folky grand piano, oh my. Lovely stuff.

A little over two months ago I was wondering what I would do for the summer between completing my Masters at SUNY Stony Brook and starting my PhD at McGill University, when I got a call from Lorie Karnath the president of the Explorer Club. She called to let me know that I was the recipient of the 2011 Eddie Bauer Youth Grant, which provided $12,500 to send me to Uganda’s Kibale National Park to study the primates of this pristine forest. Without this money I wouldn’t have been able to make the trip and begin my dissertation research and it may have been another summer of planting trees in Northern British Columbia; a well-paying job but physically draining and not exactly mentally demanding.

Needless to say I was head over heels.

Kibale is home to 13 species of primates including chimpanzees, red colobus and mangabeys, and Kibale has the highest density of primates anywhere in the world. Globally both climate change and deforestation are dramatically affecting animal species, and this is especially true for primates, up to one third of which are currently threatened with extinction. Countries with primate populations are losing approximately 125,000 km2 of forest annually, roughly the size of the state of Mississippi or more than 23,000,000 football fields. Climate change makes things worse. Kibale receives 300 mm more rainfall per year than it did at the start of the 20th century, less frequent droughts, an earlier onset of the rainy season, and a 4.48°C increase in average maximum monthly temperature over the last 40 years.

These changes have had impacts on species distributions, resource availability and disease dynamics. The latter may be especially devastating to primate populations, as recent research has shown that infectious diseases have joined bushmeat hunting and habitat loss as major drivers of population declines in primates.  For example, human respiratory diseases have contributed to a nearly 70% decline in habituated chimpanzees at Tai Forest in the Cote d’Ivoire, as well as dramatic population declines at other sites. Meanwhile, malaria, HIV, and Ebola all originated in primate populations, and recently made the jump to human populations. The global impact of these diseases, especially in conjunction with environmental change, is tremendous.

My goal is to elucidate how the changing environment will interact with primate behavior and disease dynamics in wild populations. Specifically I want to understand the relationship between environmental factors, behavior, and disease and I will collect samples from across Kibale National Park. Luckily we won’t have to dart or capture the primates; sample collection just involves watching animals until they defecate and collecting samples. Never have I seen people as excited about excrement as primatologists in the woods following monkeys. These samples will be taken back to Colin Chapman’s lab at McGill University where I will use a variety of different techniques to check for many different diseases.

Information about the disease will be incorporated into a spatial epidemiology analysis to understand the environmental and behavioral factors that predict primate diseases across the landscape. By integrating over 40 years of data I will be able to understand how the changing climate will impact disease dynamics in Kibale. I have had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork extensively in Central and South America as well as in Mexico and Canada; studying black catbirds, king vultures, weakly electric fish, white faced capuchins and frogs, but this will be my first work with the primates of Africa.

I arrive in Kibale on May 31st, and if the internet cooperates I will keep you posted on my progress from the field.