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Explorers Club Grant Recipient Arrives in Uganda to Begin Primate Study
Posted on July 27, 2011

Working with The Explorers Club, Eddie Bauer is funding two significant grants for research and exploration. The grants are directed toward projects that contribute significantly to work regarding climate change, preservation or sustainability. This story’s author, grant recipient Jan Gogarten, is studying disease in wild primates in Uganda.

By Jan Gogarten

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 Ph.D. 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 cichlids and her mother, a nurse, 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, 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 come on top of the houses and try to get in while searching for food.

It is great to be at a field site in its infancy and to partake in the process of choosing study groups, indentifying 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, Matovus, who Colin 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 and how they spend their days.

We are also 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 a.m. 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.

Author: - Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

  1. Rene

    What a great opportunity, Jan, congratulations! Thank you for sharing this experience; I hope you get the chance to write more. Unbelievably cool!

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