Disease Transmission – Day 5

Posted on March 11, 2012


It rained quite hard last night and the drumming on the roof drowned out the forest calls and I slept soundly. I felt fully recharged and I had expected to start my field work officially today, but everyone in camp was asked to attend a one-day talk by the resident vet, Dr Carol.

The issues discussed were about the best methods for habituating chimpanzees without researchers and tourists posing a threat to their health and well-being. There was also a discussion on the importance of raising awareness among the local communities about how to live side-by-side harmoniously with these animals as habitats continue to shrink.

There are many factors that need to be taken into account before getting wild chimps used to the presence of humans for purposes of research or tourism they include: vaccinating humans; quarantine period; showering after coming back from the forest; disinfecting boots; how big is the chimp home range; what is the group size and composition (ie: how many adult males), would a small group incur more unnecessary stress from being viewed by many humans; how close do chimps live to the human population and would habituation encourage crop-raiding?

Many farmers still view chimps as pests because their livelihoods are destroyed when the primates come into villages and ruin their maize crops or feed on mango trees.  Researchers collecting data watching this scene unfold are blamed by farmers for encouraging the primates; because they do nothing to mitigate the situation. They can’t, that’s not their role. They’re meant to be a silent observer, but locals find this hard to swallow. Today it was debated that researchers should move away so the chimps don’t associate raiding as a behaviour humans tolerate.

Many of the Ugandan field assistants at The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) were able to give the local people’s perspective as they live in the nearby villages. They were also able to share some potential solutions for these problems from their long-term knowledge of working closely with the great apes.  There is also the added pressure on the chimps from tourists, who’ve paid a lot of money to see them in their natural habitat. The Ugandan government is not about to limit numbers as this is a good money-spinner. But there have to regulations in place that can limit the impact on wildlife. People (animal-lovers included) are oblivious to the fact their presence is a direct threat to these animals. Primates experience heighten stress when groups of people enter their territory and gawp at them. If this happens twice a day, every day, long-term their immunity levels drop due to sustained stress and they become susceptible to disease which can be fatal.

Poverty also drives the way locals behave. With so many tour guides relying on tips from Westerners, the pressure to deliver the goods is huge. Many guides will breach the protocol in order to satisfy the tourists who will reward them at the expense of the animals.

The BCFS is drawing up a set of guidelines together with some consultancy from other conservation groups which will be called the Chimpanzee Health Monitoring Programme. It hopes these rules will form a foundation which will set the standard of good forest practice within the Albertine Rift.