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Explorers Club Grant Recipient Starts Primate Study at Kibale National Park, Uganda
Posted on July 29, 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

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, Uganda cobbs, hippos, elephants, baboons, crested cranes, and all sorts of other animals as we made our way slowly into the mountains.

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.

Colin and his colleague Tony Goldberg at the University of Wisconson 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.

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. They are 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.

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 southern most point in the park, Nyabitusi, where Tom had conducted transects in the early 1970s 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. With 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 FACE foundation and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority 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.

Author: - Friday, July 29th, 2011

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