Using Science to Save Endangered Primates in Tanzania
Much of what the world knows about the Sanje mangabey – a rare, endangered monkey species dwelling in the dense mountain forests of Tanzania – we know because of the work of Dr. Carolyn Ehardt.
Ehardt is a Professor in the Anthropology Department at UTSA. Her research with the Sanje mangabey began in the 1990s when she conducted biodiversity surveys of primates, large mammals and birds in the Udzungwa Mountains of south-central Tanzania. Since joining the university in 2006, students from across the globe interested in studying the ecology of Sanje mangabeys and other threatened primates have tracked Ehardt to San Antonio, where she helped establish the Ph.D. program in Ecological Anthropology.
Through Ehardt’s guidance, bolstered by her decades of experience in Tanzania, these anthropology graduate students have had great success in acquiring research funds to study primates in this African nation. Several have focused on the Sanje mangabey, one of the world’s most threatened primates; the total population, confined to the fragmented forests of the Udzungwa Mountains, now numbers less than 3,000. Another of Ehardt’s acolytes has added to the rich scholarship on chimpanzees by studying a population living in the resource-limited woodland savannas of western Tanzania, rather than the forest ranges where most live.
They have spent months camped out underneath the forest canopy of the Sanje mangabey habituated study group’s home range; or traveled to dry, remote reaches of Tanzania collecting chimpanzee dung in the woodlands. Their hope is that their ecological studies will aid in the conservation of these rare, distant cousins, and perhaps inform fuller understanding of our own behavior.
“Effective conservation rests on strong science; without full understanding of the behavior and ecology of a species, one cannot formulate strategies to insure their survival” Ehardt said. Tanzania, especially the area that includes the Udzungwa Mountains, is now recognized as mainland Africa’s most important country for biological diversity and unique species, and critically important to the conservation of Africa’s primates. A third of Tanzania’s 27 primate species are found nowhere else in the world. This includes the kipunji, a completely new species of monkey discovered by Ehardt and her research team in 2004 – the first such primate to be discovered in Africa in the previous 20 years.
As the first UTSA anthropology graduate student to follow Ehardt’s path to her study site in Tanzania, Gráinne McCabe received funding from the Conservation International Primate Action Fund in 2008, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009, and the Leakey Foundation in 2010 to study the reproductive ecology of the Sanje mangabey. McCabe worked in the Udzungwa Mountains National Park with the same “Mizimu” social group of monkeys which Ehardt habituated in 2004 in order to study their ecology and develop conservation strategies.
Collecting urine samples from adult females in the group every week for 13 months, McCabe analyzed the samples for a compound that revealed whether a reproductive female had adequate energy levels or had low energy balance. Comparing the energy levels over time, throughout pre-pregnancy, pregnancy and nursing periods, she deciphered the links between timing of reproduction and infant survival in the seasonally variable resource environment of these tropical mountains.
“The ability to go out into the forest to follow the monkeys and learn about the intimate and complex social relationships among them was an honor.”
McCabe – a native of Canada – defended her dissertation in July 2012 and has been teaching at the University of Calgary, while continuing to do field research with the Mizimu group.
“The biggest threats to wild primate populations are habitat loss due to deforestation and illegal hunting,” McCabe said. “Both of these threats are rampant in East Africa and are evident in Tanzania, specifically. By studying wild primates in such places, we draw attention to these conservation issues and we have the opportunity to increase the intrinsic value of these animals and their habitats to the local people living in the area.”
McCabe said field researchers contribute to the local economy by employing and collaborating with locals, who have knowledge of the area and can share research findings with community members. While conducting research on sloped and often wet, forested terrain is challenging, she said she loved living in Africa and collaborating with her Tanzanian research team.
“The wildlife was incredible and the ability to go out into the forest to follow the monkeys and learn about the intimate and complex social relationships among them was an honor,” she said. “It also was quite amazing – and often intimidating – to see elephants, buffalo, leopards and so many other species when going to work each day.”
Like McCabe, Emily Lloyd – a native of the United Kingdom – and Guillaume Pages – a French national – were graduate students enrolled at the University of Georgia, where Ehardt taught for 26 years, when she accepted the position at UTSA. Because both students wanted to work with her and at her field site, they followed Ehardt to San Antonio.
Pages received funding from Primate Conservation, Inc. (PCI) in 2009 and from the NSF in 2010 to study “fallback foods,” or the foods that Sanje mangabeys eat when their primary source of nutrition – fruits – are seasonally not available. His research details the intricate links between reliance on difficult to process, often toxic foods available during the dry seasons and the mangabey’s behavior and evolved chewing morphology.
Lloyd received funding from both the NSF and PCI in 2011 to study behavioral flexibility, specifically in relation to food competition. She is documenting a large range of strategies employed by group members to avoid direct competition for resources, especially among the females who remain in the group they are born into for their entire lives.
Both graduate students have completed their field work and are scheduled to defend their dissertations in the spring of 2014. Each found the research fulfilling and enlightening, while also acknowledging the difficulties of doing year-long field research in Africa.
“Collecting data on what a primate eats whilst wearing a rain poncho going down a muddy hill is not as much fun as people think,” Pages said.
"Effective conservation rests on strong science; without full understanding of the behavior and ecology of a species, one cannot formulate strategies to insure their survival.”
Like her colleagues, Deborah Moore has had a life-long fascination with animals and was particularly inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall’s research with chimpanzees.
“One cannot study chimpanzees without appreciating their close relationship with humans,” Moore said.
To study chimpanzees in the savannawoodland area of western Tanzania, Moore received a grant from the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation in 2008, the Leakey Foundation in 2011, and the Lambda Alpha National Collegiate Honor Society for Anthropology in 2011.
Focusing on a chimpanzee population living at the edge of their distribution in Africa, Moore applied cutting-edge genetic techniques to investigate potential flexibility in social organization that could result from adaptation to the ecological demands of an environment with extreme resource limitations.
“I was able to investigate the social structure of these chimpanzees by extracting DNA from their feces, which I collected from an area of 624 square kilometers” Moore said. “Through this genetic analysis, I provided strong evidence to support the maintenance of the same chimpanzee social structure that is found in forested habitats, an unexpected finding given the immense territories necessary in this habitat.”
Moore defended her dissertation in May and graduated in August. Like Mc- Cabe, Pages and Lloyd, Moore is a foreign national – from Canada – who started her doctoral studies in the Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia with Ehardt and then followed her to UTSA.
“Dr. Ehardt has been my mentor, adviser, guide, translator, and I am now happy to call her my colleague and friend,” Moore said. “She was instrumental in shaping the framework of my dissertation, but through guidance rather than decree.”
For her part, Ehardt said that as a senior primatologist, she finds it rewarding to work with student researchers.
“These are outstanding young people moving up the ranks to become professional anthropological biologists who will move into productive academic careers in research and teaching,” Ehardt said. “They also will be highly suited for careers in professional conservation organizations.”
Ehardt said that after having acquired funding support, investing extensive research hours and even some of her own personal funds to maintain the viability of her research site, she is pleased that a group of young researchers has taken an interest in conducting conservation ecology research with primates.
“It has been very rewarding to see these students become accomplished field researchers,” Ehardt said. “They are making recognized, theoretically-driven scientific contributions to ecological anthropology that also will serve the important broader impact of promoting conservation of the growing number of our world’s threatened primates.”
Carolyn Ehardt currently is serving as director of the Biological Anthropology Program at the National Science Foundation. She returns to teaching at UTSA in Aug. 2014.